Are your kitchen cabinets made of solid wood? If so, you are a lucky minority. These days, most are constructed of plywood, pressed wood, and/or particleboard that contains the carcinogen formaldehyde. Find out if you need to worry, seal in formaldehyde, start anew, or just refresh: the truth is that the greenest, healthiest approaches often spare the wallet as well as sparing the planet.
These days, cabinets are rarely made of solid wood. Instead, the boxes are constructed of interior-grade plywood or pressed wood, which maybe particleboard. With a few exceptions, these materials have urea formaldehyde added as a binder to hold the wood fiber together.
Since the early 1980s, pressed-wood manufacturers have reduced formaldehyde emissions from their products by 80 to 90 percent. Still, according to the EPA, pressed wood remains the most significant source of formaldehyde in a home. Offgassing is highest when products are new. Emissions drop off considerably in the first months after installation, but some products continue to emit very low levels of formaldehyde for years.
Low-Cost Ways to Reduce Formaldehyde
If you can’t avoid formaldehyde containing cabinets or shelving units, take steps to limit offgassing in your kitchen. If your construction schedule allows, store the cabinets in a well-ventilated garage for a few weeks or even a month before installing them in your kitchen. Another good strategy is to seal any exposed pressed-wood surfaces with a low VOC sealant such as AFM’s Safecoat Safe Seal.
If you are in the market for new cabinets or other storage units, choose ones free of urea formaldehyde, if possible; good alternatives are described below.
Revamping Existing Cabinets
The most eco-friendly strategy is to keep using what you’ve got. Consider a cosmetic tune-up rather than a full-on replacement. A weekend of work can bring about a remarkable transformation. Give the surfaces a thorough cleaning. Look for hinges that need repair, scratches that can be touched up, and drawer glides that can be replaced.
Replace dated drawer pulls and cabinet knobs with new hardware.
You’ll likely find ads in the newspaper for companies that rejuvenate cabinets by resurfacing the frames and refacing or replacing the doors and drawer fronts.
Deconstruction, not Demolition
If you feel like you need the kitchen gutted, check into hiring a deconstruction outfit rather than a demolition contractor. Deconstruction companies manually dismantle individual rooms as well as whole buildings, and salvage materials that have resale value.
Greener Cabinet Options
Wood remains the material of choice for cabinets. It is a terrific building material—besides looking great, it’s renewable, versatile, often recyclable or reusable, and biodegradable. Unfortunately, much of the imported wood that finds its way into our home furnishings was logged in an environmentally unsustainable and sometimes illegal manner. And the problem isn’t limited to exotic woods; domestically, companies continue to clear-cut natural forests and cut down ancient trees even though more ecologically and economically sustainable options exist.
When buying wood cabinets, look for companies that use FSC-certified (The Forest Stewardship Council) and reclaimed woods and wood alternatives such as bamboo and wheatboard.
Metal cabinets offer some great green advantages. They don’t offgas, the metal may contain recycled content, and they’re often recyclable. Look for cabinets—vintage or brand new—that are 100 percent metal and not merely sheet metal glued to a fiberboard substrate.