LCA of flooring materials fails to settle green claims

There is nothing to choose between the environmental performance of different flooring materials, according to a life-cycle assessment (LCA) sponsored by the industry's European trade body.1 But the conclusions contrast with those of earlier LCA studies which some manufacturers are citing to claim that their materials are superior.

The new LCA, which examines the five main flooring materials - PVC, cushioned PVC, polyolefins, rubber and linoleum - follows several single-material studies by floor coverings manufacturers in the early 1990s. The sector's trade association, the European Resilient Flooring Manufacturers Institute (ERFMI), commissioned the Fraunhofer Institute to examine 30 products made from the five materials, as well as one reference example from the "non-resilient" parquet and synthetic fibre sectors.

The study, to be published later this year, was commissioned in 1993 and completed in 1995. It concludes that no one material is environmentally superior - a happy conclusion for a trade association representing several material sectors.

According to a summary of the study, "the main factor influencing the environmental performance of a flooring is its actually achieved lifetime." However, the manufacturers could not agree whether to adopt the maximum or the average lifetime for the different materials. As a result, a reference lifetime of 20 years, for the typical use of 20m2 of flooring, was chosen as the study's functional unit. Additional LCAs carried out for individual materials over five and ten years remain confidential.

Among floorings for similar applications, differences in product formulation have a far greater environmental effect than those between basic materials, says the study. Within the PVC group, for example, energy consumption varies by a factor of more than three.

However, a major blow to the study's credibility is its failure to examine toxicological and ecotoxicological effects. This was because of the lack of a methodology widely accepted in the LCA community, and a lack of quality data.

New formulations and technologies - including the use of recyclate - have been developed which produce "an overall reduction of environmental impacts", says the summary, but again the details are confidential.

Emissions during product use were excluded from the study after the manufacturers decided that available emission and toxicity data were insufficient. Thus there is no assessment, for example, of the effect of bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate - which accounts for 20% of PVC floorings.

On energy, parquet used the most renewable energy, but also had the highest total consumption. However, the study notes that parquet floors can last 50 years, rather than the 20 years used as the LCA's functional unit. Rubber had by far the largest acidification potential due to sulphur emissions during vulcanisation.

Of the five main flooring materials, rubber produces the most municipal waste - about twice the amount of cushioned PVC, which produces the least. However, this is just a simple measurement of the weight of the materials and does not take into account the environmental impacts of waste disposal. For chemical wastes - produced during manufacture and as scrubber residues from incineration - PVC produced 13 times more than linoleum and polyolefins.

The summary says that the use of recycled material is "a true environmental benefit" and that take-back schemes for used floorings would "also create great benefits". In the case of PVC, incineration residues are the largest component of chemical waste produced in the product's life cycle. "It is essential that PVC floorings be recovered by material recycling whereas renewable materials may be used in energy recovery," the report says. According to one of the study's authors, Albrecht Gnter of the Fraunhofer Institute, one company, HT Troplast, recycles some PVC floorings at its recycling plant in Troisdorf.

It remains to be seen whether the ERFMI will succeed in spreading the message that no one flooring material is better or worse than another. A Dutch linoleum producer, Forbo-Krommenie - which took part in the study - has produced an "eco-balance" brochure which claims that linoleum and unlacquered wood are "the most preferable type of floor covering compared to all other floor coverings tested."

Forbo cites two recent LCA studies of floorings by Utrecht University in the Netherlands and Chalmers University of Technology (CUT) in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The Utrecht University study compared linoleum, PVC and woollen and synthetic fibre carpets. According to Forbo, it ranks linoleum first "as a nature-friendly floor covering. Only the fact that linoleum contains pigments impairs its environmental performance." The company claims that "if all Dutch people changed over to linoleum, this would contribute significantly to a better environment."

CUT conducted LCAs of PVC, polyolefin, linoleum and parquet floorings using three different methodologies: the Swiss Environment Ministry's eco-points system, the Dutch environmental performance indicators approach devised by CML, and the environmental priority strategies method of the Swedish Environmental Research Institute. All three, says Forbo, "demonstrate that, from an environmental-technical perspective, both linoleum and unlacquered wood are preferable to the other floor coverings."

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