A product is only as sustainable as the sum of its parts. In the case of cabinetry, there are quite a few parts to add up.

When selecting cabinetry for a green-built home, dedicated research is required to break the products down and evaluate the origins of the wood used to make the raw materials, the resins that bind them, the chemical content of the glues used to adhere the parts together, and the VOC levels of finishes.

Raw Materials

The base components of most wood cabinetry today are made with hardwood plywood, MDF, or particleboard. While these materials are more resource efficient than solid wood, manufacturing them historically has involved formaldehyde-laden resins; the high formaldehyde content off-gassing from some man-made materials creates health concerns, according to the Healthy House Institute, especially for people with chemical sensitivities.

Several major manufacturers of composite wood panels, including Timber Products and Columbia Forest Products, have already been working with resin manufacturers and refining their manufacturing processes to create no-added-formaldehyde (NAF) or no-added-urea-formaldehyde (NAUF) products. Columbia’s PureBond NAUF plywood, for example, utilizes a soy-based adhesive.

“The formaldehyde levels of [composite] products have come down dramatically over the past 10 years,” says Dick Titus, executive vice president of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA).

Helping the push are the most recent emissions requirements from the California Air Resources Board (CARB); once phase two of the rules begin in 2012, they will be the strictest regulations in the world. Though the laws are specific to the Golden State, most panel manufacturers and cabinet companies are changing over their stock across the country. There is also speculation that similar emissions regulations may be adopted at the federal level.

In addition to CARB compliance, some composite panels may carry the Composite Panel Association’s Environmentally Preferable Product (EPP) certification, which verifies formaldehyde emissions lower than government regulations and the use of recycled and/or recovered wood fiber.

Indeed, along with formaldehyde, consider the resource origins of the wood panels for recycled content (some certified by Scientific Certification Systems) and/or for sustainable harvesting as verified by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, among others. Certified products may carry a slight price premium.