An Interesting Conversation

Anyone who has an interest in living more "green" has probably come across the term "greening up" which is to say, a corporate attempt to add value to a product by misrepresenting it's green qualities.

Christopher Leonard, President of the local Tualatin company Oak Grove Custom Cabinets, and I recently had an interesting exchange about whether he carried any green products at his business, and I found some of his answers surprising. This interview is compiled from two conversations.

K: What kind of wood products do you use? Do you use sustainable wood products?

Chris: With the exception of exotic woods from rain forests, the classic cabinet hardwoods we use come from trees harvested and processed in the US by companies whose viability depends on maintaining a renewable supply.  Alder, for instance, is a popular hardwood which comes primarily from the Northwest and grows very quickly.  Even if it doesn't have the green cache which bamboo does, for instance,  people in the industry recognize that the environmental cost of harvesting bamboo somewhere in Asia, combining it with petro-chemical resins, processing it into usable lumber, and then shipping it across the Pacific is probably greater than cutting up a local alder log.

K: There is also a lot of concern about formaldehyde contained in some cabinetry, trims and shelving, such as particleboard and VOC's from finishes.

Chris: This chemical (formaldehyde) occurs naturally in our environment through various organic processes but is often added to the glues used in the manufacture of plywood and particleboard products.  I suspect this goes for the adhesives used in flooring, carpets, paneling etc.  Our suppliers tell us the level of formaldehyde in modern products is significantly less than those used in the 60's and 70's which employed a different chemical structure (open vs closed cell) and the exposure from the products typically used in cabinet construction is extremely limited.  However, due to the overall concern, most manufacturers are switching to a new glue which has little or no formaldehyde.  Columbia Forest Products which lays up most of the veneers we purchase ran a story recently in which they described their new adhesive which is based on the chemical compound which mussells use to attach themselves to ocean rocks:  strong stuff!!  It is also possible to purchase other "low formaldehyde" products but we are told the term "formaldehyde free" is a bit misleading. 

K: Do your wood finishes contain VOC's?

Chris: VOC's:  This stands for volatile organic compounds.  In wood finishes, these are the chemicals in which the pigment in stains and solids in lacquers are suspended.  These solvents, such as toluene, xylene, and alcohol evaporate very quickly which makes them desirable in finishing processes:  they can be top coated within minutes and don't raise the grain like water based products.  Water based versions are also much more temperamental to apply, need warmer environments (expensive in winter).   However, the technology continues to improve in this area  as more pressure is put on the chemical manufacturers. 

K: It's not as simple as it seems- going out and buying bamboo for your flooring, or shopping someplace that is supposed to have green products.

Chris: The interest in "green" products is increasing significantly but so is the complexity of defining just what this means.  While promoting the concept, I always try to make sure we don't mislead our clients.