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Innovative Recycled-Content Furnishings

Posted on Apr 21 2009 by Annette Stelmack, GBA Advisor

A Breath of Fresh Air from Product Designers

Today, when you walk into most retail furniture stores, you find furnishings that contain formaldehydeChemical found in many building products; most binders used for manufactured wood products are formaldehyde compounds. Reclassified by the United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2004 as a “known human carcinogen." and volatile organic compounds (VOCVolatile organic compound. An organic compound that evaporates readily into the atmosphere; as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic compounds that volatize and then become involved in photochemical smog production.)s and are resource intensive to manufacturer. More than likely, many are also imported with minimal environmental regulations. In recent years, innovative furniture designers have been working hard to change this process of manufacturing, introducing products made with high recycled content, reclaimed materials, and low-emitting adhesives and finishes. Some are even recyclable at the end of their life spans.

Vote with your pocketbook
As consumers, we control what we buy and send loud messages to retailers and manufacturers when we insist on products that are designed toxin free, made from recycled, reclaimed, and renewable resources and simply assembled. Look for furniture made simply, with a minimal amount of materials, and self-locking assembly or mechanical fasteners that use the least adhesive—all of which facilitates end-of-life recycling.

The good news is that using recycled and reclaimed products saves such resources as trees, electricity, and water, and diverts waste from landfills. Making such products promotes "closing the loop" and supports a market for post- and pre-consumer waste.

More good news!
Innovative designers around the country are producing furnishings that meet these strategies. Take a peek at just a few of my favorites:

  • Cardboard Bookshelves — This is a personal favorite of mine – made in America from recyclables with nontoxic adhesives, and they're recyclable too! For years I wanted to add bookshelves to our bedroom hallway, and of course it was imperative that they be made from reclaimed and/or recycled materials. I found the "perfect" shelving unit — it was cost effective ($400 with shipping) and made from a high percentage of secondary fiber from old corrugated containers, kraft paper, and old newspapers. All of these materials were diverted from the solid waste stream and turned into beautiful cardboard shelving. We assembled the interlocking pieces, and it has displayed our books for more than five years now without sagging. According to CardBoarDesign, in 2002 more than 23 million tons of cardboard were recovered and recycled in the U.S. In addition, the use of cardboard board has led to a significant source reduction of raw materials.
  • Cortica Cork Chaise Lounge — Taking a 180-degree turn, check out the exquisite handmade pieces by Daniel Michalik from Brooklyn, New York. He uses reclaimed pure cork waste material from the bottle-stopper industry, and with non-toxic, marine-grade adhesive, creates original pieces. Cortica is a striking, full-size chaise lounge made of reclaimed cork (also a renewable material) that is lightweight, naturally waterproof (and buoyant!), and impervious to rot and mold. Plus, the flexibility and cushioning inherent to cork makes for a comfortable escape for indoor or outdoor spaces.
  • Vintage Belts Floor Mat — Fantastic ingenuity on the part of TING studios in the UK, a floor mat that is made from recycled vintage leather belts mounted on a reconstituted leather backing with water-based glue. What more could you ask for? This handsome, handmade floor mat is made of artfully assembled vintage leather belts that have been rescued on their way from waist to waste. Its rich tones, textures, and tread-friendly patina evoke the look of a wonderfully worn wood floor. Each mat is a one-of-a-kind creation; colors and characteristics vary, and the average size is 27.5" in diameter.
  • Kumo Chair — An airy, Asian-inspired chair from designer Peter Danko (kumo is Japanese for "cloud") perfectly describes this comfortable chair (I’ve done the sit test). It’s made from postindustrial recycled belting and provides a suspension alternative to polyurethane foam (yeah!). The belting is durable, strong, easy to clean and available in colors to go with every room. Of course the wood frame is from certified forests, and adhesives and finishes are nontoxic and water-based.
  • Scrapile — This collaboration among designers who seek to create a positive environmental impact with their work by collecting, recovering, and repurposing discarded lumber scraps from New York’s woodworking industry leads to unique tables, benches, and stools.
  • Fire & Water's cycLED Pendant — David Bergman, an architect and designer friend in New York, has designed an environmentally friendly line of light fixtures that are whimsical, practical, and leave a small footprint. One of my favorites is "cycLED," which is made from recycled glass "pebbles" and a salvaged bicycle wheel — why didn’t I think of that? Using either color-changing or white LEDs, it is energy-efficient and puts a smile on my face. The manufacturer takes into account the energy usage on all of its products in addition to eco-friendly packaging and office practices.

These designers demonstrate that, by using recycled and reclaimed materials, we save precious resources, like trees. Saving our trees is a good thing, as they take decades to grow, miraculously add oxygen to the atmosphere, and work hard to remove carbon — providing us with clean, fresh air!


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