From the Earth for a Better Earth

Growing environment awareness of consumers have led to more alternative materials being used in furniture making. Here is a look at some alternative Earth-friendly materials that furniture makers should embrace. By Rachel Kwek 

With the growing awareness of the strain we are putting on the wood resources on our Earth, a number of materials have been increasingly used as alternatives to wood in furniture making. These materials hold huge potential in sustaining the furniture industry without killing our forests for wood. How sea grass and straw are such viable options has also redefined our idea of waste. Aside from the issue of cost, finding out more about the viability of alternatives for traditional wood sources will help manufacturers determine how they can tap into these wonderful, quickly renewable resources. 

 

Sea Grass

Characterised by intricate woven designs in a variety of natural hues, sea grass furniture are beautiful pieces that will inject eco-chic into any home. While they look like other materials commonly used in wicker furniture such as rattan and willow, sea grass comes from plants that live in the sea.

Sea grass is usually used to produce wicker furniture by weaving attractive patterns on furniture frames. Common pieces made from sea grass are chairs, sofas, bed frames and tables, and they are available at a range of price points. German designer Carolin Pertsch has used eelgrass and sea wrack gathered from German coasts to make sturdy stools with a minimalist vibe. The manufacturing of these unique pieces involve combining shredded sea grass with bio-resin in moulds. Pertsch said the texture of the finished product resembles that of cork. 

While being a relatively inexpensive and practical alternative material for furniture making, the challenge in using sea grass comes in the form of expert knowledge and manpower needed for weaving pieces by hand.

 

Xanita board

Xanita board comes in sheets and is made by sandwiching recycled, post-consumer paper waste and sugar cane waste among layers of thick paper. While recycled material does not sound like the strongest material around to build your furniture out of, the recycled material becomes incredibly rigid when laid in a honeycomb structure and combined with paper. It has been commonlyused as a structural core for doors, cabinets, tables and the like. Not only does X-board provide strength comparable with that provided by wood, it is also relatively low-cost, making it a good choice for inexpensive furniture. As it is lightweight, it is easy to transport and would significantly reduce freight. 

This makes it an excellent alternative to medium-density fibreboards and particle boards that are commonly used as cheaper alternatives to real wood. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, resins used in the manufacture of composite wood products such as medium-density fibreboards and particle boards are a common source of environmental formaldehyde; when inhaled, formaldehyde irritates the eyes, skin, nose and throat and can also potentially cause certain types of cancer. 

This versatile and fully recyclable material can be cut, printed, upholstered, laminated, painted and faced with decorative foils. It can also be faced with veneer for enhanced strength and durability. It has therefore been widely used for in-store furnishings, exhibition stands and even as a construction material of walls and lightweight bulkheads.

 

Coconut Wood (Cocowood)

Coconut timber or Cocowood is wood that is harvested from coconut trees. The plant is traditionally cultivated only for the fruit and the trunks used to be discarded after the trees stop bearing fruit. However, interest in using the plant as a potential source of commercial timber has grown over the years. Cocowood has been used commercially for things like flooring and furniture in recent years and has long been used in the Philippines for building construction.

Three kinds of wood can be obtained from the coconut trunk yields three kinds of wood from its three distinct zones: the outermost dermal layer gives high-density timber (600 kg/m3 and above), the centre sub-dermal layer gives medium-density timber (400 kg/m3 to 599 kg/m3) and low-density timber (below 400 kg/m3). The density of cocowood is also higher at lower parts of the trunk. Because of difficulty in differentiating the timber of varying densities after a trunk is sawed, it is important that a sorting system be in place to categorise it when the trees are felled.

 

High-density cocowoodhas strength comparable with that of Apitong, White Lauanand Tanguile, which are commonly used as structural materials for building construction, making high-density cocowood a viable substitute for hardwoods.A Janka ball hardness of 112,5 - 154,7 kgf/cm2 also makes it harder than oaks (70,3 - 84,4 kgf/cm2) and Douglas-fir (35,9 kgf/cm2). Low density cocowood, however, are better suited for non-load bearing structures.

There are numerous applications for cocowood; in particular, harder, high-density cocowood is suitable for load-bearing structures such as pillars, joists, furniture, flooring and staircases. Additionally, its natural appearance and beautiful grain makes it a promising material for the manufacture of furniture. Utilising cocowood increases the raw material base of the woodworking industry and reduces the cutting down of rainforest trees.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), cocowood is three to four times cheaper than traditional timber. Cocowood needs to be adequately seasoned before use and treatment with preservatives will improve its durability and extend its service life by protecting it from fungi and wood boring insects. FAO has said that there is considerable potential for the commercialisation of cocowood in both the short and long term and one of the factors that support this is the fact that coconut wood processing technologies and processes, which enable the efficient commercial utilisation of cocowood, had been developed.

 

Straw

 

Straw has proven itself to be a viable material for furniture making and it can be from any grain producing plant such as barley, rice and wheat. For instance, wheat straw, otherwise discarded as a waste product of wheat farming, has been used to make wheat straw particle boards (known as wheatboard in the US). These boards are made by combining coarsely ground straw with glue and then pressing them into boards. Straw-based particle boards are not only lighter than wood-based particle boards but can also be cut and sanded easily. There is little obstacle in replacing wood-based particle boards with its straw-based counterparts as they can be machined in a similar fashion as regular wood particle boards and made in different sizes, thickness and strength. Because of this, SPBs have been used for various wood products such as furniture, flooring, cabinetry and doors. Due to the abundance and availability of this agriculturalby-product, furniture makers can lower production costs by turning to straw-based particle boards.

Thousands of tons of straw are burned as waste in China each year and this causes significant environmental damage. Thus, other than reducing the need to use wood, the other major advantage of using straw-based particle boards is the minimisation of large-scale air pollution caused by the burning of straw waste. Many of the SPB produced these days do not contain formaldehyde so none of this harmful substance will be released into the environment during their manufacture and use. WanHua, a Chinese chemical company, is among those that produce these formaldehyde-free SPBs. Its SPBs (known as zero e-straw board) are certified to be formaldehyde-free by National Centre for Quality Supervision and Testing of Wood and Bamboo Products. The SPBs the company producenot only boast excellent mechanical properties and have surfaces that can be easily decorated, they also absorb noise, provide heat insulation and does not burn easily.

 

Rattan

Rattan is a palm that has long been used as building material and to make furniture and handicrafts. Most of its around 600 species are native to the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Australia. The outer layer of the vine-like stem of this plant is typically separated from the core and used for weaving or binding furniture joints together. Incredibly light and flexible yet tough and durable, it lends itself well to a range of furniture.However, as the colour of rattan tends to fade when exposed to sunlight over time, some people may prefer to use it only for indoor furniture. Interestingly, Italian scientists had found that rattan is a good material for the manufacture of wood-derived artificial bones. 

As compared to timber, rattan not only grows faster but is also easier to harvest and transport, making it an attractive alternative. Rattan grows best with trees around them for support so its growing them for commercial uses could indirectly help protect forests as well. Some species of rattan can also be cultivated on a smaller scale in orchards. The cultivation and sale of rattan is an important source of income for rural communities in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. Thus, tapping into this resource also helps alleviate poverty for these people who rely on selling it for a living. 

The majority of commercially used rattan is harvested from tropical rainforests. According to World Wildlife Fund, rattan populations have dwindled in the past few decades due to deforestation and there is now a shortage of supply.

 

Bamboo 

One of the fastest growing plants in the world, the hollow, hard stems of the bamboo plant has found many uses from containers to furniture to houses. Design options are plenty owing to the fact that it is sturdy, can be uniformly split lengthwise and can be cut into different sizes. Bamboo can be used for both indoor and outdoor furnishings and offers a good alternative to hardwood for flooring. 

Bamboo has commonly been marketed as an eco-friendly resource as it is believed to help in carbon sequestration – the capturing and storing environmental carbon dioxide – and thus majorly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and mitigate global warming. But a recent study on two bamboo plants (published in the journal Plant Biology this year) raises questions over the status of this plant as a climate change warrior. The study aimed at better understanding how the recent interest in growing and using bamboo would affect carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere suggests that bamboo plants are net emitters rather than net sinks of carbon dioxide. However, experts, including the researchers themselves agree that the findings are inconclusive and more in-depth study is required.

There are many considerations behind each choice of material said materials scientist, Andrew Dent, who serves as vice president of Material ConneXion, an institute and library for study of eco-friendly materials. For bamboo, these include how processing and transporting it would impact the environment. Also, the clearing of forests for bamboo cultivation is in direct conflict with the environmental benefits its use is supposed to bring.

While challenges may exist for large-scale furniture manufacturers who are used to working with wood, these materials that offer options to produce aesthetically appealing and earth-friendly pieces are highly worth exploring.

 

 

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  • Last modified on Monday, 30 May 2016 06:56
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