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ENVIRONMENT | TURGON & SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES

Can Hardwood Flooring Survive in a Carbon Conscious World?


At present our choices are made under high ethical scrutiny. Consumers are asked to think about the impact of their actions on the planet as a whole. Gone are the days of reckless abandon; the climate is well and truly changing. In these circumstances it is easy to be misled. The reasoning goes that trees are good for the environment, so cutting them down for whatever reason cannot possibly be wise. Wood flooring is an obvious culprit. Being experts in the wood looring industry we wanted to correct these misconceptions. At Turgon we are passionate about all aspects of wood, so we decided to put some numbers behind our argument that a wood floor is a good floor.

Carbon dioxide is a molecule that is all around: in the papers, on the news, and up in the air. It is one atom of carbon bonded to two atoms of oxygen. Every time you breathe in, it’s there. And every time you breathe out, there’s a little bit more. There’s nothing overtly dangerous about it. But where carbon dioxide has gained infamy is in its propensity to act as a greenhouse gas. When carbon dioxide is in the earth’s atmosphere it acts to trap the heat from the sun.

Too much carbon dioxide enveloping the Earth would trap too much heat and the planet would steadily warm up, melting the polar ice caps and altering climates. The general consensus is that since the Industrial Revolution humanity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (by burning fossil fuels) and the effects of this are becoming more and more visible. So what can be done?

Simple lifestyle choices go a long way. For example choosing to take fewer flights, since airplane travel literally produces carbon like nobody’s business, or switching to cleaner forms of energy to heat the home and propel you to work. Another viable solution would be to plant more trees, and this is where the misunderstanding starts to creep in. Trees, indeed all living things, are made from carbon1. As trees grow they take in carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their wood (sequestration). This means that chopping down a forest and burning the remains so as to convert it into car parks is a bad idea: not only is the carbon absorbed during the trees lifetime released back into the atmosphere in one go, but also any future absorption by that individual tree will cease.

However the wood for most wood floors isn’t harvested in this way. At Turgon the wood used in the majority of our floors is from managed forests in the Ukraine. Managed forests mean that for each tree cut down at least one more is planted in its place, and not just any old tree, a fresh young tree, hungry for carbon. What is felled is not burnt; the wood is installed in people’s houses as beautiful, durable wooden flooring, thus locking the absorbed carbon away from the atmosphere.

Studies suggest that on average seventy percent of the wood in the tree makes it into the home as product2. There are some losses at the sawmill and a little extra during installation. But what does make it into the floor tends to stay there. A hardwood floor can last many years, and even if for some reason the floor is taken out it can be recycled, or in the worst case scenario will take many years to decay in landfill.

So how much carbon is locked inside a typical square metre of engineered wood flooring? The data we need is the amount of carbon by volume for each species of wood3. An engineered wood floor is typically 15 mm of pine underneath 6 mm of oak. One square metre by area of this type of flooring will thus contain 0.006 m3 of oak and 0.015 m3 of pine. According to the data, pine contains 208 Kg of carbon per cubic metre, while oak contains 290 Kg4. So the total carbon in our metre-square of wood flooring, total volume just over 0.02 m3, is 4.9 Kg (and since it is oak all the way through, a solid oak floor would contain even more).

With a typical floor installation of 35 m2 the carbon content is around 170 Kg. In turn this carbon has the propensity to make a far larger amount of carbon dioxide if the wood were to be burnt. Since carbon dioxide contains two extra oxygen atoms. The conversion factor is 3.7 leading to our typical hardwood floor containing the equivalent of 630 Kg of CO2. That’s over half a tonne, the kind of figure you hear being banded around for a sojourn to the Costa del Sol.

But wait, you may be thinking, transportation does indeed produce high emissions of carbon dioxide: so what about the carbon released in bringing the wood over to the UK in the first place? Well you’ll be glad to know that this has negligible impact. Turgon’s range of floors travels by truck, not luxury jet. According to the Department of Transport our 20 tonne HGV averaging at 50 miles per hour releases approximately 700g of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled5. Since the Ukraine is 2000 kilometres away from London, a typical trip releases 1340 Kg of carbon dioxide. A large amount, yes, but the important point is that the truck isn’t carrying one floor. Each truck contains around 2000 square metres of flooring. So the net emission for the wood needed in a typical installation is of order 20 Kg.

To summarise, installing a shiny new hardwood floor leads to just 20 Kg of carbon dioxide emitted and a big 630 Kg sequestered from the atmosphere. Even adding the emissions from powering the showrooms and transporting our surveyors on mopeds, you still have a net carbon dioxide reduction of over 500 Kg for the average installation. The more wood flooring you install, the more carbon is saved. Far from being bad for the environment, wood flooring from carefully managed forests is a benefit; it helps reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Not by a staggering amount - we can’t save the world by shunning carpets – more’s the pity. But like with anything even small savings and subtle changes in lifestyle could make all the difference in the long term.

Written by: Dr S. J. R. Holmes