MDF has become a popular and go-to man-made wood to use 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.
As you know, MDF panels are versatile too and can be used to create cabinets, flooring, and different kinds of furniture.
But the real reason you’re here is to find out if MDF is a sustainable choice. So, we’ll answer this plus take a look to see if it’s free of any toxic products 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. It’s 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, as well as 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, as laying a smooth coat of paint (preferably eco friendly paint) and cutting details on a MDF surface is a lot easier 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 and what trees are used?
The residual 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, it is very often formaldehyde-based, such as urea-formaldehyde resin glue. You can have a read up on if resin is bad for the environment here.
In order to obtain the raw wood fibres needed, the wood chips have to be softened and go through a refining process 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.
In terms of what trees are best suited to obtain wood chips, you’ll find that the vast majority of manufacturers tend to go for the American-native radiata pine, though many other types of softwood and hardwood trees can be used.
Is MDF sustainable and eco-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!
So, does this mean that MDF is sustainable?
In order to answer this question, there are several factors we need to consider.
First, there’s the sourcing issue. Not all MDF manufacturers make their panels from true leftover wood materials, as sometimes, pines and spruce that are too small or too thin for logging are used instead.
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.
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, which causes big issues when trying to reuse and recycle MDF.
Is MDF recyclable?
The use of synthetic glue makes MDF unsuitable for recycling and composting. This is because it won’t be able to degrade naturally in the environment as easily as wood with no added adhesives would. You can have a look at whether wood is recyclable here.
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.
What would be good if is a natural and compostable glue could be used to bind everything together, so that the MDF could be recyclable and perhaps even naturally biodegradable.
Finally, we 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, so the only way to dispose of it is incineration.
Looking at all these factors together, the sourcing of MDF material is certainly more sustainable than using treated virgin wood, yet the use of synthetic glue and lack of reuse afterwards is far from 100% eco-friendly.
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 eco 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.
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 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!
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