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Environmentally Friendly Cabinets

For a healthy home

Eco-Friendly Cabinets

From traditional built-ins of oak, maple, or cherry to mod models decked out in metal and glass, any cabinet can be green. So what’s the difference between green ones and conventional ones? Green cabinets don’t give off unhealthy chemical vapors. And they reflect an environmental awareness–sometimes because they’re made with green materials and sometimes because their owners have found clever ways to do more with less.


Top Tips

At home

  • Try a makeover? Instead of full-on replacement, consider giving your existing kitchen a fresh look. You can add pizzazz with new drawer pulls and handles. Replace broken hinges and door glides with durable hardware. Save space and hassle with organizers like lazy Susans, divider trays for your drawers, and slide-out recycling and trash bins. Sand and refinish, or (if you have a veneer) reface worn surfaces of wood cabinets. Be sure to use zero-or low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, adhesives, and sealants, or plant-based oils.
  • Scale back. If you decide you need new ones, consider scaling back on the number you install, and put the savings toward fewer but greener ones. Instead of wall-to-wall cabinets, for instance, consider open shelves in some parts of your kitchen. They usually cost less and they use less wood and other materials.

When shopping look for

  • Non-toxic materials. New cabinets can be a home’s biggest polluter. Make sure yours are made with materials that don’t contain urea formaldehyde, which can cause serious health problems.  Soy, PVA, and phenol formaldehyde are acceptable alternatives to urea formaldehyde.
  • Cabinet exteriors made of good wood. Choose products made of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood. These tend to be available as more-expensive custom pieces, but a growing number of dealers are offering them. Though it’s actually a grass, bamboo is another green “wood” choice. It’s rapidly renewable and grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Bamboo’s main drawback is that it’s shipped from Asia.  And even though it’s rapidly renewable, still look for FSC-certified bamboo.  Not all bamboo is grown in a sustainable manner.
  • Interiors made of healthy composite wood. While solid wood may seem like the ultimate in green, you’ll conserve forests and your own dollars if you go with more common, and more affordable alternatives, which involve a veneer over a composite core. The cores can be made of plywood, MDF (medium-density fiberboard), or particle board. But it’s important to find the urea formaldehyde-free versions of these composite woods.
  • Metal. Another good option is metal. They don’t give off toxic gases, assuming they’re solid metal and not merely sheet metal applied over composite wood made with urea formaldehyde.
  • Durability. Look for materials that will last a long time. Pay particular attention to the quality of the drawers and the lower cabinets and drawers. They take more abuse than the upper cabinets. Hinges, drawer glides, and other hardware should be durable and sturdily attached.
  • Opportunities to recycle. You may be able to find beautiful salvaged or vintage storage pieces.

Avoid

  • Salvaged or vintage cabinets with lead paint.
  • Composite wood made with urea formaldehyde.

Other Considerations

  • Sanding and refinishing wood cabinet doors with water-based, low-VOC sealants or paints can be a big job–if you’re not a die-hard DIYer, hire a pro to get a high quality finish. If the doors and drawer fronts have veneers of melamine you can get them refaced. Or you can replace all the doors and drawer faces while leaving the cabinet and drawer shells intact. Home improvement centers and cabinet dealers offer these services.
  • Air it out or seal it in. If you buy cabinets made with urea formaldehyde-based materials, there are still ways to reduce emissions. When you take delivery of the cabinets, air them out in a garage for a couple of weeks to keep the worst emissions out of your home. You can also lock in most of the formaldehyde by painting exposed surfaces of plywood, particle board, or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) with multiple coats of a clear, water-based low-VOC sealant. (Do this before the cabinets are installed or you won’t be able to access the backs).

Benefits…

…to you and your health
Makeovers cause less disruption and use fewer resources that ripping out your old cabinets and putting in new ones. What’s more, most new products are made with MDF, particle board, or plywood that contains urea formaldehyde glues. Urea formaldehyde is a carcinogen that can also cause nausea, headaches, fatigue, and burning sensations in the eyes and throat. This VOC gives off the most toxic fumes when cabinets are new, but may continue to emit very low levels of formaldehyde for years. If you can avoid new cabinets with urea formaldehyde, you’ll have healthier home.

A new California law will drastically reduce allowable emissions from pressed-wood products made or sold in the state. As that law is phased in between 2009 and 2012, Californians–and the rest of the country–will start to see healthier materials on the market.

…to your wallet
The average cost of remodeling a U.S. kitchen hovers around $20,000, and cabinets eat up from a third to a half of that total. Greener products tend to cost more, but that should change as more makers switch to FSC-certified woods and formaldehyde-free materials. Using salvaged or vintage storage pieces is a great way to save money and spare the planet.

…to the Earth
Brand-new products eat up a lot of energy and natural resources. Greener choices spare the planet by protecting forests and reducing pollution and waste. Cores made from MDF (medium-density fiberboard), particle board, and some plywoods are made from young, fast-growing, abundant trees (often from a tree plantation), sparing forests’ older giants. And veneers use wood fiber very efficiently. Unfortunately, demand for exotic veneers continues to drive unsustainable and illegal harvesting in forests around the world–an important reason to make sure your wood choice has the FSC seal of approval for both its core and its veneer.


Common Mistakes

  • Dumping old cabinets. Look for ways to reuse them in your home office, laundry room, garage, or basement. If you can’t reuse them, donate them to a building reuse store. If you’re working with a builder or carpenter, make sure he or she knows upfront that you want to salvage the cabinets because it takes more time to remove them intact.
  • Choosing vinyl. Steer clear of vinyl “thermofoil” finish; it’s a thin sheet of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, that’s heat-fused to the cabinet surface. It’s different from “melamine,” a plastic resin used for the same purpose that is generally recognized as safe.
  • Buying products made with tropical or old-growth woods. Some of the imported wood that finds its way into our homes was logged in an environmentally unsustainable and sometimes illegal manner. Even domestic woods sometimes come from clear-cut natural forests or ancient trees.
  • Supersizing. The trend toward massive banks of built-in cabinets in ever-larger kitchens in ever-larger houses takes its toll on the environment–and on our bank accounts.

Getting Started

  • Visit a number of cabinet retailers to see the range of styles, prices, and options. “Stock” or “ready-to-assemble” cabinets available from home improvement stores are much easier on the wallet than custom cabinets made to your specifications. Semi-custom cabinets, which fall between the stock and custom ends of the cabinet spectrum, are made to order using standard sizes, but give you more style, color, and material options than stock cabinets. Semi-custom cabinets are sold by some home improvement stores and by kitchen and bath showrooms. Custom cabinets can be ordered through showrooms or by working directly with the cabinetmaker.
  • When shopping for stock cabinets, bring accurate measurements for the cabinets you need. If you’re getting quotes for semi-custom or custom cabinets, the dealer may want detailed drawings done to scale showing all the cabinets and their placement in the kitchen. You may want to have a kitchen designer, architect or builder prepare these drawings, or have the cabinet dealer come to your home to take measurements.
  • When shopping, be sure to ask these questions:
    • Does the particle board, medium density fiberboard (MDF), or plywood contain any urea formaldehyde?
    • What types of environmentally friendly materials are offered, such as FSC-certified wood, salvaged wood, or bamboo?
    • Are low-VOC finishes and adhesives used?
    • Where did the cabinet materials come from and where were the cabinets manufactured?
  • If you’re a skilled DIYer, you might consider installing the cabinets yourself, although you’ll need a helper because cabinets are bulky and heavy. Or you can have the cabinets professionally installed, either by the cabinet retailer or an independent builder or carpenter.
  • Make sure you know the cabinet delivery date and installation schedule. Have a plan for where you will you store the cabinets until the installer comes. If all the cabinets in your kitchen are being replaced, it may take a week or more to complete the work. During that time you will likely not have access to your kitchen appliances and sink, so that make take some planning, too.
  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.
  • Use our Green Directory to find a pre-vetted GreenCheck® cabinet provider and retailer in your area!

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