Question

I have been looking into green cabinetry. How does KCMA ESP certification compare to other green options?

Asked by Hillary Catlin
Silver Spring, MD

I am renovating my kitchen.  Specifically, from what I can tell about the KCMA ESP, it looks like some added urea-formaldehyde is allowed and wood is not required to be FSC-certified. How does KCMA ESP-certified cabinetry stack up against conventional and greener (i.e., no added urea-formaldehyde and FSC-certified lumber) options? How have the new 2011 requirements affected what qualifies for ESP certifcation?

Answer

Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

February 9, 2011

Hello Hillary,

More than any question that I have answered, this one sent me down the rabbit hole of research. There are so many shades of green, and choices about how stringent you want to be in your purchasing. Thank you for the opportunity to learn through investigating my answer.

I apologize in advance that my answer is so LONG: there is a lot going on with cabinets, and I tried to bring some clarity to the alphabet soup of different organizations and standards.

Like many interior products, green cabinets have several components.

The surface you look at is either wood veneer coated with a finish, or is a painted finish. The environmental concerns to be aware of here are that the finish should be low or no-VOC (volatile organic compound), and that the wood be certified by a reputable third-party certifier.  I believe the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the most dependable standard.

The next material in a cabinet is the fiberboard or plywood box. This material should be free of formaldehyde, especially the most dangerous urea-formaldehyde. Fiberboard, also called particleboard, can be made from recycled (either post or pre-consumer) fiber, or recovered fiber. Recovered fiber includes byproducts from farming, like wheat or rice straw. The plywood should be made of certified wood.

Then on the inside of the box you have either wood veneer again, or melamine sheet lining the inside of the cabinet and your shelves. It is important that these veneers be attached with low or zero-VOC adhesives.

So the most environmentally friendly cabinets have the following characteristics:

  • they have no-VOC finishes,
  • low-VOC adhesives,
  • certified wood veneers,
  • recycled or recovered-content fiber or certified wood plywood,
  • and have no added formaldehyde in the fiberboard or plywood.

So let's examine the standard.

The KCMA ESP (Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association Environmental Stewardship Program) is a great starting point for green, but could be much more strict. To measure the environmental effects of cabinets it uses five areas of measurement, each of which can generate between ten and forty points:

Air quality

They require that 75% of their board products meet an EPP (Environmentally Preferable Product) standard set by the CPA (Composite Panel Association -- manufacturers of plywood or particleboard). This standard says formaldehyde emissions must be less than .2 ppm by the large chamber test method (ASTM E1333). They also require that 75% of their products are finished domestically and meet local plant standards for VOCs in coatings.  

You could select greener cabinets in the following ways:

The strictest emission for the finishes are those required by the EPA and tested by Green Seal. The finish limits are measured in grams per liter of VOCs. Paints can be considered low-VOC if they have less than 50 gpl for flat, or 100 gpl for gloss. Stains and sealers can be 250 gpl.  

The CARB (California Air Resources Board) also has stricter standards for board products. Starting in 2009 it requires that particle board and plywood emit .08 to .18 ppm using the same test as above. Starting in 2010, and complete by 2012, these limits will drop to .05 ppm. Some cabinet manufacturers use this standard as an option even though they are not in California, but it is not required by the KCMA.

These criteria only test the board product, not the whole cabinet, and so a cabinet with very toxic finishes, or glues attaching the veneer, would still pass.

The KCMA standard also allows the 25% wiggle room in board product that can contain formaldehyde, and allows an exemption for product that is not bonded with urea-formaldehyde. These can still contain phenol formaldehyde resins. This means additional attention needs to be paid to the VOC emissions of the coatings and glues as outlined in the Green Seal link above.

Resource Management

The KCMA ESP requires that 75% of their board product meet the CPA EPPS (Envronmentally Preferable Product Standard) (http://) for recycled/recovered content. For particle board this is a great standard; it requires that 100% of the fiber be recycled or recovered.  

For plywood and veneers they have a slightly weaker standard, that hardwoods purchased be certified through a "recognized sustainable forestry program." However, they recognize a whole host of programs, some of which are third-party certified and some of which are self-certified by industry. I believe that third-party certified programs that look at viability of ecosystems and living wages for forest workers, such as FSC, are preferable to other programs, and would be what I would look for in an eco cabinet.

Other 3 criteria in the KCMA ESP

This standard also requires that the manufacturer have a recycling program at their site, an energy conservation program, an Environmental Management System in place, and a written environmental policy. They also should have a community involvement or charity program and be in compliance with all regulatory agencies.

Recommendations

So with such confusion about different emissions and standards, here is what I would recommend:

  • Look for cabinetry companies that at least meet the KCMA ESP standards, but inquire if they exceed the standards in any way.  Sometimes the first person that you talk to will not know, but you can find some passionate green expert in almost any company.
  • I would ask what the grams per liter of VOCs are on their finish, how their board performs in ppm formaldehyde in a large chamber test, percentage recycled content of the fiber in their board, whether their wood is certified by FSC, and how many ppm VOC their adhesives have.
  • Figure out which characteristics are most important to you and focus on them. For me that would mean eliminating as much formaldehyde as possible (and there is no known safe level). Paint and finishes taper off in their emissions over time, and much of their VOCs have dissipated within a week or two.
  • Finally, once you know what you want in a kitchen cabinet design, consider getting a quote from a local cabinet shop. Surprisingly, I have found that their quotes often match, or are lower than, stock cabinet lines, and you will be stimulating YOUR local economy!

Good luck, and please have fun doing your project.

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