Selecting sustainable cabinetry requires careful examination of multiple components.

A product is only as sustainable as the sum of its parts. In the case of cabinetry, there are quite a few parts–from raw materials to resins to finishes–to add up.

Here’s what to look for when selecting cabinetry for green-built, healthy homes.

  • By Katy Tomasulo
  • Source: BUILDING PRODUCTS Magazine
  • Publication date: 2011-01-05

The Sum of Its Parts

Selecting sustainable cabinetry requires careful examination of multiple components.

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The Sum of Its Parts

Selecting sustainable cabinetry requires careful examination of multiple components.

A product is only as sustainable as the sum of its parts. In the case of cabinetry, there are quite a few parts–from raw materials to resins to finishes–to add up.

Here’s what to look for when selecting cabinetry for green-built, healthy homes.

Raw Materials

The base components of most wood cabinetry today are made with hardwood plywood, MDF, or particleboard. While these materials are more resource efficient than solid wood, manufacturing them historically has involved formaldehyde-laden resins.

Several major manufacturers of composite wood panels, including Timber Products and Columbia Forest Products, have already been working with resin manufacturers and refining their manufacturing processes to create no-added-formaldehyde (NAF) or no-added-urea-formaldehyde (NAUF) products. Columbia’s PureBond NAUF plywood, for example, utilizes a soy-based adhesive.

"The formaldehyde levels of [composite] products have come down dramatically over the past 10 years," says Dick Titus, executive vice president of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA).

Helping the push are the most recent emissions requirements from the California Air Resources Board (CARB); once phase two of the rules begins in 2012, they will be the strictest regulations in the world. The laws are specific to the Golden State, but most panel manufacturers and cabinet companies are changing over stock across the country, and there is speculation that similar emissions regulations may be adopted at the federal level.

In addition to CARB compliance, some composite panels may carry the Composite Panel Association’s Environmentally Preferable Product (EPP) certification, which verifies formaldehyde emissions lower than government regulations and the use of recycled and/or recovered wood fiber.

Indeed, along with formaldehyde, consider the resource origins of the wood panels for recycled content (some certified by Scientific Certification Systems) and/or for sustainable harvesting as verified by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, among others. Certified products may carry a slight price premium.

Finally, you’ll also need to examine the woods that make up the veneers and solid wood trim, doors, and drawer fronts. Austin Energy Green Building’s Sustainable Building Sourcebook recommends domestic hardwoods or certified, sustainably harvested tropical hardwoods as the most environmentally sound choices. "Veneer-grade domestic softwoods are often harvested from old growth timber, and non-certified tropical hardwoods are too often harvested in a manner that is devastating to the forest," the group advises.

And, be sure to inquire about the chemical content of the glues used to adhere the veneers to the cabinet box; non-solvent-based adhesives can be comparable in performance and cost, Austin Energy says.

Alternative Materials

Though traditional composite wood panels dominate, alternatives exist that offer their own environmental benefits or trade-offs.

Solid wood, for example, eliminates formaldehyde concerns, but lacks the materials efficiency of an engineered product, is fairly rare, and is more expensive.

Weyerhaeuser makes composite panels using Lyptus, a Brazilian-grown wood that can be harvested for lumber in 14 to 16 years. Like bamboo, another cabinetry alternative, Lyptus offers the benefits of rapid renewability but does have to be shipped a longer distance. Wheatboard, made from waste stalks, is another option gaining attention.

As with traditional composite panels, ensure alternative engineered materials you select utilize formaldehyde-free resins.

Finishes

Though low-VOC finishes are becoming more readily available, they’re not yet widespread due to concerns that their quality and richness aren’t always equivalent and the application may be unfamiliar.

Still, the options have come a long way and you should check with your supplier about what they have available. For instance, Crystal Cabinetry offers a Valspar ULF topcoat that is Greenguard Indoor Air Quality certified.

Managing buyer expectations is key, as popular high-sheen finishes are harder to get in a low-VOC formula, and some natural-based products may have a slightly different look.

Putting It All Together

With the many components that need exploring, it’s easy to get bogged down by the product selection process.

The KCMA’s Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP) aims to ease some of the burden by recognizing manufacturers that meet requirements in five key areas: air quality, product resource management (wood origins and content), process resource management (manufacturing processes), environmental stewardship (including documentation of environmental quality commitment), and community relations. Manufacturers must earn points in all five areas to qualify. The standard was recently updated to require CARB-compliant woods.

Homeowners may soon be expecting confirmation. "With new generations of buyers in the market," says Roger Rutan, vice president of sales and marketing at Timber Products, "you’re going to see a difference in demand for cabinetry that will fundamentally change the shape and look of the marketplace." –Katy Tomasulo.

This article originally appeared in EcoHome.

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