Cabinets are more than storage: They can instantly beautify kitchens, baths and even laundry areas. Solid wood, with its attractive grain and rich colors, is by far the most popular cabinet material—plus it’s durable, natural and renewable. But not all wood products are eco-friendly. Deforestation and loss of tree species harm wildlife, soil, water and air; though cabinets use a fraction of the wood needed for larger projects such as home construction, the impact is considerable when multiplied by the thousands.
Kitchen cabinets can last 50 years or more, according to the National Association of Home Builders, so if you’re remodeling, reuse as much of your original cabinetry as possible. Rather than replacing whole cabinets, rely on simple upgrades such as repainting or installing stylish new hardware. If you must remove cabinets that still have some good years left in them, consider donating them to a construction supply exchange such as Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.
If you’re shopping for new cabinets, consider those made from reclaimed lumber or certified sustainable wood. Or, limit your wood use by choosing glass or a rapidly renewable alternative such as bamboo or board made from pressed wheat or sunflowers.
Born-again cabinets: Buying “used” wood that’s been remilled for custom cabinetry is the most sustainable choice because no new trees are felled. In addition, the wood is being rescued from demolished buildings, dead or downed trees, and from wood manufacturers that might otherwise incinerate sawdust or wood scraps.
Cabinet materials should be free of lead paint, toxic chemicals or preservatives, so inquire about the source of reclaimed wood. “When we’re salvaging wood, we know what the original structure was used for,” says Brent Kroh of Elmwood Reclaimed Timber in Kansas City, Missouri. “We don’t use anything like railroad ties because they were chemically treated.”
Salvaged wood is usually more expensive than new wood because of the labor involved: Reclaimers must remove nails and metal by hand, and most reclaimed-wood businesses dry wood in kilns. “It stabilizes the wood and kills insects or mold,” Kroh says.
If you can, find a business that reclaims only local wood, thereby reducing fossil fuels needed for transportation— some companies import it from other countries. Look for certification through the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood Rediscovered program, which ensures the lumber is indeed reclaimed and not new; participation in this program is currently limited.
How to know if it’s green
Because it’s virtually impossible to know just by looking whether the solid wood on cabinet doors and drawer fronts is from a threatened tree species or a decimated forest, rely on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) labeling. The FSC program certifies wood products that meet strict environmental standards through every step of forestry, milling and distribution.
The FSC logo can be found on cabinet-grade lumber, but it’s unlikely you’ll find stock, or readymade, cabinets in FSC-certified wood—at least not yet. Custom FSC cabinetry is available from large manufacturers, and smaller cabinetmakers may accommodate requests for it.
Solid wood is the overall preference for cabinet faces; the less visible boxes, bodies and frames are commonly made from less expensive medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Wood-based composites—sometimes made from mill byproducts, wood chips and other waste materials—eliminate the need for wide planks of solid wood from larger, older trees.
Unfortunately, some sheet board is manufactured from whatever is cheap and available, including clear-cut tropical forest wood. FSC certification for wood sheet products ensures environmental responsibility.
The percentage of recycled content is also indicated on FSC labels. Another drawback to sheet board is that cores and veneers often contain formaldehyde or noxious binders that can cause health problems. “People with chemical sensitivity have contacted us because they’re concerned about the formaldehyde content and outgasing finishes in standard cabinets,” says David Rupp, owner of Green Leaf Cabinetry in Cleveland, which sells products accredited by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Many environmentally conscious cabinetmakers now offer formaldehyde-free sheet board.
Bamboo has comparable hardness to many tree species, but the fast-growing grass regenerates in less than a decade. Its interesting grain is making it a popular alternative for cabinetry. However, bamboo is not yet certified by the FSC or a comparable program, so it’s difficult to verify the sustainability of bamboo plantations.
In some cases, valuable forests and farmlands are bulldozed for bamboo plantations, so ask questions about manufacturers’ bamboo sources. Formaldehyde is often used as a binder, so look for products that contain none or very low levels.
Biocomposite boards, made from fibers such as wheat, sorghum, rice or sunflowers, are a great substitute for wood. The agricultural products—some are farming waste that might otherwise be disposed—are quickly renewable and provide farmers with another source of income. Many biocomposite makers are already in tune with health issues and avoid using formaldehyde or VOC-emitting chemicals in the binders that fuse the fibers into boards.
The main roadblock to environmentally conscious cabinetry is its availability. Stock cabinets made from FSC-certified wood or eco-friendly alternatives are almost unknown, and custom-made cabinetry can be pricey. Budget-conscious buyers can make small sacrifices such as less expensive hardware, simpler design elements or an economical wood species. Another alternative is to eliminate cabinet doors altogether or use simple shelving for the upper tier. Or you could reuse existing cabinets, but relocate or rearrange them. Look for vintage metal cabinets or furnishings that double as kitchen storage at flea markets or online auctions. Or consider beautiful glass cupboard doors or inserts—the material is infinitely recyclable.
What's In Your Cupboard? Eco-Friendly Cabinetry Options
• Is widely available.
• FSC certification ensures sustainability.
• Comes in an infinite variety of styles.
• Requires felling trees.
• Stock FSC-certified cabinetry is not usually available. (Custom orders are more expensive.)
Wood Sheet Products
medium-density fiberboard or MDF, plywood, particleboard
• Are inexpensive and widely available.
• Some sheet goods have high recycled or waste-wood content.
• FSC certification is available.
• May contain formaldehyde or binders that emit VOCs.
• FSC-certified products are used by few cabinetmakers.
Bamboo and Composite Boards
made from wheat, sorghum, rice or sunflowers
• Are made from rapidly renewable sources.
• Agricultural waste is used.
• Has an unusual, attractive grain.
• Is usually formaldehyde free with low-VOC binders.
• Is slightly more permeable and prone to warping than wood.
• There's little certification available yet for organic or pesticide-free biocomposites.
• Is widely available in a variety of species and textures.
• Can be acquired from local sources.
• SmartWood certification ensures sources.
• Some new wood may be sold as reclaimed.
• May be shipped long distances or imported.
The source of wood isn’t the only concern with cabinets; glues and finishes are also a factor. Many green cabinetmakers offer less toxic options.
■ For good indoor air quality, request that cabinetmakers use low-VOC, formaldehyde-free glues and adhesives on your cabinets.
■ Choose low-VOC, water-based paints, stains and finishes.
■ If you enjoy the patina that comes from use and age, and if you live in an arid climate where humidity won’t warp the wood, leave your cabinets unfinished.
■ Melamine, the same substance lately contaminating some pet food, is used to laminate cabinets, making them water and stain resistant. Melamine coatings are inert, insoluble and unlikely to be ingested at home; however, they can cause skin, eye and throat irritation and possibly kidney damage in factory workers. The substance is not biodegradable or recyclable, and it’s persistent in the environment. Steer away from melamine in an eco-minded home.
■ Don’t tear out old cabinets just because they’re outdated or ugly.
■ Do make less wasteful style changes: new knobs, hinges and pulls; refinishing or painting; replacing cabinet doors and drawer fronts; or removing cabinet doors for chic shelves.
custom wood products from salvaged urban logs
Green-Core option on custom cabinets
Elmwood Reclaimed Timber
antique cabinet-grade lumber
Green Leaf Cabinetry
FSC cabinetry and molding
custom strawboard cabinets
FSC wood and bamboo cabinets
Naturals Collection FSC and wheatboard cabinets