Q: I'm in need of a new bookshelf and desk. What should I be looking for when it comes to eco-friendly wood products?
A: You'd think it would be simple. Wood is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable, but that doesn't make that bookcase you're shopping for soft on the earth.
Indeed, furniture in general is teeming with toxins. Common paints, glues, waxes and varnishes release ozone-eroding VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Pressed woods like particle board, fiberboard and even some plywood are often major culprits. Although the industry has reduced emissions by 80 per cent over the last couple of decades, VOCs like formaldehyde are still out there causing headaches, allergic reactions and nausea in unsuspecting home-dwellers. Worse yet, furniture can off-gas noxious vapours for years!
So when hunting for wooden furniture, beware of particle board posing as the real thing. Increasingly convincing veneers might dupe you into thinking you're buying maple when you're actually buying sawdust and resin glued together. When in doubt, ask.
And let's not forget the whole deforestation factor. According to Greenpeace, most Canadian lumber comes from ancient forest systems like the Boreal. So that lovely coffee table in your living room might be the last incarnation of a 200-year-old tree! What can you do to avoid this? Well, look for wood products that are old-growth-free. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label is trustworthy.
But FSC-certified furniture is hard to come by. Surprisingly, Ikea is likely your best bet. About 20 per cent of its wood furniture comes with the FSC stamp. (Ikea also uses formaldehyde-free finishes.) Just remember, the logo isn't always visible, so once again it's best to ask. Knoll's (1000 Arrow Road) also offers FSC-certified and low- or VOC-free office furniture.
Overall, furniture that uses recycled wood (i.e. from old barns, homes or naturally felled trees) or post-consumer waste (like cork, wheat straw or sunflower husks) is the greenest way to go, but your options are slim in the Toronto area. If you're up for a trek, Savage Wood (519-855-4270) in Hillsborough uses antique and reclaimed wood. Online green directories like U.S.-based www.ecobusinesslinks. com can give you a vision of what's possible.
For those of you who make your own shelves or wood goods at home, there are key things to look for. Again, ask for old-growth-free lumber. Home Depot was the only store we talked to that carries any and gives preference to FSC-certified timber and furniture.
Steer clear of tropical woods from countries like Indonesia or Malaysia, where illegal harvests run rampant.
And when buying pressure-treated wood for outdoor projects, note that until late last year, manufacturers were still lacing their lumber with arsenic, and some of that timber could still be on the shelves. If you find yourself stuck with some of these toxic boards, you can seal in the bad stuff with Hemp Wood All Natural Finishing Oil made by Hempola Valley Farms and available at Grassroots on the Danforth.
Danforth Lumber (25 Dawes) sells a highly weather-resistant wood substitute called Trex. It's made of recycled plastic grocery bags, reclaimed pallet wrap and waste wood and doesn't need any toxic sealants.
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