This month Ikea released their KUNGSBACKA line of cabinet faces, which are made from 100% recycled materials. Interestingly, they’re using a blend of both post-manufacturing and post-consumer waste: The particleboard is made from factory-environment wood cut-offs as well as old broken pieces of furniture, and what Ikea refers to as the “foil”—the melamine-like veneer—is produced from plastic bottles harvested in Japan.
A lot of people have picked up on the KUNGSBACKA story, but I noticed that no one (including Ikea, in their publicity materials) has mentioned what kind of glue they use. For those of you unfamiliar with manufacturing, wood glue is used both to bind the components of particle board together during its production process and subsequently to adhere laminates or veneers to it. This glue can contain formaldehyde, which offgases into the air. This is the main reason I avoid particle board.
So I looked into it and found the following, written by Lorenz Isler, Sustainability Manager for Ikea Switzerland in 2014:
We aim to ensure that the volume of formaldehyde emissions from IKEA wood products corresponds with the natural output level – that is to say, very low and in accordance with the legal requirements. The current measurement for IKEA furniture is an average of 0.05 ml/m3 [parts per million] of air – approximately 50% below the legally permissible limit.
We began to take measures to lower formaldehyde emissions in 1986, following a test in Denmark on a product with too high a measurement. We then quickly decided to follow the most stringent of the national limits (in Germany), and to use this limit as a benchmark for all IKEA furniture worldwide. In 1993, we banned the use of formaldehyde in paints in our products. Formaldehyde was then removed from adhesives used for gluing veneer coatings onto furniture.
Which means that Ikea has taken an early and progressive focus on reducing formaldehyde to safe levels. Given Ikea’s size and global reach, this is good news for both the planet and their customers, and I’m kind of surprised that they didn’t trumpet this in their press materials; perhaps it’s because it’s old news to them, and/or perhaps the average consumer is ignorant enough of formaldehyde in manufacturing that it wasn’t worth addressing.
Speaking of which, while searching for Ikea’s glue formulations I came across a lot of information about formaldehyde safety data, its usage in manufacturing and its differing standards around the world. It’s a fairly complicated topic and one that I worry might be too convoluted for this blog; however, if you readers—particularly you industrial designers who work with particle board, plywood or MDF—would like me to go through the documentation and unpack everything to make it easier to understand, please let me know in the comments and I’ll hop to it.