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A Guide to Choosing Eco-Friendly Wallcoverings

Go green in a big way with these ideas for natural wallpapers.

By Rachel Hulan, IIDA, CID

The right wallpaper can do amazing things for your space. No longer limited to traditional prints and papers, today's wallcoverings come in modern, eye-catching designs made from green materials that are great for your home and your health.

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The most wonderful aspect of this wallpaper revival is the plethora of terrific, sustainable choices that have come along with it. No longer the realm of plastic-coated pastels, many of today's wallpapers are colorful, bold, eco-friendly, and natural. They are also easy to find if you know what to look for.

Here's a simple guide to help you navigate the sea of available wallpapers:

What to look for:

Recycled or FSC-certified paper – Recycled paper is a great choice and is increasingly available in the marketplace.  Many up-and-coming wallpaper companies are using it, and even several older companies are developing lines made with recycled content.  Another good choice is paper certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) which, although from virgin pulp, is guaranteed to be from sustainably managed forests.

Natural fibers – Although not recommended for people with cats, papers made of natural woven fibers are terrific for everyone else. Made from rapidly renewable materials such as seagrass, bamboo and reed, woven wallpaper is a great environmental choice. Commonly referred to as grasscloth, it adds a warm, natural touch to any room and is biodegradable at the end of its life. Best yet, it is now available in an array of colors and patterns, making it a good fit for many interior styles.

Water based inks, paints, or dyes – Some of the loveliest wallpapers on the market today are made using water-based paints and inks. Look particularly for hand-blocked and pulled papers, where the slight variations inherent in hand applications lend a delightfully old world look to even the most contemporary patterns.

What to avoid:

Vinyl (PVC) – Long the darling of the wallpaper industry for its durable, easy-to-clean surface, vinyl wallpaper dominated the marketplace for decades. Unfortunately, there are hidden costs behind that shiny, plastic coating. The production of vinyl, a petrochemical, is a highly polluting process with serious environmental costs. Even on your walls, vinyl will release VOCs and other air pollutants, and several studies link it to health issues such as asthma and cancer. Worst of all is what happens when vinyl enters the wastestream, including the release of dioxins into the air and water supply. To top it off, vinyl wall coverings don't breathe, allowing for a build up of mold between them and the wall in moist locations such as bathrooms.

Fireproofing – With the exception of Borate, a natural mineral treatment, most fireproofing will add unwanted (and often unnecessary) chemicals to your environment.

VOCs – Most commonly present in coatings, backings, and pastes, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), can offgas for several years after installation.  Look for low-VOC or no-VOC wallpapers, preferably those that have been Greenguard-certified.

Heavy metals – Found in dyes and inks, heavy metals are becoming a real issue in groundwater supplies due to their increasing presence in landfills.  By choosing to purchase wallpaper that is free of heavy metals, you are contributing to better drinking water for yourself and future generations.

For more, take a look at our gallery of sustainable wallcoverings.

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