Kitchen remodels are notoriously the most expensive jobs in home renovations. One main expense is kitchen cabinetry -- cabinets need to be sturdy, resistant to moisture and still stylishly attractive. Since a kitchen is often a selling point for potential buyers, homeowners also need to make smart choices about their kitchen's décor. Going green in cabinet selection is one great way to do that. Luckily, there are a wide variety of options available to the environmentally-conscious shopper and designs that will fit any budget. There are several environmental concerns to consider when selecting kitchen cabinetry:
- Recyclability: Some materials simply won't break down as recycled matter, usually due to how the material has been treated and finished. Other materials are just difficult to reuse.
- Resources: The majority of kitchen cabinets are made of wood, which is problematic since it takes years for forests to renew themselves [source: The New Ecologist]. Such a lengthy re-growth period means the absence of oxygen once provided by those forests.
- Chemicals: The EPA cites older-model kitchen cabinets as one of the most significant sources of formaldehyde off-gassing in the home [source: EPA.gov]. Formaldehyde was once routinely used as the binding agent in most wood sold for indoor construction in the U.S., though now that is starting to change with help from the green movement.
Let's look at the best ways to address these concerns. Whether you're updating an older kitchen, starting from scratch or in the middle of a harrowing remodel, these 10 different types of green cabinets have something for everyone.
Whether you're recycling old soda cans or furniture, you're keeping a lot of garbage out of the landfills. So, how recyclable are kitchen cabinets? There are a couple of ways to look at it:
- They can be recycled: There are plenty of ways to recycle old cabinets. They can be repurposed as cabinets in another room, used as bookcases, sold or given away on Craigslist or Freecycle, cut and re-designed for a new furniture piece, or even taken to a local recycling center if they have the resources to deal with that particular type of cabinet [source: Recycling Cabinets].
- They have been recycled: Whether the cabinets are made from re-purposed materials, waste products or they're just vintage, cabinets that are being reused leave a smaller carbon footprint. For one thing, new hardwood cabinets are not being made and transported, which cuts down on emissions. Also, cabinets that are actively recycled keep that material out of the over-crowded dump.
Conserving forests and keeping landfill waste low are both excellent ways to take care of Mother Earth, so look for cabinets that can be recycled, are recycled or both. Organizations like the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturing Association (KCMA) and the Forest Stewardship Program (FSP) are actively trying to help consumers understand that recyclable options are available.
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that can cause breathing problems, throat irritations and a variety of other unpleasant side effects. Since formaldehyde is a carcinogen (a cancer causing agent) , it's dangerous to have in the home and kitchen -- particularly since its toxic properties are increased with heat [source: CDC]. A small amount of formaldehyde occurs naturally in most woods, but mills don't have to add in more as the binding resin (the adhesive that holds layers of plywood and particleboard together). When wood or particleboard is treated with formaldehyde, it makes the material difficult to recycle or reuse. For instance, you wouldn't want to chop up old formaldehyde-treated cabinets and use them as firewood because of the chemicals they'd release into the air. Particleboard is made from a variety of fibers and woods and then sealed with a binding agent (like formaldehyde). Fortunately, there are much more planet-friendly alternatives for resins:
- MDI (methylene diphenyl isocyanate) - It can be toxic to manufacture but won't add formaldehyde to the material .
- PVA (polyvinyl acetate) -- It's organic and holds up well over time; it's not related to dangerous PVC.
- Soy Flour - It's the most natural source but is still being tested for long-term effectiveness.[source: Wood Adhesives]
Most cabinet-makers and suppliers have low-toxicity options available. Check with your local retailers and, additionally, ask if the materials are certified by a major environmental program such as FSP, ESP (Environmental Stewardship Program) or Green Seal.
Don't worry -- this idea doesn't contain any toilet humor. In terms of going green, it's key to consider "waste product" cabinets, cabinets made from any kind of board that is created from otherwise under-used materials. There are boards made from discarded sugar cane husks (Kirei boards), old sunflower hulls (biofiber) and even from recycled newsprint. However, the most popular and widely available choice is Wheatboard [source: Ag Magazine].
Wheatboard is a composite wood or "agrifiber" [source: LEED]. Most Wheatboard is a type of pasteboard, made from straw and a binding resin and compressed into sturdy sheets or boards. American farmers produce 150 million tons of straw each year, so Wheatboard can be obtained from local sources in areas where wheat crops are farmed. Even if it's transported the lighter weight cuts down on transport energy and since it's made with low-emission manufacturing techniques, it's an ideal green building choice. In addition, it's particularly resistant to moisture, making it perfect for use in the warm and often steamy kitchen environment [source: Good to be Green].
It isn't easy to renovate kitchen cabinets. In fact, it can be a lengthy, expensive process. For many people, going green with kitchen cabinets is more about fixing the existing problems than starting over from scratch. Here are a couple of fast solutions that will make your cabinets greener while saving you a lot of time and cash:
- Redesign: If you want a fresh look, consider looking for cabinet face doors and knobs at yard sales, flea markets and online sources like Craigslist and Freecycle. Then recycle your own doors in a similar way. No new wood has been harvested, cut or transported and you'll have a newer-looking kitchen.
- Repurpose: Consider another recycling strategy by deciding if you can repurpose your kitchen cabinets, either in the kitchen (i.e. turning a bank of cabinets into a glass-door hutch to show off your china) or in another room (transfer old cabinets to be used in the office or even the garage). Then you'll be free to pursue more environmentally-friendly cabinet options.
- Reseal: One simple way to go green is to address the chemical issue. By applying a low-toxicity sealant to the wood of your cabinets, you'll be locking the formaldehyde away from you and your family. It's easy to apply and will give your cabinets a newly-painted look, too.
Even though softwood and hardwood forests are generally not highly sustainable, there are other products where renewable resources are used effectively to create new materials for construction and furniture. Bamboo is a popular choice for kitchen cabinetry due to a wide variety of positive attributes:
- Bamboo is actually a grass, native to every continent except Europe, making local buying options easy.
- Bamboo is durable and has a familiar appearance for consumers, looking like most other natural woods on the market.
- Bamboo grows incredibly rapidly, an entire swath renewing itself in 3 to 5 years, compared to 10 to 20, as seen with soft and hardwood forests.
- Bamboo comes in many styles, colors and prices, so there is a large selection for kitchen cabinets.
- Bamboo boasts a high carbon dioxide exchange rate, meaning that about 35 percent more oxygen is produced by bamboo than other sources, helping to prevent greenhouse gases.[source: Bamboo].
There are a few drawbacks. Depending on where the bamboo cabinets are purchased from, it might be difficult to determine the source or exact renewal capabilities. Also, bamboo is more susceptible to moisture than agrifiber options.
Bamboo has become in demand over the past decade, so it should be easy to find through your local retailers or professional cabinet maker. It's a pretty, modern-looking material that's also green and easy to recycle in the long run.
A good yard sale find can be satisfying for the buyer, seller and planet Earth. For the savvy shopper, there are tons of deals to be had on items like cabinets, making it more economically sound for many folks to remodel a home rather than move. There has been an influx of used cabinets and other furnishings at yard sales and through online sites like Craigslist, eBay and Freecycle. Salvaging older cabinets will keep them out of the dump and give you the opportunity to update your own. If you like a vintage look, here are a few things to keep in mind while you scan for good deals:
- Cabinets designed and constructed before the 1970s tend to be smaller, so measure your space and bring a tape measure with you.
- Always inspect the goods personally unless there is a return policy.
- Be ready to update your refurbished cabinets with sealant, fresh paint and new pulls. Be sure to budget those items into your shopping accordingly.
- Visit your local flea market or junk shop. The early shopper has more selection, but shopping later in the day will give you a better opportunity to bargain for a lower price.
Willingness to compromise on style or color will be key in making sure you get cabinets that are used but also eco-friendly.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, most kitchens featured metal cabinets, but the style is making a comeback. Many cabinet suppliers have a nice selection of metal options, including stainless steel. Metal cabinets offer many ecological benefits and provide your kitchen with a sleek look.
Metal cabinets are low-maintenance (you certainly don't need to polish any wood) and they're nearly indestructible. They tend to be cheaper than wood cabinets, but they contain no dangerous chemicals. In addition, metal cabinets resist corrosion and staining. And here's a plus -- Stainless steel cabinets can be used indoors or outdoors since they're so resistant to stains and rust [source: Green Metal Cabinets].
Modular cabinets, like modular homes, are not custom built. They're pre-packaged and ready to assemble. They were popular in the 1980s, and they continue to be an excellent choice both economically and environmentally. Since they're so affordable, you have plenty of options to upgrade on the cabinet accessories, like handles, pulls and paint.
Green Aspects of Modular Cabinets:
- Long-lasting: They're built sturdily and give you the option to make decisions about the construction methods used, such as opting for dovetail joints (which make the cabinets stronger) and adjustable shelves. Because this type of cabinet will last a long time, it won't need to be recycled or replaced any time soon.
- Easy to Transport: Usually, modular units can be built locally and you can pick them up yourself, cutting down on long-haul truck emissions.
- Green Options: They're often made from environmentally safe materials like urea formaldehyde-free particleboard, Wheatboard or bamboo.
Be careful when measuring modular cabinets. The old adage, "measure twice, cut once" is especially true in this case, since you won't have the chance to re-cut the cabinets once they're made. If possible, consult with an interior designer or have a cabinet expert help you out [source: Cabinet Revolution]. Often, the supplier will offer this professional service as part of the entire package.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) uses a 500-mile radius as its measurement of how locally transported a material is [source: LEED]. There are an enormous variety of opportunities to access local wood, if you know where to look.
Local Wood Sources:
- Local Mills/Lumberyards: Locally-owned lumber sources tend to be smaller, so there will be less waste and fewer production emissions. Check your local business listings to see if there is a saw mill within driving distance of you.
- Construction/De-construction Sites: If you volunteer your time to help with a local deconstruction project, you could be rewarded with all kinds of wood leftover from your hard work.
- Bulky Item Garbage Day: Most metro areas have a day (or days) each year in which the local waste management is willing to handle larger pieces of furniture. People will start pitching their old furniture (including cabinets and other wood products) into the front yard as soon as the announcement fliers go out. Troll your neighborhood in the days leading up to bulky item day -- you never know what you might find.
- Arborists: Most areas have local arborists and tree surgeons listed in the business pages. Your local tree surgeon will know when they're taking down a large tree and can advise you who to contact if you're interested in claiming the wood.
If you're an amateur or professional carpenter, consider local wood sources as a green option for your kitchen cabinets. Even if you hire a pro to do the cutting and measuring, you'll still be saving money -- and the Earth -- by opting to go with reclaimed and local woods.
Cabinets that are constructed well and made from good materials with low-toxicity sealants help the environment because they're easier to recycle and they last longer. That quality tends to cost more, however. There are three main things to keep in mind if you have quality cabinets built for your kitchen:
- Materials: Your cabinet boxes, frames and shelves should be made from plywood or solid wood. The shelves should have metal clips for adjustments in shelf placement. These materials will ensure that the cabinets have a long life and will be too durable for casual replacement later on.
- Construction: Craftsmanship goes a long way in making sure your cabinets hold up for many years. The cabinet-maker should use thicker panels for the boxes and shelves, as well as sturdy corner braces for reinforcement. There needs to be a substantial hang rail (a bracket that attaches the cabinets to the walls) and dovetail joints are preferable for drawers. Drawers should also feature thick bottom panels for durability and good slides, which will allow the drawer to function at optimal capacity.
- Finish: Kitchens are greasy, steamy and usually experience a lot of temperature changes, so the finish needs to be free of chemicals but also long-lasting. Look for finishes that are catalyzed and/or offer UV protection. Your varnish or lacquer needs to be durable and also attractive to give the cabinets a long, low-maintenance life [source: Kitchen Cabinets].
The kitchen design options for the environmentally-friendly consumer are plentiful, especially when it comes to cabinets If you keep yourself informed and keep your eyes open for the best deals, you can make stylish, cost-effective and green updates to your home.
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