Virtually every North American home has a collection of tables, including perhaps a dining room table, nightstand, a coffee table or two, and maybe even some plant stands. Most tables are constructed of some type of wood product, which more often than not has been unsustainably sourced. Choosing green tables for your home is a great way to preserve forests and wild ecosystems, protect watersheds, and maintain a low-toxin home environment.
Standing on unsustainable legs
Whatever the table apparatus, it invariably is going to be at least partially created using wood fiber. The wood business is big business worldwide, with the US representing almost one-third of the global wood buying market. The earth’s land surface used to be approximately 46 percent forest, but today, nearly half of the world’s original forests have been cut down to meet worldwide wood demand and only one-fifth remain untouched. Most of this logging started around 1980. Since then, approximately 2 million square kilometers of forests were destroyed, an area larger than Mexico. An average of 20 million additional hectares (an area the size of England, Scotland, and Wales combined) are cut down every year and in the next 30 years global wood consumption is expected to double.
This growing demand has put tremendous pressure on developing countries to export their forest products, causing some wood species, like teak, to become known as “brown gold” because of the central role it plays in a country’s financial success. Much like conflict diamonds in some mining countries, the teak industry in Burma funds the nation's brutal military dictatorship and spurs the mad illegal logging rush that’s causing widespread rainforest destruction. Burma is the only country still exporting virgin teak (mostly to China and Thailand for furniture production) despite many international sanctions.
Forests provide a variety of important ecological benefits, many of which directly affect human health and well-being. These include preventing soil erosion, moderating global climate, and purifying water and air. Tropical forests cover only 12 percent of the planet, but provide habitat to more than one-half of Earth’s known plant and animal species.
Forests also act as carbon sinks, or reservoirs, for carbon dioxide. Through photosynthesis, plants capture carbon dioxide and store it as plant biomass, releasing oxygen in the process.
Conventional logging disrupts the ability of forests to provide these vital services. Yearly deforestation (meaning fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide) results in 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Although there have been many strides taken worldwide to manage forests and prevent virgin or old growth forests from being felled, illegal logging poses an increasing threat to these efforts. In many tropical countries it is illegal to take trees from rainforests, but it is not necessarily illegal to import improperly sourced lumber from these regions. Demand from Western consumers makes illegal logging practices very profitable.
In the last few years, the top three wood buyers in the world—Home Depot, Lowe’s, and IKEA—all committed to work with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to reduce their consumption of non-sustainable wood products. The FSC relies on independent accredited organizations to guarantee that trees are sustainably harvested using forestry practices that maintain the diversity of native species. These practices prevent over-cutting, protect watersheds, and ensure long-term forest management.
Living in glass houses
Glass has been a popular material for centuries, made more ubiquitous during the Industrial Revolution. Today’s tables are often graced with clear or colored glass tops, the production of which is energy- and resource-intensive. Raw materials required include sand, soda ash, limestone, and some additives, which are heated to very high temperatures (2,600°F to 2,800°F) . These high temps require huge amounts of energy—one count put the glass industry’s annual energy use at 206 trillion Btu, costing about $1.4 billion. This energy consumption produces large amounts of CO2 emissions and other air pollutants.
According to reports published by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2006, 13.2 million tons of glass were disposed of in the United States; 22 percent was recovered for recycling. Although the bulk of this glass came from disposable beverage containers, durable glass goods, such as furniture, definitely contributed. It's estimated that an individual glass bottle, when recycled, saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours.
Wood furniture that comes with some type of environmental certification can help ensure it was harvested sustainably, however not all certifying bodies are equal. FSC is the only international accrediting body which guarantees that wood has been sustainably harvested according to various environmental, social, and economic criteria. There are several other labels used to certify wood which are not nearly as rigorous. For instance, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) was found to have significant shortcomings when compared to FSC.
Reclaimed or recycled wood, salvaged from old buildings or construction projects, can be a very environmentally responsible choice, but the labeling of products made from these types of woods can be misleading. For instance, reclaimed wood taken from a lake or river without sufficient care can cause significant ecosystem damage, and therefore should be avoided. Truly sustainable reclaimed or recycled wood will include a label indicating the source and extraction methods used to obtain it.
Related health issues
Indoor air pollution can be more than 100 times more toxic than outdoor air due to materials and products (building materials, paint, carpets, upholstery fabrics, office equipment, cleaners, detergents, pesticides, and so on) that release unhealthy gases (known as off-gassing). One common substance found in particleboard, fabrics, and chair fillings is formaldehyde (sometimes also used as a binder in engineered wood).
Reclaimed or salvaged wood is often treated with various chemicals to protect against rotting from insects and microbial agents. These chemicals include chromated copper arsenic (CCA) or ammoniacal copper arsenate (ACA), which contain toxic arsenic and chromium and are considered hazardous wastes by the EPA. A better option is reclaimed or salvaged wood treated with ammonium/copper/quaternary ammonia (ACQ), which is free of these hazardous substances and has been registered for use on lumber, timbers, landscape ties, fence posts, and other wood structures.
- Btu (British thermal unit): Unit of heat required to raise 1 pound of water by 1°F. Standard energy unit in the heating and cooling industries.
- formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
- old growth forest: Also known as virgin forest, ancient forest, or primary forest, this is an area of forest which has attained great age, containing a variety of vertical layers of vegetation, including large live trees. These forests may also be home to many rare species that are dependent on these ecologically unique old growth features.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- Bureau Veritas Certification
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Smartwood Program
- Scientific Certification Systems
- SGS Systems and Services Certification Inc.
- Green Home - Alternatives to Old Growth & Virgin Lumber
- The Green Guide - Wood Furniture: The Problems
- World Revolution - Forests
- World Watch - Furniture: Comfort Without Consequences
- The Nature Conservancy - The Role of Forests in Reducing Emissions
- WoodConsumption.org - RCA Newsletter - May 2001: Campaigns and Events
- Planet Ark - Myanmar's Famed Teak Forests Under Threat
- The Independent - Pat Venditti: Why buying Burmese timber spells ecological disaster
- Reference.com - Carbon dioxide sink
- Rainforests.net - The Forest Industry in the 21st Century: Top 5 Wood Buyers
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): Glass
- US Energy Information Administration - Energy Consumption: Glass Industry
- Utah State University Recycling Center - Facts and Figures
- The Green Guide - Wood Furniture: The Solutions
- The Meridian Institute - Comparative Analysis of the Forest Stewardship Council© and Sustainable Forestry Initiative® Certification Programs
- The Green Guide - Wood Furniture - Wood Furniture: The Problems
- Green Home - Breathing the Air Indoors
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA)
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA): ACQ - An Alternative to CCA
- Green Home - formaldehyde
- Pacific Northwest - Definitions - Old-growth Forest
- Montana State University Extension Service - Healthy Indoor Air for America’s Homes
- US Environmental Protection Agency – Introduction to Indoor Air Quality