Choosing Green Finish Materials: Cabinets
Typical residential cabinetry has potential for serious outgassing. Most factory-built cabinets contain formaldehyde and high levels of VOCs. As with paints and stains, it’s important to check Material Safety Data Sheets, and look for third-party certification that sets and measures air quality standards for cabinets. Look for GreenSeal, GreenGuard and SCS. A good reference for reasonable VOC targets for a variety of paints and stains, as well as adhesives and sealants, is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED-H) program.
Along with toxicity and air quality concerns, consider the other green features of the cabinetry you plan to install. Where does the material come from and how is it extracted, reused or disposed of? Is it constructed from domestic, reclaimed and readily renewable resources?
If the project is a remodel, first consider repairing, maintaining and refinishing the cabinets. Existing wood cabinets can be updated with new faces, finishes, paint and hardware. Salvaged hardware is available in metal or steel with high-recycled content. You can also find reclaimed glass, wood and ceramic knobs and drawer pulls. Most cabinet components can be salvaged and reused.
Used cabinets can be found for any project at used building supply outlets. Most cities have several, including Habitat for Humanity Restores.
Look for solid wood, formaldehyde-free particleboard or exterior-grade plywood, solvent-free glues, factory-cured finishes, low-VOC and low-emissions finishes. Casework commonly uses composites, such as particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF ). Engineered and composite wood products have been considered green because they replace the need for solid wood from forests. However, particleboard and MDF have become the norm for cabinet construction and no longer represent a step toward greater sustainability. Also, they will probably not last as long as plywood or solid wood cases. If you choose a composite material be sure it is manufactured with low-formaldehyde resins and low-VOC finishes.
Whether solid or composite, look for casework constructed from locally or domestically harvested FSC-certified or salvaged wood. Avoid reclaimed wood from unknown origins. SmartWood, recognized by the FSC, provides a certification program for Rediscovered Wood Operations that sell reclaimed wood products.
These boards and panels are manufactured from agricultural byproducts. Most are annually renewable and made from straw, sunflower hulls, grass stubble, corn husks, sorghum stalks, hemp, soybean plants, etc. Maintenance varies according to the material. Make sure binders and sealers are low in formaldehyde and VOCs. Agrifiber is a rapidly-renewable resource and will decompose, although the process is somewhat hindered by binders, resins, stains and finishes.
This is an extremely durable material and doesn’t outgas. However, it does come with a high lifecycle cost (in both extraction and production). Metal can be salvaged and recycled. Use metal with recycled content. Steel is generally considered to contain about 60 percent recycled content. The recycled content of aluminum can vary, so look for documentation on recycled content. Some metal cabinets are installed for removal so they can be moved to the next home.
Eco-friendly cabinet faces come in a wide array of materials. They may be solid wood, bamboo, agrifiber products, metal or recycled glass. If you use solid wood, don’t use endangered species and be sure all tropical wood is FSC certified. Bamboo is rapidly renewable and suitable for cabinetry. Conserve by using wood veneers with formaldehyde-free substrates in place of solid wood. Veneers use less wood, a slowly renewable resource. Solid, engineered and reclaimed wood should be FSC certified.
Custom vs. Factory-made Cabinetry
Use a cabinetmaker that works with formaldehyde-free and low-VOC adhesives, binders and finishes. Using a local cabinetmaker will reduce embodied energy as cabinets are expensive to pack and ship. Custom cabinets should be preassembled and finished off-site to limit outgassing in the home.
Request the lowest VOC finishes available. Factory-made cabinets will have time to outgas off-site. If higher VOC finishes and adhesives are used, they will also have time to dissipate, but will continue to outgas (to a lesser degree) when installed. To seal particleboard or seams that might outgas, use low-VOC, water-based products or natural oils and waxes.
Check out these categories in the Oikos Product Directory to get started in your search for green cabinetry: