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To the facilities task force:
RE: flooring samples
The synthetic wood “resilient” flooring we looked at for the chancel is plastic. It’s at least several kinds of polymers (hard stuff on top, soft foamy stuff beneath). Plastic is made from petroleum and requires high energy inputs during extraction, refining, manufacture, packaging, and shipping. Each step produces greenhouse gasses, out-gassed toxins, and additional waste. Probably, the flooring we looked at is a first-generation petroleum product. Petroleum is non-renewable and people’s desire to exploit ever more difficult-to-access petroleum reserves drives development of environmentally damaging technologies (e.g. hydrological fracturing, Tar sand strip mining) and too-frequent environmental disasters (e.g. Exxon Valdez spill, Deepwater Horizon) that have long-term and irreversible negative impacts.
Only around 8% of plastic produced is recycled and the rest is land-filled or released to the environment as trash1. Of the 8%, it really isn’t recycled as much as it is downcycled into inferior quality plastics and cruder products. Plastic never goes away in any meaningful sense. It does not biodegrade. It breaks down eventually into smaller and smaller pieces and it leaches toxic chemicals that contaminate groundwater and can be bioactive in living creatures, including humans. A particularly insidious byproduct of both the production and degradation of plastic are endocrine disruptors – chemicals which can cause biological disfunction at extremely low concentrations because they mimic hormones at the molecular level.
Let’s imagine optimistically that the useful lifespan of the artificial wood we considered is 50 years. When it finally finds its way into a landfill, it will remain a source of pollutants for the next several hundred (or thousands) of years. In my judgement that’s not very responsible stewardship.
Wood flooring would likely be made from common hardwood tree species such as maple, oak, or cherry. There certainly are energy and petroleum inputs in harvesting, milling, finishing, and transporting hardwood flooring but hardwood trees are grown over very long (75-100yr) stand rotations during which the trees are sequestering (removing and holding) atmospheric carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) in their plant tissues. At the molecular level, wood is largely sequestered atmospheric carbon. Hence the trees themselves at least partially mitigate the environmental costs associated with turning living trees into a hardwood flooring product. Hardwood silviculture is a completely sustainable industry if done correctly because trees are a renewable resource. The added benefits of hardwood silviculture include various habitat types (as trees grow from seedling to saw timber), soil enrichment, soil stabilization, and surface and groundwater filtration. Moreover, creating a market for sustainable forestry provides landowners with disincentives to parcelization and development (that’s a good thing)
Wood is recyclable, re-finishable, and completely biodegradable. Except for finishes (which represent a minor amount of total mass, and can be mitigated), wood biodegrades into completely benign (and useful) byproducts.
The aesthetic argument
Aesthetic judgements are somewhat subjective. These are mine. The chancel should be the focal point, the place where we put our best foot forward. It should be warm, open, and inviting. Pastor Karen asked us to think about what design elements facilitate worship. Artificial wood is just that – artificial. Synonyms include fake, faux, phony, bogus, manufactured, synthetic, and false. Real wood is real. Synonyms include actual, authentic, honest, legitimate, original, organic, undeniable, and true. Worship space (and worship practice) should associate with the latter.
Wood is warm, an aesthetic associated with a finish that highlights the woodgrain and accents warm colors (reds oranges, yellows). Wood invites one (well, me anyway) to touch it and to think about the trees. In addition, real wood is recognizable as a real piece of an actual tree. Oak looks like oak, maple like maple and so on. The artificial flooring looked wood-like. Seeing real elements of nature (wood, stone, water) connects us to creation and I think it helps if those elements are also connected to our place here in the Great Lake region. I think we need more connectedness.
The social justice argument
We are a wealthy and comfortable congregation. We opt for convenience at every turn because we can afford it. We experience very little of the real costs of our petroleum use. Those costs are outsourced to poor and powerless people who have to live near refineries and lands that are degraded by extraction and transport and are uniquely vulnerable to inevitable spills and accidents and to the pollution that occurs at every step in the process.
Those costs are also outsourced to non-human creation as well and as residents of the Great Lakes region we should be uniquely sensitive to it. Recall when we supported Hannah to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies against a pipeline company and current threats locally from Enbridge lines 3 and 5. We cannot end our culpability and complicity with the social and environmental injustices associated with profligate use of petroleum products but we can choose to reduce them and work against the structures that facilitate those injustices (as Hannah did).
On the other hand, hardwood silviculture is a sustainable use of creation when done correctly and the forest products industry is one of the largest (if not the largest outright) resource-based industries in Wisconsin. If we opt for native hardwood, especially if we shop for a local source, we help create the economic incentives for keeping trees on the landscape under sustainable management. We also put some of our money back into our Wisconsin neighbors’ communities.
The convenience argument
Artificial wood will look pristine longer because it is engineered to do so but it will still look like pristine plastic wood. Real wood will begin to show wear but I think that the rate at which that wear accumulates was overstated in our discussions. We are not going to have 2 dogs trafficking on it and it is not going to see nearly the day to day traffic that any of our household kitchens see. I am not naïve about wear. I am looking at a 12 year old maple kitchen floor right now. I will stipulate that wood may need to be re-finished and that a refinishing effort may require disruption of 1 or 2 worship services. That said, what’s the likely interval? Once every 5 years? Every 10? The cost of that inconvenience seems very small to me indeed when weighed against the costs to the environment and to what it says about what we as a wealthy congregation value when we make our choices.
It should be obvious that I think that costs of artificial wood flooring substantially outweigh the benefits and that the responsible choice is to go with wood flooring. I will also be the first to acknowledge that the area we are considering is very small and that choosing wood will have an essentially trivial material effect on reducing the environmental cost of choosing a petroleum product. But it is symbolic, and much of what we do in worship is symbolic – including our sacraments. Consequently, we also acknowledge that we as Christians infuse great meaning in our symbolism. Nearly every Sunday, our congregational prayer contains a request to help us become better stewards of creation. Here is an opportunity to do just that – even if only symbolically. I think it’s the choice that we as thoughtful Christians should make.
This is really helpful, Tim. I love how you are teaching us about the relative sustainability of the flooring industry even through the playful (and, I imagine, real) medium of an email to a congregational board that is in process of making this decision. For those of us contemplating new flooring at some point in the future, your comments here are insightful and welcome. I hope you’ll update us when the church decides!
Thanks! Postscript: We went with native maple for the flooring and hired a talented member of the congregation to build new chancel furniture (cherry and birds-eye maple [something of a Great Lakes region specialty]). It’s beautiful .
Thank you — this is condensed information on a topic many of us know far too little about as we consider replacing flooring, whether in public buildings or our homes. I deeply appreciate your careful assessment.
This is impressive like crazy. Just excellent. Thank you also for highlighting Line 3 and Line 5.
I also really loved your list of words that describe plastic flooring and wood flooring and how those words can have implications for our identity as worshipers. Pretty cool.
You are very gifted. Thank you.
I think much of the same you write about here could be written about the choice for musical instruments in church.