Wood Substitutes for Eco-Friendly Cabinets and Furniture

Wood substitutes made from wheat, straw and sunflowers are cropping up everywhere.

| September/October 2004

A well-stocked pantry should include a little wheat straw. Café Yumm! in Eugene, Oregon, keeps a supply in its cabinets and features sunflower hulls at the tables as well. If the idea of eating these sounds unappetizing, don’t worry because these grain byproducts aren’t intended for baked goods. Wheat straw and sunflower hulls are just two of the latest materials to be used instead of traditional hardwoods to fabricate cabinets and furniture. Particleboard, oriented-strand board (OSB), medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and other composites formerly made from wood are now manufactured from agricultural wastes. These new composites make durable doors, walls, floors, roofs—even decorative tables.

Café Yumm! owner Mark Beauchamp has built three restaurants with a focus on recycled and environmentally friendly materials that include crop byproducts. The granite-looking dining tables are cut from Environ Biocomposite’s Dakota Burl, made from sunflower hulls. And the custom “wood” cabinetry backing is wheat-straw board, often called wheat sheet. The dining tables with their unusual speckled surfaces are a big hit, according to Beauchamp. “Customers are fascinated with it,” he says. “You can see them trying to figure out what it is.” He selected the material both for its eco-friendly and aesthetic characteristics. “Not only did it appeal to us because of its biocomposition, but also because of its organic warmth,” he adds.

Amber waves of grain

Agriculturally based materials are an answer to the urgent need for wood substitutes. While tables and shelving are terrific applications, residential construction might present the greatest potential use. New homes gobble up lumber at an alarming rate. It takes an entire acre of clear-cut forest—which needs thirty years or more to grow back—to provide lumber to build an 1,800-square-foot home, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That’s a lot of wood when you consider that 1.5 million single-family homes were built or started last year in the United States.

By contrast, HUD estimates it takes only eighteen acres of wheat—a harvest easily replenished in a single year—to build an 1,800-square-foot house from straw-based boards and panels—and the straw supplies are enormous. About 60 million acres of wheat are grown in the United States annually, and more than 140 million tons of straw residue are a crop byproduct from wheat, rice, rye, corn, and grass seed each year in North America, say Washington State University researchers. Bountiful, renewable crop waste, while not the definitive solution, could become a sustainable replacement for wood.

What’s in composites?

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