Some people obsess over furniture. Others hardly even notice it's there. One way or the other, making environmentally savvy choices in furnishing your home or office can make a big difference in your impact on the planet and your health. The modern sustainability movement has attracted such a large number of innovative designers that it's hard to know where to start. Outdoor furniture is made from a variety of natural and manufactured materials. Most buyers are looking for patio furniture that is built to last, looks fresh and new for years to come, stays attractive despite exposure to the elements, and is easy to maintain. Some materials are more durable than others and some withstand exposure to the elements better.
In order to make the best purchasing decision when buying outdoor or patio furniture, one should investigate the characteristics of each type of material, paying close attention to the pros and cons of each. Some may be more resistant to wind or rain, while others will last longer in sunshine or heat. Whether a piece of furniture is made from wood, cloth, metal, plastic, or whatever else, there are earth-friendly options. When cave people realized that boulders weren't the most comfortable things to sit on, wood was almost certainly where they looked, so let's start there. The world needs more trees, not less, so practices that lead to deforestation aren't any good.
Wood from sustainably harvested forests, sustainably harvested tree farms, and reclaimed wood are the main sources. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a great standard of certification that controls clear-cutting and promotes good working conditions. Patio furniture comes in a wide variety of wood types that can be used if one wants a warmer, more casual and natural look. Popular wood types include teak, pine, cedar, eucalyptus, and redwood. Hardwoods tend to be more durable and long-lasting, with teak, jarrah, and shorea lasting up to 50 years, and redwood and roble lasting up to 25 years. Treating wood with special oils and sealants will increase its lifespan significantly.
If wood is taken care of, and sometimes even if it isn't, it can last a really, really long time. So shouldn't we be able to make good use of all the wood that's already out there? A lot of designers think so and are doing just that. Reclaimed wood usually comes from old furniture, houses, or other built things that are ready for some friendly reincarnation, from flawed wood, or from scraps from a factory that makes other stuff.
Softwoods like cedar and pressure treated pine, although not as durable as hardwoods, do last for years outdoors. Pressure treated pine is treated to resist rot and water and will last up to 20 years.
More and more furniture is being made from recycled plastics and metals as well, Plastic is usually the least expensive option. Plastic furniture is highly portable, can be made from recycled materials, and chairs can be stacked for storage. Unfortunately plastic is not always the best looking option and may not last as long as other materials if one buys flimsy furniture. More sturdy plastic furniture is available that is weather resistant and durable. Recycled materials require less processing and fewer resources, and help support the market for recycled materials. Technologies are always improving, meaning that recycled plastics and metals are always going up in quality.
There are exceptions. Products certified Cradle to Cradle (C2C) like certified office chairs from Herman Miller and Steelcase, can be easily taken apart, sorted into their constituent parts, and recycled at the end of their useful lives. They may start with virgin material but it is designed to be recyclable. One should store plastic inside to prevent pitting and fading, although higher end pieces tend to last longer without showing wear. It can be cleaned with soapy water and a scrubbing brush (if needed), making it easy to care for and maintain. Plastic can be shaped, molded, and colored into just about any design, making it a good choice for those who want something different.
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