Regardless of the material used on the doors and drawer fronts, the actual casework — the box and drawers — of many kitchen cabinets are constructed from particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF). These materials contain urea formaldehyde glue, which can offgas toxins into the home.
Instead, look for cabinets made from FSC-certified plywood, wheatboard, bamboo or formaldehyde-free MDF. This could require going the custom route instead of using semi-custom or stock cabinets.
"We've been able to talk our cabinet shops into using urea-formaldehyde-free components," say designers Jason Roth and Jennifer Conrad, who co-own Five-Star Designs in Sun Valley, Idaho. "We use mainly 3/4" material made out of Medite II. The cabinet is constructed exactly the same otherwise and there aren't any other time-consuming decisions that have to be made. Because it has to be special-ordered, there is an up charge for the material, but with more exposure the price will probably ultimately be lower."
Whether you're re-finishing cabinets or buying new ones, look for water-based sealants, low-VOC finishes; low- or no-VOC, formaldehyde-free paints; and solvent-free adhesives. If your cabinets are factory-finished, there's even less worry about offgassing in your home.
Outside the Box
Here's a few of the most popular green materials for cabinet exteriors:
Wood and wood veneers are naturally found materials. Look for cabinets made from wood with FSC or other industry certification attesting that it comes from a well-managed, sustainable forest.
Non-FSC certification standards are not as stringent; some exotic wood species — African teak, Brazilian rosewood and Caribbean mahogany, for example — are endangered.
Bamboo, a grass that looks like wood, is an elegant alternative to wood cabinets. Bamboo grows rapidly, becoming large enough to harvest in three to six years, making it a more sustainable product than most hardwoods.
No third-party organization monitors environmental regulations and worker safety.
The resins used to laminate it often contain urea formaldehyde; make a special request if getting custom cabinets.
Stainless steel contains a significant amount of recycled steel and doesn't offgas. It is durable but can be scratched.
Mining and refining steel uses a great deal of energy and pollutes the environment.