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Green By Design Episode 303: Materials Deep Dive - Eco-Friendly Wood Furniture


Hi, again. This week on Green by Design, we are discussing wood and the best way to incorporate green options into your project.


Hi, this is Erica Reiner from Eco Method Interiors and today we're looking into wood of all kinds. And in the interior design industry, it was one of the first areas to garner some attention around being, surrounding sustainability. And you may think you know everything that is to know, but we're gonna do a deep dive into the different types of sustainable and not so sustainable applications of wood and variations. So maybe this topic got popular because we were told as kids to save the rainforest. I think it gained steam because the aesthetics of reclaimed and vintage wood is so attractive to so many people. And when you can combine a feel good with the good aesthetics, you've got a winning combination. So let's jump in.


What are the basic differences between a conventional product of this type versus alternative products that could be considered cleaner or greener?


So the difference between conventional lumber used for furniture, cabinetry and flooring is largely divided by the origin point of where and how the tree was sourced. So typical conventional lumber used for case goods, flooring, cabinetry, all those things in any interior design project is from, like, new growth virgin trees cut down from any managed or unmanaged forest or old growth area. Anything from important habitats, farms, forests managed by really responsible people or a complete lack of responsibility and old growth and important habitat, stuff like that. So you have the full range when it comes to those new trees.

Conventional engineer wood, this is stuff like plywood, MDF, or particle board which have differences in the production and the resulting density and durability, which applies to the different uses of these composite woods. These are all made from wood fibers that it was initially invented as ways to use the off cuts and scraps and saw dust and take that waste and remake it into something useful, which is really good. And we'll get into some of the cons later. So basically these fibers are wood fibers or cellulose that have to be softened in a softening process and made into something that can be molded together. So it's softened and then adhered together using bresin or chemical adhesives and binding agents.

So it was typically wood fibers and cellulose source from wood by-product or whether it's some kind of waste product, but it could also come from the logging industry from pieces that were too small or deformed to be used in regular lumber or furniture pieces that aren't any good. And then the downside of this is of course the chemicals inputs and the softening process and the adhesive process that are used to create this wood like substance. And then the end result, depending on how strong, you know, whether it's MDF, plywood or particle board, like how long are each of those going to last? It's not gonna be as long as solid wood. So that's kind of the overview.


Are there types or levels of these better alternative products?


So for the different types of greener alternatives, this is what we have. We have the virgin wood that we talked about that comes from a new tree. It's cut down, it's processed, it's turned into a floor plank or a piece of lumber for furniture, cabinetry, whatever it is. So although it might be from a new tree, it might be certified, and this would mean that the management of the forest or farm that it came from meets certain environmental and social criteria standards and doesn't come from precious habitats, old growth, orangutan habitats, anything like that, and that they're careful about how much and when they are chopping down trees. So that's really the crux of it.

Now, we've all heard of reclaimed wood. This is solid wood that was cut from, that was from trees and originally used for, like, a barn or a house or turned into flooring or whatever it might be. But now that barn's being torn down or that old house is being torn down and they're taking out the old floorboards or doors or whatever it might be that's made from that old wood, but it is still good. Railroad ties are another one. So there's no new trees that are being cut down. They're taking the old pieces and they just have to clean them. They kiln and dry them to remove any bugs or rot or anything like that. And then sometimes you need to remove old finishing products, like if it's been stained or painted with something. I think that reclaimed wood is really, really, really beautiful. It has, like, this texture and this uniqueness and coloring that a lot of people really like.

Salvaged wood is a little bit different from reclaimed wood. So it was never, it is lumber from virgin trees that were cut down, but unlike virgin wood, it is, and just like, you know, regular sources, it actually was cut down because it had to be. So it wasn't taken necessarily from a forest, although it could be if there was some sort of safety reason or fire reason. So usually a lot of this comes from sometimes urban areas where like a tree needs to be cut down because it is gonna fall on someone's house or someone needs to remove it because they choose to, or whatever it is. Like there's a tree being taken out or it fell down already in a forest instead of chopping it up. And so what do you do with that tree? Actually, a lot of times it can be sent to get chipped and into a landfill or chipped and into whatever it might be. So people come in and salvage it from the folks that are hired to cut down the tree and turn it into something useful, whether again, that application is for flooring or shelving. These are salvaged wood shelves behind me from here in Los Angeles. A salvager that, and this is like a local species, and so they cut 'em up and stained them for me and there you have it. So stuff like that. So that's difference between reclaimed and salvaged.

And then there are eco alternatives to composite woods that we talked about before, the MDF plywood and stuff like that. So let's take a look at those. The most interesting one I've seen right now is an MDF that is the cellulose. The fiber is not necessarily made out of the wood chips or fibers but it's actually made out of the stocks or straws of the rice plant as an agricultural byproduct, which is normally disposed of by flooding the land, which is not good or burning it, which is not good for carbon emissions or burying it, which is not good for methane emissions. So if we have a good way of reusing an agricultural byproduct, I'm almost always in favor of that. And even better, this particular product is saying that it has no formaldehyde, which is the main problem with those composite woods. I don't think it's very common for the market yet, and I will be looking forward to seeing it being ubiquitously used. There's a company here in California that is making some, so that would be great. That kind of hits two ecological birds with one stone, so to speak.

There's lots of decking composites. And I think this is a great application because it's the exterior of a residence or commercial building. So you're not necessarily breathing in any of the off gassing of formaldehyde or resins or plasticizers or whatever it is that's going to go into the recycled wood, upcycled wood fiber and recycled plastic material. So that's really cool too, is when you get composite decking made from recycled plastic bags or milk jugs with the upcycled saw dust and combined together into this really, like, hardy material that you probably don't even have to stain and seal as much as regular wood decking. So that's a great application for eco composites. And then alternatively you can, there are companies that are doing a better job at making MDF with less chemical content and nothing fancy about it.

So for instance, I found this company through the Parsons School of Design called, that they listed, called Roseburg, and their product is called Medite II MDF and it's made out of 92 recycled wood cellulose content, but there's no added formaldehyde. So that means there is naturally occurring formaldehyde in the wood product, but there's none added, so it's gonna be lower. And then as for the resin, the adhesive that binds it all together, their level is at 7% isocyanate resin, which is not quite 7%, which is a little bit over 3% less than most standard resins. So is it completely perfect? No, but is it better? Yes. So these guys, as an example, there's a few other companies doing this get into this equal composite category.

Lastly, although you may or may not know that bamboo is not really a wood, it's a grass, but it is used all over these days. You're seeing it everywhere, has a similar story to the engineer wood we talked about before. It started off as a great alternative. The sustainability aspect is because it renews so rapidly, you know, take a solid wood tree, it might take decades or hundreds of years to grow to the size it is before you chop it down. But bamboo is growing so, so quickly in comparison to that. It's rapidly renewable is what we call it. However, I'm not convinced about bamboo because there's a huge amount of consumption of it now. And I really wonder, like, about the management and origin of the, of the bamboo. Is it from irresponsibly and illegally sourced habitats? Like, did it cause the destruction of the panda habitat that people are working so hard to restore? So I think it's origin is really important. And same thing with the toxicity element. You can engineer, you know, really these really thin layers and composites of bamboo that required the same amount of adhesives and chemical inputs for the softening and application of bamboo. It's in everything now from, like, paper towels and clothing, but it goes from this, like, really hard stick to a soft fiber. And they do that with lots and lots of chemical inputs and processing water, waste water processing hopefully, energy inputs, all of that stuff. So it's not a very clean solution to me.

So the order that I would put the green alternatives in would be the following. I think what starts off as good would be the FSC or SFI certified, and I'll explain that in a minute, virgin wood. So this means it came from a managed forest and supply chain that met very specific environmental and social standards in order to get that certification. Not from, you know, taking into consideration biodiversity loss and social ethics and you know, making sure that they're not cutting down too many trees at once. All those kinds of things that they look for. I think the next best is gonna be the salvaged wood or reclaimed wood or eco composite wood with the byproduct with the really low, for the composites, the really low no added formaldehyde options. Other than that, salvage wood, reclaimed wood, pretty self explanatory. Now the level above that that I think would be best is if we could get certified reclaimed, finished solid wood. So FSC does have certifications for reclaimed products. So if the wood was solid, it's gonna last forever and just be really, you know, a better high quality. It's gonna have much less naturally occurring formaldehyde, no added formaldehyde, if you can get it certified that it actually is reclaimed and they're not just saying that and like taking new wood and distressing it to look old. And then once you have it, whatever piece of furniture or flooring using the natural or no VOC, wet applied products, like stains and stuff like that, that would be the best. In that, in that order.


What certifications are out there to assist when sourcing these kinds of products?


So certifications that can help guide us on what to buy and what not to buy. Let's go through them. I mentioned FSC - Forestry Stewardship Certified. Nope, Forestry Stewardship Council. So in order to have the FSC certification, the forest has to be managed in an environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial and economically viable manner. It's an international standard and has an independent monitoring body ensuring that the forestry meets certain standards and it's created to prevent illegal timber being consumed, habitats being destroyed, stuff like that. Okay, so the next one is called PEFC - Program for the Endorsement Forest Certificates. It's a European certification that is also looking to promote sustainable forestry management, third party certifications. It addresses independent forestry management with international criteria. And so they work with usually smaller providers, smaller scale landowners, and stuff like that. And they say that they like to pick up on that scale where FSC leaves off.

SFI - Sustainable Forestry Initiative has many different kinds of certifications that you can get depending on who you are across the supply chain. With the whole goal that of course are having a positive impact on carbon reduction, biodiversity loss, all the, you know, watersheds, all the environmental standards that the rest pay attention to as well. So for the engineered woods, the composite woods, CARB2 is a good certification. It's based on the California, that's what CARB, is California Resources Board Standards for indoor air quality. And so specifically CARB2 looks at the regulations for formaldehyde emissions. And this is for plywood, particle board, MDF, and it uses third party certifiers that are looking and testing the emissions specifically for, formaldehyde because formaldehyde, as I've mentioned, hopefully, you know, is pretty toxic to human health and depending on, you know, how much and for how long you're exposed to it. But this is what we're avoiding here.

Greenguard Gold, I threw this one in as well because they also are looking for air quality standards, volatile organic emissions and formaldehyde is included in that. So you will often see pieces of furniture that are Greenguard Gold or Greenguard Formaldehyde even certified. And so this might be different than the CARB2 certification given to like an actual piece of plywood that the contractor in your house is gonna use to, like, make your built- in shelves across the fireplace or whatever it might be. The Greenguard you'll probably often see on things like the crib you're gonna put in your nursery or whatever it might be, and especially things that are not solid wood. So those are the things that I'm looking for and those are the certifications that stand out as the most important right here.


What are the pros and cons of these alternative options?


Okay, so we talked a little bit about the environmental pros and cons of some of these green alternatives to just conventional wood that could come from anywhere, anytime. And so the other pros and cons would be expense, and expense would be a con in this instance. So having something certified does take money and so that is passed on to the consumer. And frankly, the reason why these really cheap pieces of furniture or flooring exist is because they're getting them from some kind of irresponsible source where, or a black market or whatever it might be that does make it super, super cheap <laugh>. So even when you look at composite woods compared to solids the main benefit there is cost. The composite wood Ikea shelf was made in a process that was much less expensive than the solid wood and the, you know, maybe even the handmade time it takes to make a particular piece. The other thing that could go either way pro or con is the aesthetics. I've said that I think the look and the feel and the texture of reclaimed vintage wood is so, so beautiful, but that might actually be a con for some people depending on their vibe and their style and their aesthetic. And if they want super modern, super clean like austere kind of look and vibe, reclaimed is probably not for you in that regard. So a little bit to think about there.


What company is doing a good job in this category and what do they sell?


So one company that comes to mind that is doing a good job for the wood aspect of their pieces of furniture would be Copeland Furniture. They do test for formaldehyde emissions, and they do, let's see, okay, so that's for formaldehyde and the other grouping of VOCs for off gassing, and is considered to be low VOC emissions, their furniture. They are a founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. All of their adhesives and coatings used in their wood furniture goods have very low off gassing and emissions. They do use FSC certified wood and in the manufacturing of their products from the raw goods and lumber, in this case, to the finished product, they are using solar panels on their building and all of the waste wood that they have, they reuse as heat for the manufacturing building process. So it's really energy efficient what they're doing and I think all of that together makes them a really good example.

My next example is Angel City Lumber and 805 Woodworks. Both of those are local reclaimers. Angel City is, I've talked about them on this podcast before. We had one of the founders on, these are the guys that salvaged this tree locally in LA that then became my shelf. And my fireplace Mantle. 805 Woodworks does something very similar in their territory.

And lastly I'm gonna mention Fireside Lodge. This is a company that makes pretty rustic pieces of furniture, think, you know, like industrial style, rustic cabin style, all that kind of stuff. So it is a very specific aesthetic. They also heat their facilities with wood waste byproduct from the off cuts that they're not using in a smokeless boiler. And then they use locally harvested cedar for a lot of their wood. According to them, down to the last twig. They use repurposed barn wood instead of new wood. So they do use a lot of reclaimed stuff in a whole. They have an entire line of product of reclaimed wood. They do use low VOC and nontoxic stains and finishes. And for the composite stuff, whether it's like the inner pieces of a complex piece of furniture, whatever they need it for, they do use only CARB2 compliant plywoods. So I think that they, with all of those different standards, are a really good example of what to look for. Okay. So that's it. You now know all the ins and outs of wood goods, case goods, the differences between them, the healthier and better alternatives, and what to look for when you are sourcing for clients that care about this. Okay. Thank you so much for joining me on this deep dive into wood today.

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