Not all natural fibers are equally good for the environment. As people consider replacing traditional petrochemical fibers with naturally-derived fiber sources, it is essential that we evaluate the potential advantages and trade-offs.
Most carpets sold today are manufactured using petroleum-based fibers, such as nylon, polypropylene, or polyester. While these materials are inexpensive, convenient to manufacture, and come in a large range of qualities and colors, they contribute to landfill waste unless they are recycled or incinerated.
Carpets made from natural plant or animal fibers may be renewably sourced, carbon neutral, and 100% biodegradable and compostable. While cotton and wool are the most well known natural fibers, there are several alternative natural fibers currently being used in carpet. It is worthwhile to briefly review each of the available natural fiber options and identify the relevant sustainability considerations.
These are the most common natural alternatives used in flooring right now and as you can see they represent a range of properties and costs.
It’s important to consider the impact of every step of the process when evaluating the sustainability profile of any of these natural alternatives. In other words, a life-cycle assessment (LCA) is necessary to evaluate the many options. Natural fibers that require a lot of fertilizer (made from oil) to grow, involve intensive extraction processes (energy), are transported over long distances, or displace food production diminish the benefits of a natural fiber. In addition to considering the production impacts, the potential reuse and recyclability of these natural fibers must be considered.
You can see the answers are complex and not easy to sort out. That’s why synthetic fibers have grown in popularity in terms of their color pallet, local origin and costs. Recycle of post-consumer is an important approach to reducing the impact of synthetic fibers and today 25-30% of all carpets that get recycled go back into new carpets as face fiber or backing.
There is another approach for an alternative fiber material: polymers made from renewable sources, such as polylactic acid. We’ll talk about these materials soon. Stay tuned!