Bamboo has quickly become a prominent green option for floors because this fast-growing grass can be harvested in as little as four years compared with decades for oak and other trees. Bamboo flooring—especially the denser, stranded type—has also beaten traditional hardwoods in Consumer Reports' grueling flooring tests. But greener floors encompass more than just sustainability. Some bamboo flooring includes formaldehyde glues; look for brands that cut back on or eliminate this toxic substance and use lower-emissions adhesives. How far flooring must travel from the manufacturer to your kitchen also affects the emissions it creates; like tropical woods, bamboo typically comes from faraway places.
Some vinyl flooring is also greener than others, despite being a petroleum product. Vinyl certified by the industry FloorScore program meets California standards, the nation's toughest, for volatile organic compounds. But vinyl floors pose other problems, such as exposure to phthalates, which help make plastic more flexible and durable. Some phthalates have been linked to hormonal abnormalities and reproductive problems. And since phthalates aren't chemically bound to the vinyl flooring, they're emitted slowly into the house. Phthalate exposure through ingestion, absorption of dust through skin, and inhalation reaches a steady level after about a year and a half, and children experience two to 10 times greater exposure than adults, according to one study. Indeed, the University of Michigan Formative Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center warns against installing any vinyl flooring in a home.
Cork is a renewable option because it's harvested from tree bark without killing the tree. Some cork flooring is covered by a plastic coating, making it less green. Others without plastic have been less than robust in Consumer Reports' tests, but may be a good choice for low-traffic areas. The farther cork flooring is shipped, the less green it is overall.
Linoleum flooring is another renewable-resource option because it's made of tree bark and linseed oil. Linoleum floors predate vinyl but have made a comeback with their greener makeup and array of styles and patterns. But performance has been spotty in our tests. You'll also find more reclaimed flooring as the allure of using wide-plank and other vintage floors grows. But how well reclaimed flooring holds up in today's busy kitchens has varied considerably in our tests. And long hauls to your kitchen add emissions overall.
Greener flooring doesn't end there. A medium density fiberboard (MDF) or particleboard subfloor can be made with recycled content and is often a less-expensive option. Just remember that many of those boards are bonded with urea-formaldehyde adhesive, sometimes referred to as a "resin," which can give off formaldehyde gas. MDF or particleboard subfloors can also contain formaldehyde glues, while urea-formaldehyde adhesive is a common option for adhering the flooring that goes onto it. Look for alternatives that are made without formaldehyde.
Flooring products certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative provide some assurance that a wood floor is sustainably harvested or contains a portion of recycled materials. But neither label takes the use of formaldehyde glues or resins into account for pressed wood or MDF products—which means that even with the FSC or SFI seal, those products could contain formaldehyde.