Is it true, as some assert, that wood laminate (also called plastic laminate) poisons people? Which is to say, is it toxic?
Because some reputable schools—UCLA & UC Irvine among them—no longer accept laminated furniture on their campus based on environmental, human health, and quality issues.
When you’re looking for residence hall furniture, you’ve got a few things in mind. First, what’s the most affordable option? And then, what human health and environmental standards does it need to meet?
In this article, we’re going to explore furniture that is made with high or low pressure wood laminate. And specifically, we’re going to zero in on wood laminate from the perspective of sustainability.
Previously, we’ve compared different furniture materials based on their sustainable pedigree to help you identify and choose the most environmental option. We’ve explored why popular furniture materials like rubberwood aren’t sustainable.
Now let’s take a closer look at laminated wood. (Spoiler alert: plastic laminate ranks at the bottom when it comes to sustainability and poses real threats to human and ecological health.)
What Is Wood Laminate?
There are two kinds of wood laminates: high pressure and low pressure. And it’s important to note that laminate furniture isn’t real wood. It’s man-made wood. What does that mean?
In simplest terms, you print a layer of wood-colored paper and adhere it to plastic and then adhere that to a composite wood substrate like particle board or MDF.
These substrates differ in quality and include a range of wood products which are made by fixing strands, particles, fibers, or boards of wood together with adhesives to create composite materials.
According to NovaDesk, the difference between high and low pressure laminates comes down to the heat and pressure applied in the manufacturing process.
- High-Pressure Laminate: The layer of laminate is adhered to the substrate under pressures of 70 to 100 bars (that’s between 1,000 and 1,500 psi) and temperatures of 280 to 320 degrees Fahrenheit using adhesives.
- Low-Pressure Laminate: The layer of laminate is adhered to the substrate under pressures of 20 to 30 bars (between 290 to 435 psi) at temperatures of 335 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit with no adhesives.
Wood Laminate Is Durable And Cheap
Why is laminated wood so popular? For one thing, wood laminate is much easier and cheaper to make than solid wood furniture. You don’t need to process all that wood or run it through a finishing process. It also boasts a durable surface that is hard to scratch.
According to the folks over at Furnish Green:
Laminate is made with synthetic materials or very thinly sliced pieces of wood. In some cases, it is made to look like wood grain by using a method that is similar to printing. Laminate typically has a shiny finish and is known for being used in low-end furniture and pieces that need very durable surfaces. Of course, laminate is much cheaper than solid wood or veneer to produce and use.
In terms of overall durability beyond the laminate surface, it depends on the substrate. Particle board tends to be cheap. It can split and warp and fall apart quickly and it has poor screw retention. MDF or fiberboard is more stable. It’s going to provide you with a more durable product.
So affordability and some measure of durability are the advantages of laminate furniture. But in terms of overall quality, there’s consensus that laminate furniture just isn’t as heavy-duty as a solid piece of wood.
Now let’s look at a few of the reasons why wood laminate not only ranks last in terms of sustainability, but also poses a threat to human health and the environment.
1. Wood Laminate Has A Large Carbon Footprint
When it comes to sustainability, one of the first issues with wood laminate is the large carbon footprint. It requires a lot of fossil fuel energy to power the required pressure and heat used in the manufacturing process.
And more often than not, the plastic laminate used by furniture manufacturers is produced in China before it’s shipped to the United States. That’s problematic on a few levels.
First, China leads the world in carbon pollution by a large and growing margin. Second, it has notoriously poor working conditions and child labor law are flaunted.
So it’s important to consider not only the carbon footprint associated with producing and shipping the laminate, but also the social costs of producing furniture outside the United States.
2. Wood Laminate Is Not A Renewable Resource
Wood laminate is man made. Because of advanced manufacturing processes, it’s abundant and cheap. But it takes fabricated materials and lots of energy to create it. Also, you can’t reuse it.
By contrast the resources required to make trees–the raw material for solid hardwood furniture–are all natural and require no added energy inputs: air, soil, water, sunlight.
3. Wood Laminate Has A Poor Life-Cycle Analysis.
So what happens when you can’t use your wood laminate furniture any longer? According to the Green Home Guide, you should consider the life cycle of this material.
On that count, it ranks low with an unfavorable impact on the environment. At Green Homes, they point out that:
- Laminate is easy to maintain but ranks low on the durability quotient because it not easily fixed or refinished if damaged.
- At the end of its useful life, it gets pitched into a landfill, where its ability to decompose is minimal.
- It’s difficult to quantify what chemicals, if any, will leach from laminates once they hit the landfill or would be emitted into the air if placed in an incinerator.
What does this actually mean? From a sustainability perspective, it’s the first 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to laminated wood.
To put it simply, this stuff doesn’t decompose. Because of all the chemicals and glues, the material never breaks down organically.
Let’s think about that for a second. If you’re lucky, you’ll get 10-15 years out of furniture made with wood laminate. After that, it’s just going to sit in the landfill for a thousand years—literally. That’s a disturbing thought and certainly doesn’t reflect well on us in terms of being stewards of our own planet.
4. You Can’t Recycle Wood Laminate
Unlike furniture made from hardwood trees, you can’t recycle or upcycle wood laminate. Most of it ends up in the dump. And that’s to say nothing of what happens to the waste products from the manufacturing process.
Using solid hardwood as the basis for residence hall furniture, we’ve created a zero waste system and we recycle all our wood by-products to power our generators and fuel our kilns.
But we don’t stop there. Wood is incredibly flexible and so it lends itself to creative reuse.
To that end, we have partnered with sustainability leaders like the University of New Hampshire to furnish their residence halls with brand new solid wood furniture that is fortified with upcycled internal components from furniture that we installed on their campus over 25 years ago.
In contrast, laminate waste is plastic and it’s rife with chemicals. You can’t recycle, upcycle, or reclaim that waste. Most of the time, it ends up in the landfill.
5. Some Wood Laminate Furniture Is Toxic
As we alluded to above, another issue with using furniture made from wood laminate is that sometimes it’s heavily processed and filled with chemicals. Wikipedia flags this as well saying that:
The adhesives used in some products may be toxic. A concern with some resins is the release of formaldehyde in the finished product, often seen with urea-formaldehyde bonded products. Cutting and otherwise working with some products can expose workers to toxic compounds.
And that’s just the beginning. Here we encounter the second 800-pound gorilla in the room.
As we reported in our recent article on green manufacturing, a recent study of volatile organic compounds (VOC) like formaldehyde found that furniture made with MDF and laminated wood are dangerous potential sources of cancer causing VOCs.
In short, because it contains toxic VOCs like formaldehyde, laminated wood furniture is a serious potential human health liability.
Why Universities Like UCLA and UC Irvine Avoid Wood Laminate
Knowing all this, it’s no surprise that some universities have phased out wood laminates based on the associated environmental, human health, and quality issues.
Thankfully, students are idealistic. They want furniture manufacture with an ethical basis that doesn’t adversely impact or damage the biosphere.
For the most part, these universities choose solid hardwood furniture. Why? Because of wood’s superior quality and sustainability.
For example, a lot of universities who have robust sustainability policies avoid laminates because laminated wood:
- Doesn’t last as long
- Often comes from China
- Manufacturing has a large carbon footprint
- Is not recyclable or reclaimable
- Doesn’t decompose well or burn
- Has a poor Life Cycle Analysis
What should you choose?
If you’re concerned about the environment and if you want your residence hall furniture to have the highest ecological standards, choose wood. Solid wood furniture is the most sustainable on the market.
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