MDF has become a popular and go-to man-made wood. It’s now used for all sorts of home decor.
There are other types of semi-synthetic wood, such as plywood, that have been used to replace real wood. This is mainly because they are more affordable and do a reasonably good job. I have a great plywood table that was hand-made by a friend.
As you know, MDF panels are versatile too and can be used to create cabinets, flooring, as well as different kinds of furniture.
But the real reason you’re here is to find out if MDF is sustainable or not.
The short answer is this.
MDF is semi-sustainable in that it’s made from waste wood by-products. However, it can’t be easily recycled as MDF is created using glue.
Keep reading to find out more details on MDF sustainability, how it’s made, that happens with recycling MDF and the things you should keep an eye out for when buying furniture made from MDF.
What is MDF?
The name MDF stands for medium-density fibreboard.
MDF is a type of composite, engineered wood panel made from sawdust and wood shavings.
Compared to plywood, which is arguably the most popular man-made wood on the market, MDF is certainly not as strong and durable, especially when it comes to repelling water. There may be eco friendly wood treatments you can use to help this.
At the same time however, MDF is a lot more affordable than plywood. It’s also smoother, denser, more flexible and more consistent throughout.
That’s one of the main reasons why this material is a favourite among painters and decorators. Painting on a smooth coat, preferably with an eco friendly paint, is a lot easier on a MDF surface than working with the rougher, more inconsistent plywood.
But how are these convenient panels made, and how sustainable is MDF compared to other man-made wood materials?
How is MDF made?
The residual, waste products used to make MDF panels are created by breaking down both hardwood and softwood into wood fibres.
Once the wood has been broken down into residual fibres, they are then combined with paraffin wax and resin for binding. After this, it’s then pressed into sturdy sheets using pressure and heat.
The resin used to bind wood particles together comes from different sources. However, in bad news for the environment, the resin is often a formaldehyde-based one, such as urea-formaldehyde resin glue. You can have a read here on if resin is bad for the environment.
In order to obtain the raw wood fibres needed, the wood chips have to be softened and go through a refining process – this is where they are fed into a machine to separate the fibres.
The final product is free of any knots, splinters and rings, making it more uniform and easy to work with compared to natural wood.
What trees are used to make MDF?
MDF uses a mixture of hardwood and softwood trees.
In terms of what trees are best suited to obtain the wood chips, you’ll find that the vast majority of manufacturers tend to go for the North American native tree, Radiata Pine.
However, many other types of softwood and hardwood trees can be used including other pines and poplar species.
Is MDF sustainable and environmentally friendly?
A common question many ask – is MDF environmentally friendly?
MDF was born as a waste by-product – an ingenious solution to putting huge amounts of leftover wood shavings and wood chips to good use.
With MDF production ramping up throughout the 1980s, the compressed wood boards we know today have started to use all sorts of waste material beyond shavings and sawdust alone — some manufacturers even use waste paper!
As a start, this is good news for MDF sustainability.
In order to answer this question fully though, there are a couple of factors we need to consider: the wood sourcing and glue used.
MDF sustainability issue 1
First, there’s the sourcing issue.
Not all MDF manufacturers make their panels from true leftover wood materials. Sometimes, pines and spruce that are too small or too thin for logging are used instead. This use of virgin wood logs isn’t environmentally friendly.
However, the vast majority of MDF is still made from recycled waste materials collected from sawmills, meaning that producing most MDF doesn’t contribute to deforestation. A sustainable move that’s much better for the environment.
MDF sustainability issue 2
Next, we need to consider the impact of the resin glue needed to compress the wood fibres.
Most types of MDF use a urea-formaldehyde glue to bind everything together. As the slightly scary name might suggest, this glue takes a fair amount of processing to create and uses synthetic materials.
Not only is this glue considered toxic for humans, it also contaminates the wood product.
It’s this mixture of different materials that causes big issues when trying to reuse and recycle MDF.
Is MDF recyclable?
The use of synthetic glue means MDF is recyclable.
That doesn’t mean that the material can’t be recycled at all, however.
Promising new technology is able to recover wood fibres from MDF by separating the fibre from the adhesives. As yet though the process is far from accessible and requires specialised recycling facilities, which is also true for the likes of coffee bags and plastic films.
We also have to consider durability. MDF is not as durable as natural wood, meaning that you’ll usually have to dispose of your furniture after a few years (usually around ten to fifteen years).
Once it’s reached the end of its life, MDF can’t be recycled like most varieties of virgin raw wood can. This means the only way to dispose of MDF is through incineration.
You can read more on is wood recyclable here.
Is MDF biodegradable?
Unfortunately no MDF is not biodegradable.
This is because it contains other materials than just pure wood, namely synthetic glue. This means it won’t breakdown naturally in the environment.
MDF is also not compostable for the same reasons.
What would be good if is a natural and compostable glue could be used to bind everything together, so that the MDF could be recycled and perhaps even naturally biodegradable.
Is MDF it safe?
Safety is another key concern when it comes to using MDF products. This is mainly from the presence of formaldehyde resin glue, a known human carcinogen.
According to a recent study, long-term exposure to formaldehyde resin can cause respiratory problems and skin issues, which is particularly concerning given that the chemical produces off-gas for years after making MDF.
In recent years, manufacturers have started to curb their use of the toxic resin by offering MDF made from low-formaldehyde resin instead, with some even offering MDF products with no added formaldehyde at all.
Most European manufacturers now opt for making eco-certified panels that meet the OSHA’s indoor exposure standard for the chemical (0.50 parts per million).
This is definitely a step in the right direction, but many consumers are still quite wary of formaldehyde resin and may wish to avoid it in any shape or form!
Picking the best wood for your home
So, is MDF sustainable or should you try to avoid it?
All in all, choosing this type of man-made wood over virgin wood and plywood makes for a more eco-friendly choice, as production relies on recycled materials.
Yet the use of synthetic glue and lack of reuse afterwards is far from 100% environmentally friendly.
There are pros and cons to it though and it can be arguable whether MDF is a more eco-friendly alternative to sustainably sourced FSC certified wood for example.
If you want to go the extra mile, there are ways you can make MDF a more sustainable material.
In addition to choosing no-formaldehyde products and verifying that the wood was sourced from 100% recycled wood chips and shavings, you can get in touch with a specialised UK facility like MDF Recovery to recycle your MDF furniture and flooring.
You can also keep an eye out for products made with wood alternatives like WheatBoard EcoBoard, a more sustainable man-made material made from wheat straw instead of recycled wood.
This is one of the most promising eco-friendly alternatives to MDF and plywood, so we can only hope it’ll be made more accessible in the future!
Carry on reading more blogs here…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.