Eco-Friendly Cabinets

With homes increasingly air tight, eco-friendly cabinets are more important than ever.

By Maureen Blaney Flietner | Updated Jul 31, 2020 11:52 AM

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Green Cabinetry


Cabinetry is commonplace in kitchens, bathrooms, and often home offices and family rooms. But while durability, style, and color often dominate our selections, other factors to consider are the effects on indoor air quality and the sustainability of the materials.

Cabinets are often made from pressed wood products, such as particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling, and medium-density fiberboard. The problem is that these materials typically contain formaldehyde, one of the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are emitted as gases from certain solids and liquids, including various paints, lacquers, and binders.

With homes increasingly air tight, the release of VOCs into the air can present significant health risks, from asthma to cancer. While VOC levels may decrease over time, they can linger for years, and with people spending about 90 percent of their time indoors, that is a problem.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does regulate formaldehyde as a carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency says it is advisable to mitigate formaldehyde that is present at levels higher than 0.1 parts per million parts of air, but there is no standard regulating other VOCs in non-industrial settings. Key symptoms of exposure to VOCs range from watery eyes, burning throat, or headache to difficulty in breathing and dizziness.

Given the possible presence of VOCs and other chemicals, here are things to keep in mind if you are considering cabinets for a new home or a remodeling project:

  • Look for cabinets made of materials with third-party verification of source or safety.
  • If someone in the household has specific chemical sensitivities, get samples of the materials and finishes you are considering. Review the Material Data Safety Sheets to pinpoint any specific known substances. If there are none, allow household members to live with these choices to determine if they will work.
  • Obtain and review the MSD sheets. Contact the cabinetmaker. If the cabinets are imported, contact the importer or distributor regarding your concerns and ask for manufacturing details.
  • Consider cabinet cores made from marine grade plywood (not particleboard or interior-grade plywood), which emits lower formaldehyde levels.
  • Avoid cabinets made from conventional particleboard and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) produced with urea-formaldehyde binder, especially in moist locations, such as the bathroom, says USGBC’s Ashley Katz. The material is highly susceptible to moisture damage. Water or even high humidity can swell these panel products. Repeated exposure to moisture can cause de-lamination or decomposition.
  • Check for the safety of finishes and adhesives. Having a finish that is water-based, for example, does not necessarily mean it is low-VOC. Check with the cabinetmaker.
  • Go eco-friendly with your cabinet hardware as well, suggests green designer Annette Stelmack. Check out shops that offer such treasures as recycled glass, aluminum and bronze, cork, eco-resin and antique pulls, hinges, handles and knobs.
  • When ordering cabinets, specify the needs for low- or no-VOCs and third-party certified wood to be assured that you are not getting default—and perhaps non-green—components.
  • If you have already installed new cabinets and found that they do contain formaldehyde or other VOCs, increase the ventilation in your home. If you are worried about formaldehyde, use dehumidifiers and air conditioning to control humidity, maintain a moderate temperature to help reduce emissions, and ventilate your home.

Get the Details
It can be useful to work with an interior designer versed in green products and with access to such professional green information sources as Building Green, according to Annette K. Stelmack of Louisville, CO, a green building expert who is a past chair for the American Society of Interior Designers’ National Sustainable Design Council. Those going it alone on their cabinet project should ask for and review the Material Safety Data (MSD) sheet that lists everything that goes into a product. It can often be found on the Web site of the cabinetmaker, says Stelmack.

As consumers demand more green choices in cabinetry, the industry is responding. One pioneering cabinet maker, Neil Kelly Cabinets of Portland, OR, went green more than 10 years ago, according to Mark Smith, chief executive officer. In 1998 the company came out with its Naturals collection, which used no-added-urea-formaldehyde agri-board panels, binders and glues, FSC-certified wood veneers and low VOC glues, adhesives and finishes. It was the first in the U.S. market with a full range of environmentally friendly materials and construction techniques.

With the success of that line, the company decided to make everything environmentally friendly. It continues its research so that it can meet increasingly tougher government mandates.

Wheat straw produced in the Minnesota area becomes the cores for a green line of cabinets produced by Koch Cabinets of Ashland, OR. According to Advertising Manager Betsy Macke, wheatboard has proven to be just as strong as particleboard, is a rapidly renewable resource growing in a single season, and is made without formaldehyde.

Neil Kelly’s green cabinets meet LEED Green Building Rating System® specifications for low-emitting materials and rapidly renewable resources. Its products may help projects earn points toward LEED® Certification. All adhesives used in assembling the cabinets meet LEED Green Building Rating System standards and are compliant with California Air Resources Board air quality standards. Hardwoods available for cabinets are certified through the PEFC, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes based in Geneva, Switzerland, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes sustainably managed forests through independent third-party certification.

Designer Stelmack says other renewable materials are also finding their way into cabinets. Kirei board, for example, is an engineered product using the stalks of sorghum plants, and bamboo is used in a laminated plywood under the trademark Plyboo®. Reclaimed wood also is popular, she says.

“Re-using existing cabinetry is always preferred, especially if the cabinets are in good condition and pose no threat to the health of the people living in the home,” says Ashley Katz, communications manager for the U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington, DC. “Using salvaged cabinetry can be a way to reduce the impacts of manufacturing new goods, as well as reducing the amount of material entering landfills. While the variety of cabinetry materials once was sparse and limiting, now the choices for environmentally friendly cabinetry materials are endless, and we expect this trend to continue,” says Katz.