Product Design

The Dangers of Disposable Furniture

Sing O Muse, of the terrible furniture that once adorned my college apartments. Sing of the pockmarked TV stand made of the heaviest particle board. Of the back pain my father and brother have endured with (not so) quiet humility thanks to their heroic lugging of said TV stand up shaky apartment stairs. Sing of my bookshelf with the unpronounceable Swedish name that warped with the first rainstorm of the season.

As a recent graduate school grad with limited funds, I’ve been known to head to superstores that allow me to furnish my apartments with lower-priced furniture, oft-fashioned out of manufactured, disposable materials like particleboard or medium-density fiberboard.

Non-sustainable disposable furniture

I’ve been drawn to disposable furniture for reasons I hear echoed by others in my age group:

  • I’m broke.
  • The furniture only has to last me a year or two.
  • It’s quick and easy!
  • I enjoy Ikea cinnamon rolls.
  • Did I mention I’m broke?

It feels strange to think about investing in a beautiful coffee table when you’re in your twenties, partly because there are so many other life decisions that deserve attention (and funds). But the advantages to investing in well-made, quality furniture are critical when it comes to sustainability and repairability.

Disposable furniture made from particle board

What’s the problem(s)?

Particle board has its virtues: it’s environmentally friendly because it’s composed of wood scraps and leftovers, as opposed to clear-cutting virgin forests. Plus, component furniture, like the kind you’d find in Ikea, can be creatively hacked for reuse and customization.

Unfortunately, pressed furniture also has its downsides. The Environmental Protection Agency cautions that burning plywood or particleboard releases toxic chemicals. Even when not on fire, pressed and composite wood products off-gas in the home. Urea formaldehyde is a popular ingredient in pressed wood products, and the health effects of formaldehyde in this form vary from “watery eyes” to “severe allergic reactions.” The EPA’s steps to reduce exposure are basic: ventilation, or buy something else.

Beyond the health risks, a lot of pressed furniture just isn’t designed to last very long. (I’ve yet to meet anyone who is saving his BJURSTA/BÖRJE dining table for his children’s children.) And most pieces won’t be durable or repairable; pressed furniture is so cheap, it’s often easier to simply dispose of the object and buy something new.

What’s the answer?

Americans spend $78 billion on furniture per year—disposable furniture won’t go away anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that college students are required to buy furniture that won’t last past the first semester.

  • First of all, not every piece of furniture in superstores is made of pressed wood products. You can find solid wood pieces amongst the pressed wood products with a little extra research.
  • If you’re lucky enough to inherit furniture, take advantage. The solid wood coffee and side tables I was given by my grandparents have followed me all over California, and they’ve held up incredibly well—which is more than I can say for my Target TV stand.
  • Check out antique stores, flea markets, and Craigslist. Yes, you will run into extravagantly over-priced items, but deals are out there.
  • If you’re concerned about sustainability, check out this furniture buying guide from our friends at TreeHugger for tips on keeping your living space green.

In any case, we need to rethink our frequent interactions with objects that are designed to fall apart quickly. This goes for our electronics, but it also goes for everyday items like our furniture. Interior Designer Heather Clark puts it best: “After people are finished with the furniture in their homes, it becomes waste in a landfill along with other materials that can not be reused. When you consider that the average household replaces furniture every five to seven years, it becomes clear that such practices are appalling.”

Forget the warped bookshelf and the chipped TV stand—long-term effects, like end-of-life, are the true dangers of disposable furniture.