When it comes to furniture in our home, one of the greenest things we can do is to invest in quality pieces that'll last forever and won't end up in a landfill a few years later. But quite often those pieces, or the ones made with FSC-certified wood or reclaimed lumber, are also completely out of our price range. So when budget trumps our first choice, what are our other options, and how are they going to affect the environment?
This excellent article from Slate addresses the lower end furniture market and pieces constructed of particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), plywood, and other composite wood products. While it is better that particleboard and MDF are made primarily from leftover sawdust and lumber scraps rather than virgin wood, it takes more energy to produce them than it does to process lumber boards, since "the wood scraps must be broken down, dried, mixed with adhesives, and then heated and pressed into panels," not to mention the potential air quality issues. (The adhesives used in particleboard, MDF, and plywood manufacturing all have the potential to emit formaldehyde as off-gas.)
It's better to look for pieces made out of wood alternatives, like straw or sugarcane residue. Even IKEA (the #1 retailer that comes to mind when we think of "cheap" furniture and all its implications) is trying to green its furniture, "experimenting with lightweight panels made of a honeycomblike paper core sandwiched between two thin sheets of particleboard or MDF. These panels use less material than traditional composite panels, not to mention less energy in their manufacture and transport."
Ultimately, though, if you can't afford to buy responsibly-sourced new furniture, Slate says that the best option for the planet and for your budget is to buy secondhand. You're much more likely to get a high-quality piece of furniture—an antique even—that you'll love and keep for years.
• Read More: The Eco-Perils of Cheap Decor at Slate
(Image: Flickr member Denis Defreyne licensed for use under Creative Commons. Originally published 2009-09-15)