I just moved to a new city so I could go back to school. Now I've got to furnish a new apartment on a graduate student's budget. Tell me, just how bad for the environment is a fake-wood bureau or bookcase?
One of the cardinal rules of green living is to invest in quality items that don't need to be replaced very often. But it's not always possible to buy that handcrafted, solid-oak bookcase, especially if you're living off a university stipend. So unless you're willing to let all your clothes and books sit in piles on the floor, you may as well educate yourself about the greenest options in your price range.
At the lower end of the furniture market, many pieces are constructed out of particleboard or a somewhat sturdier material called medium-density fiberboard. These do have at least one environmental edge over solid, virgin wood: They're made primarily from leftover sawdust and lumber scraps, so your new dresser won't require cutting down as many trees.
On the other hand, it takes more energy to produce particleboard and MDF 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. Plus, some of those scraps might have otherwise been burned as fuel at the factory. (Figures from New Zealand suggest that, on a pound-for-pound basis, the production of composite-wood products is more energy-efficient [PDF] than making plastics and most metals.)
Plywood is a third kind of composite panel, made of thin sheets of wood that are stacked and glued together. The wood comes from virgin timber, though manufacturers are able to squeeze out more from each log than those making solid wood products. Plywood and MDF are roughly equivalent in terms of the energy used to produce them.
Then there are air-quality issues. Particleboard, MDF, and plywood all have the potential to emit formaldehyde as off-gas because of the adhesives used in manufacturing. Formaldehyde can cause short-term health effects—like watery eyes and respiratory irritation—at levels above 0.1 parts per million. According to the EPA, homes with "significant amounts of new pressed wood" can have formaldehyde levels above 0.3 parts per million. Formaldehyde is also considered a "known human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a "probable human carcinogen" by the EPA. Cheap furniture is likely to emit higher levels of the gas, since low-formaldehyde replacement glues tend to be more expensive. (Plus, boards made with these glues need to be cured longer, further increasing the price of the finished product.)
Composite-wood products may soon be a safer option. California recently passed strict new emissions standards for the industry, which should eventually affect the rest of the country, given the size of the California market. In the meantime, if you're concerned, look for furniture made with low- or no-formaldehyde adhesives. (If your new bookcase smells a little off, leave it outside or in a room with an open window for a week—most off-gassing occurs in the early days of a product's life.) The greenest types of particleboard and MDF have high amounts of recycled content or use alternative fibers—like straw or sugarcane residue, known as bagasse—in place of wood.
Some retailers, like IKEA, are 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. The Lantern also likes the look of the modular furniture from Way Basics, which is made from post-consumer recycled-paper panels that the company claims are just as strong as particleboard.
Finally, if your new dresser contains any wood at all, you should spare a thought for how that wood was sourced. In an ideal world, you'd always be able to buy furniture that came with certification from a third-party group like the Forest Stewardship Council, but currently there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of FSC-approved stuff available in the budget price range. (There has been a stronger push toward certifying lawn furniture—but that might not be the vibe you're going for in your new place.) Regardless, you should always ask retailers where the wood comes from and what sustainability measures are in place at the point of harvest. You may not get more than a blank stare in return, but it's important to let companies know that these issues matter to you, especially given the fact that the United States' heavy appetite for wood products—we consume about a fifth of all global exports—has been implicated in widespread illegal logging in places like Indonesia and the Russian Far East.
Of course, the best option—for both the planet and your wallet—would be to buy secondhand pieces. Not only does buying used mean avoiding manufacturing impacts—not to mention lower formaldehyde emissions—you'll probably be able to get higher-quality (i.e., longer-lasting) pieces than you would have otherwise. The Lantern, for example, is inordinately proud of a gorgeous designer couch she bought last year for about a third of the original price. If you don't have a grandmother whose attic you can raid, scour junk shops, Craigslist, and Freecycle.