A Guide To Sustainable Residence Hall Furniture
How can you ensure that your dorm furniture is made from sustainable, safe, and long-lasting material? Is it possible and affordable to meet the highest environmental standards when selecting furniture for your residence halls?
There’s a lot of confusion and even misinformation on this topic in our industry.
That’s why we created this guide. To help you sort through the details and determine what level of sustainability you want in your furniture.
I probably don’t need to tell you this, but most students are idealists. These days, they want to know how their furniture is made and if it meets high environmental standards. But the values of sustainability go beyond the idealism of college students.
The recent Climate Summit in Paris, which garnered unprecedented international commitment, was perhaps the most significant global referendum on the topic of sustainability to date.
Like never before, the world is making the health and welfare of our biosphere a priority. With this in mind, you still need to balance idealism with the very real considerations of cost and the limits of your budget.
One of your first considerations when choosing residence hall furniture that is sustainable is the material used in construction. In this guide, we explore three of the top options: 1. environmentally farmed timber (EFT); 2. laminates; and 3. solid hardwood.
In this guide, we’ll help you answer questions like:
- What materials are used to make residence hall furniture?
- What is rubberwood and how sustainable is it?
- What is wood laminate and how sustainable is it?
- What is solid hardwood and how sustainable is it?
- What is the most sustainable material for residence hall furniture?
What Is Sustainability?
First of all, what is sustainability? When discussing sustainability, you have to consider the three pillars of social, environmental, and economic impact.
Within that triad, the environmental is the top consideration and primary focus of this article. According to Herman Daly, an early pioneer of environmental sustainability, a strict definition of environmental sustainability must include the three following criteria:
- For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield);
- For pollution, the rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal); and
- For nonrenewable resources the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource.
The Most Sustainable Furniture Materials
When you’re shopping for residence hall furniture, there’s a wide spectrum of choice. Should you get furniture made from rubberwood, which is an EFT (environmentally farmed timber) or should you buy an attractive laminate? Maybe you want to consider long-lasting solid hardwood like oak, ash, or maple?
All of these have strengths and weaknesses from a sustainability point of view. So let’s take a closer look at the big three: rubberwood, wood laminates, and solid hardwood. (And here’s a spoiler. The out and out winner when it comes to sustainability is solid hardwood. But let’s examine why.)
Rubberwood (Hevea brasiliensis) is grown and harvested in Southeast Asia (China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar). It’s cultivated on tree farms for use in rubber production and then harvested en masse to build furniture.
Big Carbon Footprint
From a climate change and pollution perspective, H. brasiliensis has a big carbon footprint because you have to transport it nearly 10,000 miles to the United State to be used in the manufacturing of residence hall furniture.
H. brasiliensis is a genuine hardwood. However, it’s vulnerable to fungal and insect attack after harvest, so it has to undergo chemical treatment and kiln drying to make it suitable for use in furniture production.
Compared to natural hardwoods like oak, maple, or ash, H. brasiliensis requires significant energy and resource inputs to make it fit for furniture production, further increasing its carbon footprint.
So it’s important to remember, before the rubberwood has even arrived in the United States for manufacturing, it’s already left a big carbon footprint through 1. the energy required to ship it across the world and 2. the energy and materials used to make it fit for furniture production.
Dubious Environmental Designation
Typically, rubberwood is advertised as an "environmentally friendly" wood, because it uses plantation trees that have already served a useful function as the world’s primary source of latex rubber.
This is a plus from a sustainability vantage point because it extends the productive life of the tree and delays carbon emission--which is released in decomposition--from entering the atmosphere.
And yet, according to The Nature Conservancy, it’s hard to determine the veracity of claims around the environmental pedigree of H. brasiliensis without proper certification from the most reliable third party, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Because of this, and because rubberwood plantations are known to supplant ecologically precious rainforests, the ‘environmental’ designation of H. brasiliensis is openly questioned by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
And it’s important to note here that TNC is a very conservative science-based organization. It’s not an activist network like Greenpeace or Earthfirst! So we take their reservations seriously.
Furthermore, tree plantations growing popular species like H. brasiliensis have unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences on the ecosystem. The folks at the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) put it in perspective here.
“Because a lot of the world has decided plantations are 'green' (greener), people are boycotting tropical timber and choosing plantation wood. As a result, many developing nations are burning their native forests to plant imported plantation species.
And it gets worse. Demand for H. brasiliensis is skyrocketing. As a result, according to a recent article in National Geographic, the proliferating Hevea brasiliensis tree farms are causing:
One of the biggest, fastest ecological transformations in human history. In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar rubber farmers have cut or burned down forests and planted row after row after row of H. brasiliensis. In the process, they are converting one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems into a monoculture as uniform as a Kansas wheat field, potentially threatening the basic ecological functions of an area inhabited by tens of millions of people.
Elizabeth Baldwin from NWFA further expands on this point.
Many plantations, being made of single species and well-trimmed, often do not hold a variety of wildlife. They are generally more susceptible to disease and insect attack, and often to fires as well. And many plantations are NOT sustainable for years without extensive chemical support.”
Here’s the bottom line. This so called “green” option for furniture is dubious at best. I encourage you to read our in-depth report on rubberwood (Why Rubberwood Is Not Sustainable) and take time to follow up on this research before choosing furniture manufactured with H. brasiliensis.
Wood Laminate (or Laminate)
One variety of engineered wood is called wood laminate or simply laminate. This wood alternative is produced by taking wood byproducts, like sawdust or paper, and adding melamine resin and then heating it in a kiln and pressing it into sheets.
Melamine resin (melamine formaldehyde) is a hard, synthetic, thermosetting plastic material made from melamine and formaldehyde through polymerization most often used in high pressure decorative laminates.
Essentially, it’s man made wood--a blend of plastic, wood, and chemicals.
Laminate Is Not A Renewable Resource
Unlike real wood, laminate furniture requires a manufacturing process to create the raw material. So before you even start producing the furniture, it requires an energy-intensive production process to create the laminate. There’s nothing renewable about it.
For comparison, think about renewable a resources like solid hardwood. It’s completely renewable and only requires a seed, soil, sunlight and water to grow.
The advantage to manufacturers is that these materials are cheap and so is energy. Consequently, laminate furniture is often cheaper than wood. Additionally, most laminate is imported from China, where companies can get the cheapest rates for labor and the lowest environmental standards of production.
Laminate Is Bad for the Climate
So what’s the carbon footprint of laminate? First you have to combine the energy required to create wood laminate and the energy for manufacturing with the fuel required to ship the materials vast distances from outside the USA.
Then you need to consider that most of that will be powered by fossil fuels.
Finally, China is mostly powered by coal, the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels. The result is a huge carbon footprint.
You Can’t Recycle Laminate
Unlike trees, you can’t recycle laminate. Also, you can’t refinish it and give it a second or third life like you can with furniture made from wood. In the end, it lands in the dump.
Furthermore, the resins, glues, and urea necessary to create wood laminate are often toxic. Thankfully, there are strict regulations limiting the most toxic of these materials. But if you buy furniture made from laminate, make sure it has third party certification by FSC, NSF, Greenguard, and MAS Green.
According to the Green Home Guide, there are other issues. You should also consider the life cycle of the material. On that count, laminate ranks low. They point out that:
- Laminate is easy to maintain but ranks low on the durability quotient because it cannot be easily fixed or refinished if damaged.
- At the end of its useful life, it gets pitched into a landfill, where its ability to decompose is minimal.
- It’s difficult to quantify what chemicals, if any, will leach from laminates once they hit the landfill or would be emitted into the air if placed in an incinerator.
You might find this surprising, but solid hardwood is one of the most sustainable materials for building residence hall furniture. Why? There a number of reasons.
Wood Is A Renewable Resource
Solid hardwoods are a renewable resource. That means that it can be replenished naturally. That’s not true for wood laminates or other engineered woods which require high energy inputs to manufacture, thereby increasing the carbon footprint.
In fact, solid hardwood requires zero inputs. That means that it requires no energy, toxic materials, or additional processes to create. Just soil, air, water, sun. Plant a see, leave it alone, and you get a magnificent renewable resource.
The truth is, you couldn't dream up a better material as a basis for sustainable manufacturing.
Wood Has A Long Life Cycle
From a life cycle analysis perspective, wood ranks high. It’s durable and it stays out of the landfill for a long time. Unlike wood laminate and other engineered woods, solid wood can have multiple lifetimes through refinishing.
In fact, the historic Faneuil Hall Market in Boston still uses tables that we built over 40 years ago.
Bottom line, solid hardwoods last a long time. Unlike a lot of furniture you might find in dorms, which sustain rough use from transient residents, it can easily last upwards of three decades.
Another benefit of using hardwood is that you can use 100% of the material. Unlike other production processes, there is no waste at all. For example, we use bark for landscaping materials. We capture and burn all our sawdust as fuel for our boilers to power our factory. Rough wood cuts get re-used in pallets or other building materials.
Wood Sequesters Carbon & Prevents Climate Change
You might wonder, isn’t it better to use plastic instead of cutting down a tree? That’s a fair question. The short answer is no.
First, you need to consider the resources required to create plastic compared to what it takes to make a tree. Wood grows on its own and requires no carbon-creating input. In contrast, plastic and laminate products require copious amounts of energy to create and have a short life-cycle with little to no chance for re-use.
But more importantly, trees are one of the biggest natural sources of carbon sequestration on earth. Sequestration prevents our world from overheating. Without the sequestration from trees, all that carbon would escape into the atmosphere and redline our climate with potentially devastating consequences.
That’s one reason it’s important to protect our forests and use wood wisely. Surprisingly, using selection harvesting techniques is a great way to do that.
And that’s why a 2013 report on green purchasing best practices for dorm furniture from the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) said that, “furniture made with sustainably harvested wood protects forest health and biodiversity.”
What About Clearcutting?
The legacy of clearcutting gives logging a bad wrap. But there’s an important distinction between clearcutting and selection cutting.
Selective harvesting improves the health of the forest without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. In contrast, clearcutting scars the land and destroys natural habitats and ecosystems.
Here’s how selective harvesting works. Usually a tree dies and rots in the forest. Then it releases carbon into the atmosphere. But selective harvesting weeds out those trees for use as wood furniture.
As a result, you’re not only improving forest health (think pruning your bushes), you’re also reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
In the end, your wood furniture is an important part of the carbon sequestration process and a key factor in keeping our earth from overheating.
Here are two helpful videos that show why wood is the sustainable resource of choice.
What Will You Choose?
As you consider your options, we encourage you to keep the earth and our future in mind. And of course, the future rests with those young and idealistic students who are training and studying at your institution.
Why not set an inspired example with your selection of long-lasting, beautiful, and sustainable furniture? Choose solid hardwood!
To set up an order today or to talk with one of our representative, you write to us here or call: (800) 552-8286.
You can learn more about our industry-leading FSC CoC certification, our MAS certification, and our green materials sourcing, sustainable manufacturing, and our unique zero waste Vertical Integration Process (VIP).
Download the DCI Sustainability Pledge here.
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