When it comes time to remodel a kitchen, bathroom or laundry area, new cabinets are often near the top of the to-do list. That's not surprising, given all the wear and tear that cabinets and drawers experience. Over the years, they can start to show their age as hinges come loose, drawers stick, veneers chip, and interiors get grimy. New cabinet purchases are also driven by outdated styles or the desire for better storage solutions.
No matter what your reasons are for replacing your cabinets, these days there are many beautiful and environmentally friendly options to choose from.
Refurbish and reuse existing cabinets
From an environmental perspective, keeping your existing cabinets is hands-down the best option, unless there's a serious problem with them, like water damage from a flood. If the cabinets are functional but you don't like their look, consider giving them a makeover with a fresh coat of paint and new knobs and drawer pulls. Or take the makeover a step further with new cabinet doors and drawer fronts for the existing cabinet boxes.
If the cabinets in your home aren't usable, consider buying salvaged cabinets from a building materials reuse store. Good quality "pre-owned" cabinets are often recovered from buildings that are being deconstructed, demolished or remodeled.
Reusing cabinets keeps waste out of landfills, and reduces the amount of wood, energy, water and other resources used to make new cabinets. What's more, salvaged cabinets can be a lot less expensive than new ones, and may be of higher quality. Beautiful old cabinets can also help give your kitchen or bathroom a distinctive character.
When buying salvaged cabinets, check them over carefully to make sure they'll fit your needs and the space, and that they are in good shape and don't have any signs of mold or odors. Beware of pre-1980s cabinets that are painted; the paint may contain lead, a health hazard that you don't want to introduce into your home.
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Some cabinetmakers offer the option of cabinets made from Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood or bamboo. FSC-certified wood comes from forests managed in accordance with stringent sustainable forestry practices. Bamboo is a fast-growing, rapidly renewable grass that can be harvested in three to five years. Rapidly renewable materials reduce pressure to harvest forests that have a slower growth cycle.
When shopping for bamboo or FSC-certified wood cabinets, be sure to ask which parts of the cabinets are made from those materials. It may be just the veneer, the door or the face frame, or it may be the entire cabinet.
Sometimes—but not always—you'll have to pay more for cabinets made from these green materials. When considering price, be sure you're comparing apples to apples: high-quality cabinets made from FSC-certified wood aren't necessarily more expensive than high-quality cabinets made from uncertified wood, but they will cost more than the budget cabinet line from your local home improvement store.
Use durable materials and methods when installing, replacing and refurbishing kitchen, bathroom and other built-in cabinetry. Durable products and materials require less maintenance and replacement, which reduces waste and long-term costs.
Cabinet boxes are commonly made with particleboard, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or plywood laminated with a thin melamine veneer or a wood veneer that has been sealed. Unsealed or unlaminated particleboard isn't recommended for cabinets in the kitchen, bathroom or laundry room, where water damage can occur. Uncoated particleboard is prone to swelling when wet and can fall apart more quickly than other materials.
For the greatest durability, choose cabinets that use solid wood for the cabinet face frames, doors and drawers. At a minimum, use fully laminated MDF. Make sure the cabinetry has high-quality hinges and drawer slides.
If you're having cabinets custom made, request that the cabinetmaker use water-based sealants and finishes with no or low VOCs (see our GreenPointer on Paints and Adhesives). Avoid alkyd and oil-based stains and finishes. Water-based wood sealers and finishes perform as well as or better than oil-based finishes. If possible, have the cabinets finished offsite to further reduce offgassing into your home.
Multiple coats of sealants and finishes add to durability because they provide better protection against water, scratches, impact and other wear and tear.
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Many kitchen, bathroom and laundry room cabinets are made from particleboard or medium-density fiberboard. Some of these pressed-wood products are made with adhesives that contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Over time, formaldehyde gas can evaporate from these products and pollute the air inside a home for years after installation.
In California, new regulations now limit the allowable formaldehyde emissions from composite wood materials used in cabinets manufactured or sold in the state. If you live in another state, you may need to specifically seek out cabinets that emit zero or very low levels of formaldehyde.
Pass it on
If your old cabinets are still in good shape but you can't use them in your home, find a new home for them by giving them to a friend or neighbor, selling or giving them away through Craigslist or other online classifieds, or donating them to a charity that operates reuse stores, such as the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity or a local thrift or salvage store.
Plan for recycling and composting
When remodeling your kitchen, design it so that recycling and composting is as easy as tossing trash. When designing the kitchen cabinets, check local requirements and design the built-in recycling and composting area accordingly. Some waste haulers allow recyclables to be mixed, while others require that glass, paper, plastic or other materials be separated.
Design a kitchen compost bin that is protected from pests and is odor-resistant. One clever option is to include a cut-out in the countertop near the sink that holds a removable, lidded stainless steel container. The container can be easily lifted out and the food scraps added to a backyard compost pile, or in some cities set out at the curbside in a designated food scraps or green waste bin.
Smaller kitchens require creative storage solutions for recyclables and compostables, such as drawers, tilt-out bins or pull-out shelves. Some bins have lids that close automatically when a cabinet door is closed. Take advantage of underused spaces such as corner cabinets and under-sink storage. Consider offsetting sink plumbing to create more storage room for recyclables. For corner cabinets, a spinning rack can be space efficient. Label or color-code bins, especially if they are not easily visible, so that everyone in the household knows where to toss that empty bottle or piece of junk mail.
More cabinetry tips
- Install it right. To make repair, replacement and eventual salvage easier, cabinets should be screwed together and screwed to the wall, not glued in place. Rodents, roaches and other pests are always potential problems, so caulk or foam every penetration on the wall and floor first, then install cabinets with tight backs, and then caulk or foam around all plumbing and electrical penetrations in the cabinets themselves. This can help reduce common asthma triggers such as roach and mouse droppings, and reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
- Buy local. When possible, choose products that are produced locally. Cabinets fabricated locally (preferably from locally harvested or manufactured materials) offer many environmental, economic and social benefits such as helping keep jobs in your community and reducing transportation energy use.
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