Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans
Eco-Furniture, A Product of Green Design
From the perspective of sustainable furniture designers, waste is a form of design failure. These designers work to build green furniture that is responsibly harvested from renewable resources, or that incorporates recycled materials, to create furniture that integrates form, function, and eco-friendliness.
Let’s take a closer look at options furnished by the sustainable design movement and some things to be aware of as you consider product selection.
From the perspective of sustainable designers, waste is a form of design failure. Sustainable designers work to build green furniture that is responsibly harvested from renewable resources, or that incorporates recycled materials, in creating furniture designs that integrate form, function, and eco-friendliness. The resulting products decrease landfill waste and preserve the planet’s vital forests, while supplying consumers with comfortable, modern alternatives to furniture made from materials harvested by environmentally unsound methods.
Avoid buying lumber products from non-sustainable resources–be especially wary of tropical hardwoods unless the seller has documentation that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests.
Construction wastes account for roughly 25% of U.S. landfill space–green designers are taking steps to reduce this percentage by salvaging, reusing, and recycling building debris. Manufacturing environmentally friendly furniture from recycled materials often requires less energy than manufacturing from raw materials, and the process is also less costly. Reclaimers are now salvaging wood that has been underwater for decades from many of the nation’s river and lake bottoms, which serve as collecting grounds for logs that are derailed on their way from forests to lumber mills. Orchards that no longer produce are another popular source of reclaimed wood. Reclaimed wood organizations, such as Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program, certifies salvaged and reclaimed wood harvested from dismantled old buildings, bridges, barns, ships, warehouses, wine tanks, and other structures.
Many manufacturers are now incorporating the “cradle-to-cradle” life cycle concept into their designs. The goal of a cradle-to-cradle approach is to abandon old practices of making products that end up in garbage dumps after they have outworn their usefulness. The cradle-to-cradle design process focuses on manufacturing products out of parts that can be recycled several times and produced using the least environmentally harmful methods. Thus, component parts can be dismantled and incorporated repeatedly into new versions of the same product. Scrap, or salvaged, lumber can be returned to manufacturers to make new wood products.
The world’s tropical forests are vital to the survival of diverse plant and animal species, soil health, and global climate. And yet nearly half of the planet’s forested area has disappeared in the past 8,000 years, with the majority of this loss occurring in the 20th century. Between 1980 and 1995, approximately 2 million square kilometers of forests were destroyed, representing an area larger than Mexico!
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is comprised of a diverse array of loggers, foresters, environmentalists, and sociologists working together to guide forest management toward the most sustainable outcomes possible. The FSC has certified more than 39 million hectares of forest worldwide, and consumers in several countries can choose wood carrying the FSC label that guarantees a wood or wood product was harvested from a sustainably managed forest. Since several hundred FSC certified wood product suppliers exist in the U.S. alone, and thousands more globally, FSC-certified wood is easy to find and use. An eco-friendly furniture-specific resource is the Sustainable Furniture Council website, which provides a list of sustainability focused suppliers.
- Many green builders use FSC-certified wood and even some of the nation’s largest wood retailers have pledged to buy wood only from sustainably managed forests, in addition to avoiding use of fire-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and many other toxins typically applied to non-sustainable wood.
- Pressure-treated lumber, though frequently used for playground equipment, often contains arsenic, a toxin that can rub off onto skin and leach into soil. A considerable amount of inexpensive “wood” furniture (usually made from particleboard) contains toxic substances that can emits off-gases into your living space—including formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen.
- Furniture with foam-filled cushions adds another element of danger to your living space. Foam is also commonly treated with PBDEs—chemical cousins to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that have been banned since 1978. While a California ban on the manufacture of two major PBDEs will go into effect in 2008, PBDE use is still widespread, even though they are known to be particularly harmful to unborn children and are suspected factors in brain and reproductive system disorders. A recent study revealed high levels of PBDE compounds in the breast milk of American women.
- When buying foam-filled cushions and mattresses for your furniture, be sure to ask whether flame-retardant chemicals were used in their manufacture. A safer substitute for foam is wool batting that is naturally flame-retardant.
Alternatives to Non-Sustainable Wood
Avoid buying lumber products from non-sustainable resources–be especially wary of tropical hardwoods unless the seller has documentation that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests. For more information on endangered wood species and helpful wood selection tips, visit the U.K.-based Friends of the Earth Good wood guide, or visit the Certified Forest Product Council website to search by product, company, or forest.
Buying locally produced building materials is one way to familiarize yourself with the origin of your products while taking it easy on the environment. Transporting wood is costly in terms of energy use and greenhouse pollution generated in the process.
Recent advances in technology have created an industry of next generation lumbers, structural plastic lumbers made from post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastics. Once recycled, these materials are processed into a wood-like product that is resistant to moisture, mold, heat, insects, rodents, and other environmental stresses. Forestdirectory.com provides a very comprehesnsive set of databases that address all things sustainable wood related—for products, search the Manufacturers, Equipment, and Distributors database. Today’s market boasts a vast array of ecofurniture that features reclaimed wood, recycled parts, and certified sustainable woods. When scouting out eco-furniture sources, be sure to do your own research into the environmental policies of the companies that you choose to support. Here are some good, basic questions to ask of a company that you are considering:
- Do they use salvaged building materials whenever possible, and if so, in what percentage?
- Are raw materials sourced from FSC-certified forests?
- Are the raw materials that they use renewable or recyclable?
- How far away did the materials have to be transported to the manufacturer?
- Is the manufacturing process damaging to the environment?
- How is waste from the manufacturing process managed?
- Does the product off-gas VOC’s or other toxins?
- Is the product durable and efficient?
- Does the manufacturer use the minimum amount of packaging possible?
Remember that “right-to-know” regulations entitle you to request a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from any manufacturer or supplier. If you make your own furniture, a great source for recycled or salvaged wood products is your nearest salvage yard or demolition company—ask about “chain of custody” assurances or a similar tracking feature to ensure that the materials you use for your green building projects sourced and produced responsibly.
Article Contributors: Julie Reid