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Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Linoleum, Naturally

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When I work with residential clients on their kitchens and baths, I’m frequently told “I can’t wait to rip out than old linoleum floor and replace it with something more eco-friendly!”   While they are right that their current floor usually lacks in the eco-friendly department, it’s not because it’s linoleum, it’s because it isn’t.  In fact, what’s actually occupying their floor is vinyl.

So where did all this confusion in names begin, and why does it even matter?

Well, if you knew how beautiful and green a product linoleum is, you would wonder how anyone could possibly mistake it for decidedly un-green vinyl.

To understand how one got mixed up with the other, let me fill you in on a little history first.  Linoleum has been around for 150 years now, and began life as the gummy crust inventor Frederick Walton saw on the top of a jar of linseed oil.   Thinking he had finally found a solution to the problem of how to make a less expensive raincoat, what he actually discovered was a method for making clean, flexible flooring from readily available natural materials.  In fact, the word linoleum is a combination of the Latin words linum (flax) and oleum (oil) – and flax (aka linseed) oil is what is used in linoleum to this very day, along with ground up cork, natural resin, pigment, and jute.  Colorful, durable, and very natural.

So where did the confusion come in?  Until the mid 1940′s, linoleum was found in homes and businesses all over Europe and North America.  It was the resilient flooring of choice.  Then, after WWII, less expensive polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flooring, commonly referred to as simply vinyl, hit the market place.  Because linoleum took several days to cure once it was formed into sheets, it was impossible for it to compete with vinyl, which could take only hours to make from start to finish.  Early vinyl flooring was initially made to look like its more expensive cousin linoleum, hence the confusion.  The words rapidly came to be interchangeable, and since no one was concerned about the sustainability of either flooring, no distinction seemed necessary.

Although it never disappeared entirely, by the 1970′s the once booming linoleum factories in the United States had all closed their doors, leaving only a couple of factories in Europe to continue production.  Now that we are realizing that the use of PVC can have serious health ramifications, linoleum is seeing a resurgence in popularity, and the number of factories in the world has increased to 4.  One of these factories, located in Scotland, has been churning out linoleum since 1875!

The largest, and by far the greenest, of the few linoleum makers left is Forbo, which markets its product under the name Marmoleum.  Available in sheet, tile, and clickable plank form, there are over 120 possible colors to choose from.   Happily, they still use that same formula of natural ingredients first invented by Frederick Walton all those many years ago, making Marmoleum a very green product indeed.

Editor Rachel Hulan, IIDA, has been an interior designer for over 12 years.  You can visit her sustainable interior design blog here.

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