In exploring ways to build more environmentally friendly cabinets I’ve identified a number of factors that should be considered. Below I’ve listed the main elements that contribute to the environmental impact of cabinetry.
With most big name cabinet suppliers the cabinets are built in a central warehouse and shipped cross-country to their final destination. This is a very inefficient method since assembled cabinets take up a lot of space. Far more raw materials can be shipped on the same trucks and trains which then can be turned into cabinets after arriving at their final destination. Aside from the space they take up there’s the packaging. Any cabinet that’s built and shipped long distance gets individually packaged creating a significant amount of cardboard waste. Locally built cabinets are much less likely to be so heavily packaged since they travel short distances and are handled by the people who build them.
The traditional method of building cabinets involves building a lot of small boxes that get put together to form the end result as shown in the images bellow.
I prefer to build my cabinetry in longer units, which eliminates the doubling up of the sidewalls of the cabinetry leading to much less material usage. Also since cabinets are usually installed up against a wall they can be built without a back eliminating even more material. An 8’ run of cabinetry like the one shown bellow saves about 1 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood. By using quality materials and construction these cabinets are built with less materials than conventional cabinets and will still out perform the majority of the cabinets on the market when it comes to durability.
Even if a back is desired on the cabinets it will still require less materials than conventional cabinetry.
There are a lot of pre-built cabinets on the market now where the pieces are shipped and then assembled by the end user. This is a more efficient method of shipping but these cabinets are usually shipped from further away, often from other countries where the labor is cheaper and the environmental regulations are more lenient. The other problem with pre-built cabinetry is that the method of assembly does not produce near the quality of a cabinet built by a professional. It does not take long for the assemble-yourself cabinets to begin to degrade if they are subjected to any significant amount of stress.
I always recommend cabinets that are built out of plywood rather than the particleboard that most cabinets are built out of. Those who build their cabinets out of particleboard will tout the fact the particleboard is a more environmentally friendly product since it is made with more remnant material, which is true. But what is also true is that particleboard cabinets will have to be replaced sooner because particleboard is not a very durable material. With particleboard cabinets it doesn’t take long for the hardware to begin to pull loose and for the cabinets to come apart. Usually to replace cabinets requires replacing counter tops and back splashes as well. Also particleboard does not stand up well to moisture, which is usually present in kitchens and bathrooms, (the places where the majority of cabinets are going to be in a home). So ultimately I think that particleboard cabinets lead to much more waste than higher quality plywood cabinets.
Also a quality cabinet can be refaced painted or re-purposed as styles change.