The Low Down On Green Living
December 18th, 2008
If you are planning a home improvement project, chances are you’ve spent some time thinking about how to make that project a green one. You’ve probably started thinking about countertops or tile made from recycled material, no-VOC paints, and Energy Star lighting, appliances and windows. But have you thought much about one of most basic but critical parts of your project, the wood you use?
Wood is likely to be one of the biggest components of any significant remodeling or new construction project. And, if grown and harvested correctly, wood is a sustainble product - what is cut can then regrow. Unfortunately, in today’s global forestry markets much wood is harvested in unsustainble ways that contribute to global warming, damage or destroy ecosystems, and kill threatened or endangered wildlife. And manufactured wood products like plywood and particleboard often contain harmful chemicals that can impact your family’s health for many years to come.
Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to ferret out what’s green vs. what’s not when you’re talking about wood. Where did the wood come from and how was it harvested? What type of tree does it come from, and what is its lifecycle? And what if any chemicals does the wood product contain? We’ll go through each of these questions and give you some pointers.
First, what should you know about where wood comes from? In today’s global forest products market, wood we use here in the US can come from anywhere. It’s nearly impossible to tell where it came from and how it was grown on your own, but fortunately a number of groups are stepping in to do the dirty work. Nonprofit, government and industry groups have launched a set of certification standards over the past couple of decades that provide some certainty that your wood is coming from sustainable sources. Tops on the list is the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC. You should seek out FSC wood, for FSC’s standards are very high and their third-party audit requirements are the toughest in the industry. Other standards include the Sustainble Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management certification system. These standards are not as stringent as FSC, but they are a significant improvement over non-certified wood. It can be tough to find certified wood at your local lumberyard, but we’ll cover more on that below.
Second, if you have a choice, should you choose one type of tree/wood over another? The answer is definitely “yes”. The most sustainble wood products are those made from what are called “rapidly renewable materials.” Bamboo falls into this category, as do some harder-to-find products such as wheatboard and strawboard (made out of compressed agricultural waste products). These materials regrow in less than five years, while many trees take 30 years or more to reach a harvestable size. When they are cut, it will take at least that long for them to grow back.
When selecting wood for framing, flooring or cabinetry, it is better to buy types grown in the US rather than exotic woods such as teak and mahogany from overseas (unless they are FSC certified). In the US our base standards, although not perfect, are generally better than those found overseas. If you are looking for something special that will truly stand out, consider buying reclaimed wood. This is wood that often comes from old buildings that has been carefully salvaged and reprocessed into convenient forms and sizes. As with many things, they don’t make wood like they used to, so this re-used lumber not only has a beauty that only comes with age but is also higher quality than most wood you can find today. We have a few great sources listed on Low Impact Living, including Carlisle and Conklin’s Barnwood.
Finally, what about composite wood products such as plywood, particleboard and fiberboard? The glues and resins that bind these products together often contain harmful chemicals such as urea formaldehyde. These chemicals can be released into the air for years after the wood is installed, impacting the long-term health of you and your family. You’ve probably heard about the health problems associated with FEMA’s “Katrina Trailers”. They were mostly caused by urea formaldehyde being released from the composite wood used in the trailers.
Look for composite wood products that are labeled “formaldehyde-free” or that contain phenol formaldehyde instead of urea formaldehyde (phenol formaldehyde only offgases at high temperatures). Better yet, search out products that are formaldehyde-free AND are made from rapidly renewable materials or FSC-certified wood. Kirei, for example, makes stunning composite alternatives out of a variety of renewable materials. These products probably cost a bit more, but the potential savings on doctors’ bills down the road make it a worthwhile investment!
Now the hard part - where do you find all of these eco-friendly wood options? It can be pretty frustrating to find eco-friendly lumber and wood products. Some of the major home improvement chains now carry certified and eco-friendly wood products, but try asking a typical salesperson there and most will look at you like you’re from Mars. So, it’s worth calling ahead to your local Home Depot or Lowe’s and speaking with someone in the know in the lumber department. Ask for a manager, and perhaps you’ll get lucky and find the products you’re looking for in stock. A good alternative is to visit the websites of leading manufacturers - they’ll typically list local dealers. One example is Columbia Forest Products. They offer both certified wood and formaldehyde-free plywood and have a good geographical search function on their site. You can also find sources of sustainable woods in the Green Building Materials: Framing Lumber & Plywood, Green Building Materials: Finish Woods, Flooring & Carpet and Green Retail Outlets sections on Low Impact Living.
Remember, one of the most powerful tools we have in our fight for a more sustainable world is purchasing power. If enough of us spend the time and money to buy more sustainable products, then retailers and manufacturers will have no choice but to carry more of them!
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