Don’t have the budget for solid-wood kitchen cabinets, but still want to avoid VOC emissions? You’re in luck. In recognition of the new school year, here’s a pop quiz: What do mussels – those delectable morsels from the sea best served in a white wine sauce – and plywood have in common? Can’t see the connection? Read on! Unless you, like some mussels, have been living under a rock, you will be aware of the growing hullabaloo about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and how we don’t want to be breathing them in.
The bad news is, if you’ve had non-solid wood kitchen cabinets installed recently or purchased furniture made of composite wood products, you may be doing just that. But there’s also good news. Governments and manufacturers have heard the ruckus about VOCs and taken action and, just when you thought you had all the possible options for kitchen cabinet materials nailed, out they come with new ones to confuse everyone. Hence this primer to bring you up to speed and make sense of it all.
It used to be that consumers had two extremes to choose from when they shopped for kitchen cabinets. The lower-cost options were cabinet components made of either particleboard, medium-density fibreboard (MDF) or plywood. These are all composite wood-panel products traditionally containing glues that, when they come to room temperature, emit VOCs in the form of potentially carcinogenic urea formaldehyde (UF). At the other end of the price extreme was solid wood, which doesn’t have this problem but costs more.
Many contractors still tell clients that their choices are “either/or,” and urge them to go for the higher-priced wood for various reasons. Luckily for consumers who don’t have the budget for a solid-wood kitchen but who want to avoid VOC emissions, this all changed about three years ago, says David Beattie of Rayette Forest Products, based in Concord, Ont. That was when Oregon-based Columbia Forest Products introduced PureBond, which Mr. Beattie describes as “a veneer core hardwood plywood made with glue containing zero UF. This plywood, whose layers are joined by a soy flour-based glue, is one of a growing number of alternatives to products in which UF-emitting glues are used. It was introduced by Columbia ahead of new industry standards in the United States – the toughest there to date – set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The story behind PureBond – and this is where the mussels come in – is rather romantic, although romance isn’t something you’d normally associate with plywood either. It seems that an Oregon State University researcher was vacationing along the Pacific Ocean.
While sitting on the beach watching the waves pound the shoreline, he noticed clumps of mussels clinging to the rocks. No amount of battering surf could dislodge them. What are they secreting, he wondered, that allows them to adhere to the rocks so solidly? In short, research into those secretions led to the soybean-based, zero-UF glue used in PureBond plywood. Columbia Forest Products says using PureBond is cost-neutral when compared with its former UF-emitting panel products. That’s despite the large expenditures the company says it has made to develop the product.
This is an important development, romantic beginnings aside, because, according to CARB findings, “The most significant source” of (UF) emissions we face on a daily basis comes from the composite woods in our furnishings and cabinetry. At this stage, the glues that work in zero-UF plywood aren’t being used for particleboard or MDF. Some sources say these adhesives simply don’t work with those materials, which have different natures than plywood. But there is something called “no added” UF particleboard, as well as a kind of MDF whose emissions are in the “acceptable” range.
Look for a particleboard called SkyBlend developed by Oregon-based Roseburg Forest Products and made with recycled and sustainable raw materials, and Arreis MDF, made by SierraPine, which is based in California. Both SkyBlend and Arreis are considered green building products that meet North American VOC-emissions standards. They, and PureBond, are readily available in Canada. With this kind of progress in the wood-products industry, Rayette’s Mr. Beattie predicts it won’t be long before all composite wood materials are formaldehyde free.
If you’re in the market for new kitchen cabinetry and your budget won’t cover solid wood models, discuss your material options with your contractor. It’s important to ensure that he’s up to speed on the latest technology and knows what your preferences are. Most general contractors have preferred cabinet suppliers. Find out if those suppliers offer a zero or low UF-emitting panel product. If your contractor still thinks there are only the two extremes to choose from, tell him about the mussels. I know that not everyone is up in arms about UF emissions.
Even if you aren’t, however, I still urge you to find out where your contractor’s cabinet supplier buys his composite wood products. If they’re coming from certain Third World countries, you could be getting third-rate quality along with those high UF levels. Some contractors will go the foreign route because it’s cheaper even though those materials often don’t meet our more stringent Canadian and North American standards. Canadian materials can cost more than those made in Third World countries.
For example, in an average-sized kitchen, using Canadian-produced panel materials is about $500 more expensive than if you went with the Third World products. Still, it’s not that big of a premium when you consider the benefits of buying Canadian: zero to low UF emissions, and the fact that you’re supporting our economy, our workers and our renewable forestry practices. I’m not even going to get into the whole human rights thing. As a friend of mine says, when it comes to buying Canadian and going as green as we can, “It’s all good. “