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That seemingly innocuous perch in front of your PC is just one of about 16.5 million chairs bought by American companies each year.[1] That's a lot of steel, wood, upholstery fabric, and other materials that have to be processed, finished, and too often, not recycled.

Since office workers spend almost as much time in their chairs as they do in bed, choosing the right chair is not only a matter of planetary health, it's also a matter of employee well-being, too. Studies have shown that employees in healthier work environments are more productive than their less-healthy counterparts.

What to look for when buying an eco-friendly office chair

When checking out your office furniture options, be sure to look for these green attributes, as well as a green seal of approval.

  • Easy disassembly and replacement options: If one part of the chair breaks, you can easily replace the broken piece and won't have to send the whole thing to the dump.
  • Third-party certification for indoor air quality: Office chairs can offgas toxic chemicals and make the air in your office unsafe. Chairs certified by GREENGUARD or other certifiers are guaranteed not to pollute the air around you.
  • Recycled plastic or steel, FSC-certified wood, and/or remanufactured or refurbished materials: All of these materials protect the environment by not requiring virgin materials or encouraging irresponsible logging. They also cut out the harmful manufacturing processes required to make new office furniture from virgin materials.
  • Upholstery that uses nontoxic dyes or organic materials: Dyes and bleaches used on furniture fabrics can contaminate water supplies with caustic chemicals. They also contribute to poor indoor air quality.
  • Low- or no-VOC stains, paints, glues, adhesives, and finishes: These won't contaminate air quality and do not contaminate the environment with toxic chemicals during manufacturing.

Find it! Eco-friendly office chairs

Choosing an eco-friendly office chair helps you go green because...

  • Office chairs 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.
  • Chairs that use low-VOC and nontoxic paints, stains, glues, adhesives, treatments, finishes, and dyes will not contribute to smog during their manufacture, and when in use will not offgas toxins that may affect employee health.
  • Office chairs made of FSC-certified wood protect trees by ensuring that the wood used is from sustainably-managed forests.
  • Chairs with easy-to-disassemble, recyclable parts keep waste out of overcrowded landfills.

Office chairs are often constructed poorly, requiring unsustainably-harvested resources and resulting in short lives and lots of waste. Eco-friendly office chairs on the other hand use materials wisely, reduce waste, and make indoor and outdoor air quality easier to breath.

Recycled materials conserve resources

No matter what your office chair is made of, recycled materials are better for the environment than virgin materials. Recycled materials save energy: recycling plastics can reduce energy consumption by 70 percent.[2] Recycled materials also save 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). Recycled materials also reduce pollution because no new items need to be dyed and treated with chemicals.

The manufacture of recycled products releases fewer 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.[3] Recycled products also eliminate the need to harvest virgin trees from the world’s forests, protecting watersheds, as well as habitat for wildlife and understory plants, and prevent new land from being cultivated for textile fibers, such as cotton or wool.

Sustainable resources protect forests and land

Many office chairs are made from hardwood trees taken from poorly managed forests. Trees are important to earth's ecosystem and must be protected. They filter the air, stabilize the climate by absorbing CO2, and provide habitat for 90 percent of all land-dwelling plants and animals.[4] 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.[5]

Eco-friendly office chair manufacturers use reclaimed or, or wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). 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.[6]

Quality means less waste and easier recycling

Recycling your office chair 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. More than 8 million office chairs find their way to US landfills each year.

Nontoxic finishes and adhesives protect indoor air quality

Poor IAQ, which can cause severe health problems, is in part caused by emissions from indoor furnishings. VOCs result from paint, adhesives and caulking, finishes, dyes, and more, while formaldehyde is applied to wood and particleboard.

The manufacturing of office chairs 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.[7]

Certifications

Several independent organizations certify office furnishings that meet environmental criteria:

Related health issues

The EPA cites indoor air pollution as one of the top five public health threats in America.[8] In a recent study, the Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that 40 percent of all office sick days are related to poor indoor air quality (IAQ).[9] Their findings suggest that improved IAQ could increase productivity and reduce the occurrence of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) by 20 to 50 percent, with potential savings between $10 and $100 billion nationwide annually.[10]

SBS, also known as Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), Building-Related Illness (BRI), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), occur 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.

Glossary

  • 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.

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Comments

10/16/2008
7:10pm
greendreamer

I just did a "test sit" in a Herman Miller Mirra chair and I'm super excited to order one! It's amazingly comfortable, so I expect to receive an improvement in ongoing back trouble. And I love that it's made from from 42 percent recycled materials and is 96 percent recycable! (http://www.hermanmiller.com/CDA/SSA/Product/0,,a10-c440-p205,00.html)

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