Clear-The-Air Cabinet Makeover

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
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.

Adapted from from Good Green Kitchens, by Jennifer Roberts (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2006). Copyright (c) 2006 by Jennifer Roberts. Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
Adapted from from Good Green Kitchens, by Jennifer Roberts (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2006).


Jan Roxburgh
Jan Roxburgh9 years ago

Thank you Annie. I'm planning a kitchen redo and your article has been encouraging and helpful.

Jenny P.
Jennifer P9 years ago

I am planning a kitchen reno and remarkably have found some excellent choices at unlikely places. Some IKEA cabinest, Home Depot etc. have choices that are formaldehyde-free as well as wood harvested from managed, sustainable forests. It takes some digging and questioning, but it can be done.

Daniel Barker
Daniel Barker9 years ago

It is obvious the human race is out of control, from hundreds of millions starving in Africa to wars without end.

What can we do? First, get in touch with nature. Rather than travel (using fossil fuel) to remote areas to enjoy nature, bring nature to you.

Plant native landscaping. Work on living off the grid. I am working on using batteries to decrease my consumption of energy - I have been using rechargeables for years.
And the biggest change. Now do we save the planet, from plants to animals to people?Family planning. We can adopt children, which allows children from poor nations the opportunities they would never have. We can decrease our impact on the planet.

Thank you