Eco-Friendly Cabinets: Think Outside the Wooden Box

Eco-friendly cabinetry offers the beauty of wood without the forest destruction.

| September/October 2007

  • Bamboo cabinets, such as these from custom designer Laguna Bamboo, are sleek and sustainable.
  • Bamboo's beautiful grain makes it perfect for cabinets. Look for brands that contain little or no formaldehyde.

  • Neil Kelly Cabinets' Natural Collection features Forest Stewardship Council-certified SmartWood with low-VOC finishes.

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.

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