Vinyl is a petroleum product, made primarily from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a known carcinogen. The PVC manufacturing process also releases highly toxic dioxins, another class of carcinogens that can also cause nervous and thyroid disorders. Although it is possible to recycle vinyl, most of it ends up in landfills, and it is not biodegradable. As one vinyl manufacturer boasted, ‘vinyl is final’.
Linoleum is a composite made primarily of linseed oil, pine rosins (solidified pitch such as amber), and ‘wood flour’ (extremely fine sawdust). The mixture, which can be coloured with environmentally benign pigments, is rolled into sheets and then cured in an industrial oven. The finished sheets can be backed with jute, a natural fibre.
Linseed oil is pressed from the seeds of the flax plant (genus Linum), the same seeds that people eat to aid digestion and lower their cholesterol. Flax is grown around the world for its fibre (the source of linen) as well as for its seed. A hearty, fast-growing plant cultivated since prehistoric times, flax needs little or no fertiliser or pesticide protection.
Pine trees are also abundant and fast growing, and the hardwoods used to make the wood flour can be sustainably harvested.
Once the linoleum is cured, the wood-based ingredients are non-toxic and do not outgas. All the ingredients of linoleum are biodegradable and potentially recyclable. Although linseed oil is cured to form a hard-but-flexible surface in the oven, it continues to cure for decades. Since it cures by oxidation, the curing process makes its surface anti-bacterial and anti-allergenic, so linoleum is the preferred flooring for many hospitals, clinics and homes for people with allergies.
Linoleum comes in a wide variety of colours and patterns and is available in both sheets and tiles. However, while do-it-yourselfers can install many types of vinyl tiles, linoleum manufacturers strongly recommend professional installation because lino needs special glue and troweling techniques. Some manufacturers do, however, provide snap-together, floating floors for DIYers.
The downside – linoleum costs two to three times as much as vinyl, which is why vinyl largely displaced linoleum in the 1950s. However, manufacturers claim that linoleum will last 40 years and anyone who has had experience of Victorian lino in their house will know that it can last a great deal longer than that.
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First published in November 2009
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