You may think of your office chair as little more than a place to perch in front of your computer while you're on the clock, but that seemingly innocuous seat, along with the desk in front of it and the carpet underneath it, has a substantial environmental impact—not just on Big Momma Earth, but on the quality of your office environment as well.
There are three main environmental concerns pertaining to office furniture:
- Indoor Air Quality (IAQ): Furniture glues, coatings, and varnishes can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
- Waste: The construction and disposal of furniture adds volume to landfills.
- Resources: Manufacturing furniture typically consumes virgin natural resources such as trees for wood, petroleum for plastic, and metals for sheet metal. Transportation of furniture from manufacturer to retailer also consumes energy.
Indoor air quality
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites indoor air pollution as one of the top five public health threats in America. In a recent study, the Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that 40 percent of all office sick days are related to poor IAQ. Their findings suggest that improved IAQ could increase productivity and reduce the occurrence of Sick Building Syndrome by 20 to 50 percent, with potential savings between $10 and $100 billion nationwide annually.
The manufacturing of office chairs, desks, and workstations also emits VOCs, which creates smog, from the glues, stains, and finishes used. Eco-friendly manufacturers use VOC-free powder-based finishing coats. These finishes use less energy and decrease waste: only 60 percent of wet-spray paint actually stays on the product, but 95 percent of powder-based finishes remain there.
IAQ and health
Very few buildings in the US are free from poor IAQ, and since adults spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, the term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is increasingly being heard. SBS, also known as Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), Building-Related Illnesses (BRI), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), occurs when a building’s occupants exhibit symptoms such as dry, irritated eyes, nose, throat, and skin; fatigue; asthma, shortness of breath, coughing, and sneezing; dizziness and nausea; as well as headaches, migraines, and sinus problems.
Office furniture made from recycled steel, plastic, and wood, as well as upholstery made from plastic soda bottles and other recycled materials, eliminate the need to harvest virgin resources from the earth (which protects wild spaces), use existing products that would otherwise go to the landfill, and require less energy in their remanufacture than new products. For example, recycling plastics can reduce energy consumption by 70 percent.
Since some materials can be recycled locally and repeatedly, the costs of transporting raw materials long distances for manufacturing can be reduced or eliminated as well. Recycling even plays a role in reducing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Recycling programs are estimated to have kept the equivalent of 39 million cars' worth of carbon out of the atmosphere in 2005.
Many office furnishings are made from hardwood trees taken from poorly managed forests. Trees filter the air, stabilize climate by absorbing CO2, and provide habitat for 90 percent of all land-dwelling plants and animals. It's estimated that an acre of trees can grow 4,000 pounds of wood per year while consuming 5,800 pounds of carbon dioxide and producing 4,280 pounds of oxygen.
Eco-friendly office furniture manufacturers use wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or reclaimed wood. A leading office furniture manufacturer, Knoll, for example, has used reclaimed red birch logs recovered from Midwestern rivers and lakes. Salvaging 1 million board feet of reusable lumber from an old warehouse can offset the need to harvest 1,000 acres of forest.
Plastic products are made from petroleum, a non-sustainable resource whose extraction and production has caused major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems. The production of petroleum also contributes to global warming. The plastics industry as a whole releases millions of pounds of toxic waste into the air, water, and soil each year, and represents 7 percent of the 5.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released by all manufacturers each year. Upon disposal, plastic products can leach BPA, lead, and other toxic additives into the ground and drinking water supplies when placed in a landfill.
Natural textiles used to make chairs and other furnishings, such as leather, wool, and down may appear eco-friendly, but environmentalists and animal-lovers would argue differently. Raising animals for these materials requires a great deal of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels. Factory farms generate 130 times the amount of excrement as the entire human population; the EPA has noted that livestock pollution is the most damaging threat to American waterways.
Foam stuffing for seating is made from a form of polyurethane (part of the urethane family of chemicals), which can contain many toxins, including (but not limited to) VOCs, formaldehyde, and benzene. The construction of approximately 2 pounds of polyurethane rigid foam requires nearly 800 pounds of water, 1.5 pounds of crude oil, and 0.9 pounds coal, while producing waste consisting of 9 pounds of carbon dioxide as well as other solid and liquid waste by-products.
Companies in the US buy about 3 million desks, 16.5 million chairs, 4.5 million tables, and 11 million file cabinets every year. Roughly half of that—an amount that could furnish all the offices in Boston—ends up in landfills.
Recycling your office furniture at the end of its life prevents wood, cotton, and foam waste from going to the landfill, where its decomposition produces greenhouse gases and may release other toxic chemicals. Recycling also eliminates the need to harvest virgin trees from the world’s forests, protecting watersheds, as well as habitat for wildlife and understory plants, and prevents new land from being cultivated for textile fibers, such as cotton or wool.
Recycling office furniture also saves energy because the steps required to supply recycled materials to industry (including collection, processing, and transportation) use less energy than the steps required to supply virgin materials to industry (including extraction, transportation and processing). Recycling also reduces pollution because no new items are required.
That green office smell: A case study
The Denver office of the US EPA opened a green office in March 2007. Among other features, the furnishings all use low-VOC interior adhesives, paints, sealants, and caulks, some of the floors are made of bamboo, all furnishings are GREENGUARD-certified, all wood is FSC-certified, and all furniture upholstery use nontoxic dyes and recycled PET plastic fabric finishes.
Several independent organizations certify office furnishings that meet environmental criteria:
- Cradle to Cradle: This certification program by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) tests and certifies products to ensure that they employ environmentally safe and healthy materials; are designed for recycling or composting; use renewable energy; use energy and water efficiently in production; and are manufactured with an eye toward social responsibility. They certify office flooring and floor coverings, fabrics and fabric treatments used in office furniture, as well as office seating, desks and tables, storage and filing, and workstations.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): A nonprofit organization that independently certifies that the wood used in office furniture and other products comes from forests that are sustainably managed in the areas of social, economic, and ecological impact.
- GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI): Tests and certifies office furnishings and other products for low chemical and particle emissions, ensuring that they are safe and will not pollute indoor air. Certification programs are available for desks, tables, seating, dividers, flooring, and more.
- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Commercial Interiors (LEED CI): While LEED does not certify furniture products, buying eco-friendly office furniture can help you achieve LEED certification as a green office. LEED is a point-based rating system devised by the United States Green Buildings Council (USGBC) in 2000. You can get credits toward certification, for example, by using 30 percent salvaged, refinished, or used furniture, 10 to 20 percent recycled content furniture, or certified wood and rapidly renewable materials in furniture. Individual manufacturers can give you the specifics on which credits can be available from purchasing their products.
- Indoor Advantage Gold: Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) certifies products that do not emit more than one-half the threshold for individual VOCs established by the Chronic Reference Exposure Levels (CRELs). The CRELs, established by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), establish safe limits for the emissions of 80 toxic chemicals from furniture and other indoor sources.
- ISO 14001: The International Organization for Standardization takes a holistic approach in helping businesses develop responsible environmental management policies. ISO certifies companies, facilities, and products and that meet its 350 International Standards for impact on air, water, and soil.
- bisphenol A (BPA): A chemical building block used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Studies have linked BPA to hormone disruption, increased breast and prostate cancer cell growth, and early onset puberty, and obesity.
- 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.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Gases released by a wide variety of products, including cleaning products, furniture, and dry-cleaned clothing. Paint and coatings alone account for 9 percent of all VOCs emitted from consumer and commercial products in the US, according to the EPA. VOCs can cause several health problems, ranging from headaches and respiratory inflammation to central nervous system diseases. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen.
- California Integrated Waste Management Board - Sustainable (Green) Building: Modular Office Furniture Specification
- BNET - Homegrown and eco-friendly office furniture
- Friends Committee on National Legislation - FCNL's Renovated Green Building on Capitol Hill: Check out the bamboo flooring and eco-friendly office furniture in FCNL's recently greened office space.
- MetropolisMag.com - Avoiding the Landfill: Afterlife
- Kentucky Division for Air Quality - Indoor Air Quality
- The Green Guide - Air cleaning houseplants
- Environmental Energy Technologies Division - Estimates of Potential Nationwide Productivity and Health Benefits From Better Indoor Environments: An Update
- Grist - Greening the Cube: Eco-friendly furniture meets the cubicle culture
- The Economist - The Truth About Recycling
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts
- Natural Resources Defense Council - Good Wood: How Forest Certification Helps the Environment
- American Forest and Paper Association - Benefits of Wood Use
- Rainforest Alliance - Smartwood Rediscovered
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Baby Bottles
- Cows are Cool - Leather: No Friend of the Earth
- The Green Guide - What is Polyurethane?