How Sustainable Is Particle Board (LDF)? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Particle Board (LDF)? Here Are the Facts

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:13 Minutes

Follow
this site

follow follow

Impactful Ninja is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more Learn more .

Affiliate Disclosure

Hey fellow impactful ninja ?

You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.

  • Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.

  • But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.

Why do we add these product links?

First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.

And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.

What do these affiliate links mean for you?
  1. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.

  3. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.

What do these affiliate links mean for us?
  1. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).

  3. And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.

What does this mean for me personally?

You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.

Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.

Stay impactful,

Particle board is a wood-based product that doesn’t contribute to more deforestation because it uses only wood waste material. This engineered wood is an excellent way to recycle wood chips, shavings, and sawdust collected from sawmills. However, the chemicals used in glues that necessitate the formation of these boards are a cause for concern. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of particle board?

The sustainability of particle board depends on its components: wood and glues. Using wood waste is sustainable because of the carbon uptake by timber trees. But, because of synthetic adhesives, particle board is not biodegradable and has no carbon-offset value. Also, some glues emit toxic gases.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of particle board, otherwise known as Low-Density Fiberboard (LDF), when the material is used for furniture and flooring. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable particle board products.

Here’s How Sustainable Particle Board (Low-Density Fiberboard) Is

LDF panels could be made and consumed sustainably if manufacturers source environmentally friendly components and consumers arrange to recycle particle board furniture properly. Wood is mostly a sustainable material because of timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential. And using wood waste increases the material’s environmental benefits. Though most glues contain toxic chemicals, there are natural-based bonding alternatives, which are more environmentally friendly. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of particle board, we assess the life-cycle of particle board furniture and household items. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of each stage in a product’s life-cycle, from the making to the recycling. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of furniture and flooring made with particle board panels. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant. 

The life-cycle stages of particle board panelsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of particle board componentsSourcing waste material for particle board panels can be sustainable thanks to timber trees’ carbon sequestration and the utilization of chips, shavings, and dust in sawmills. On the other hand, glue raises environmental concerns as commonly-used resins in particleboard panels often contain toxic chemicals. However, natural-based bonding alternatives can be used to make LDF panels more environmentally friendly. 
Manufacturing of particle boardManufacturing particle board panels can have a significant carbon footprint due to the energy needed to run machinery to process the wood waste and make the resin. 
Transporting of particle board componentsTransporting can be another carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of particle board furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles. Transporting points include taking timber to sawmills, delivering wood waste to Particle board factories, and then bringing particle board furniture to stores. Particle board panels made with wood waste from local sawmills have a lower carbon footprint than imported (engineered) woods. 
Usage of particle boardUsing particle board wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of particle boardThe end-of-life stage for particle board furniture is not as sustainable as natural wood because most LDF panels are non-biodegradable. However, particle board panels can be recycled, which is the most sustainable scenario for its end-of-life stage. 

We’ll say that particle board is a fairly sustainable material because of its nature as a by-product made from wood waste. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product depends on many factors. These include the forestry practices, the bonding components, the transportation distances, and the type of hauling vehicles. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Particle Board (Low-Density Fibreboard) Components

Sourcing waste material for particle board panels can be sustainable thanks to timber trees’ carbon sequestration and the utilization of chips, shavings, and dust in sawmills. On the other hand, glue raises environmental concerns as commonly-used resins in particleboard panels often contain toxic chemicals. However, natural-based bonding alternatives can be used to make LDF panels more environmentally friendly. 

What Is Particle Board Made Of And What Does This Mean for Sustainability

The components for particle board are wood and a bonding agent. We will look at each of these for their sustainability. 

How Sustainable is the Wood Used for Particle Board Panels 

Particle board panels are made with wood pulp from sawmill waste like shavings and timber residue. Because of the high demand, there have been other materials used to make LDF panels, such as residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane, the sap of euphorbia, or the weed-like water hyacinth. However, this article focuses on particle board panels made with wood waste. 

Sourcing wood for LDF panels doesn’t contribute to deforestation because the input is the otherwise waste material, not virgin wood. However, timber harvesting practices remain an important factor. If the wood chips come from illegally cut logs, then any particle board panels made with them are not sustainable. 

How Sustainable Are the Bonding Agents Used for Particle Board Panels 

Wood particles in LDF panels are bound together thanks to a bonding agent. Some bonding agents are not biodegradable because they are synthetic – the most commonly used resins – or made with inorganic material. However, there are increasing numbers of organic-based adhesive alternatives. These are more environmentally friendly. 

Here are several bonding agents used in the binding process of LDF panels: 

  • Plant-based glue, such as soy adhesive 
  • Animal-based glue, such as blood glue
  • Synthesis glue containing formaldehyde, such as phenolic resin and urea-formaldehyde resin 
  • Inorganic gelling material, such as concrete or magnesite

The synthetic glue, which is often used in all engineered panels, including plywood, MDF, and LDF, is problematic. The added formaldehyde releases potentially harmful gas (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air over a period of time. This process is called “off-gassing,” and a high-level exposure can cause skin rashes, shortness of breath, wheezing, and changes in lung function. 

Not all glues containing formaldehyde have the same level of off-gassing in terms of quantity and duration. Phenolic resin has a much lower emission than urea-formaldehyde resin.

Though formaldehyde at a high level is toxic, the off-gas release is often very small once the adhesive is set and cured. Engineered wood panels with added formaldehyde are safe to use once it has time to air out and/or sealed (with an appropriate coating).

Plant-based and animal-based resins are better for the environment. Firstly, they don’t let off any Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). LDF panels made with these organic compounds could be biodegradable and, thus, be recycled more easily using various methods. 

Some manufacturers use cement to make water-resistant and fire-resistant particle board panels. The cement content of these products is as much as 60%. Wood waste material accounts for only 20%, while the remaining 20% is water. Because of the composition, cement-bonded particle board panels have a different environmental impact (compared to LDF panels made mostly of wood-based particles). Data used in this article focuses on the latter group. 

Where Are Particle Board Components Usually Sourced From

The wood component used to make particle board panels comes from sawmills or forests’ waste materials. Because it is essentially a by-product, making LDF doesn’t affect tree populations. However, the harvesting method still matters because cutting down trees illegally or unsustainably can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the woods. 

One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality

The ecological impact of logging varies depending on a tree’s native forests and the forestry management practices.

The more biodiverse the forests, such as tropical rainforests in South America or Southeast Asia, the higher the cost of biodiversity loss. These bio hotspots also face rampant illegal logging and unsustainable logging, often due to lax management, to make matters worse. 

The rule of thumb for you as a consumer to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with particle board panels at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, in tropical climates, the loss in bio-diverse forests is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than that in temperate, well-managed logging forests. 

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Can Particle Board Be Sourced

Wood is generally considered a sustainable material because it is renewable. The growing and regrowing of wood also help mitigate the climate crisis through carbon sequestration. 

As a tree grows, it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. The tree acts as a carbon sink during its lifespan. The longer the lifespan, the more carbon a tree uptakes and keeps out of the atmosphere.

Being a carbon sink means that they are taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Carbon is then stored in branches, the trunk, and the root system. The bigger and taller a tree gets, the more it can hold. 

During this growing stage, timber trees uptake carbon, generally a lot more than emissions from fuel consumption during forest management processes, including regeneration, thinning, and harvest. In fact, the carbon uptake is often higher than all emissions from forestry, manufacturing, and transporting put together. 

According to a Cradle-to-Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of US wood composite panels, the carbon uptake for 1 m3 of particle board panel (with 93% wood residue) is 1,268 kg CO2eq. Because the carbon emissions calculated for all the cradle-to-gate processes total 402 kg CO2eq, the studied particle board material has a negative carbon footprint. 

A negative carbon footprint is generally the case for wood-based particle board panels thanks to carbon sequestration at the forestry stage. Also, particle board panels are made mostly with wood waste, which furthers the environmental benefits of using wood. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Particle Board Panels 

Manufacturing particle board panels can have a significant carbon footprint due to the energy needed to run machinery to process the wood waste and make the resin. 

After wood chips, shavings, and sawdust are collected and transported to the particle board manufacturing site, they typically go through these seven steps before being turned into the final product

  1. Making particles: machines covert raw material into particles of suitable size and shape
  2. Drying particles 
  3. Classifying and screening particles: a control step to ensure the size and position of particles to make the desirable types of panels (i.e., single-layer, three-layer, grade-density)
  4. Blending particles with resin to form a mattress 
  5. Hot pressing and curing the resin (to generate resin-related emissions) 
  6. Trimming and cutting to shape the final Low-Density Fiberboard 
  7. Cooling and finishing 

During these manufacturing steps, the need for fuel consumption comes from running machinery to:

  • Cut, shape and refine particles
  • Dry the particle
  • Blend the components
  • Hot-pressing at a sufficient temperature

Making glues also involves fuel consumption.

When fossil fuels are needed to run machinery or generate electricity, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, renewable energy can be used during these processes. Possible sources of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass

According to a Cradle-to-Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of US wood composite panels, fossil fuels dominate the cradle-to-gate energy. Burning fossil fuels accounts for 67% of the total energy usage for making particle board panels. Amongst the renewable energy sources, biomass has the highest share (22%). 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Particle Board (Low-Density Fibreboard) Components

Transporting can be another carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of particle board furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles. Transporting points include taking timber to sawmills, delivering wood waste to particle board factories, and then bringing particle board furniture to stores. 

Particle board panels made with wood waste from local sawmills have a lower carbon footprint than imported (engineered) woods, providing they are both sold in the US. 

Calculations made by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute showed that smaller wood hauling trucks emitted more CO2 per transported cubic meters of timber: 1.25 times more than larger wood hauling trucks, 1.3 times more than sea vessels, and six times more than freight trains. Therefore, the sustainable transportation option would be rail or large trucks running on biofuel. You can check with your particle board suppliers how their products are transported and opt for the more sustainable option. 

Low-Density Fiberboard is lightweight. This material is easier to transport and handle than solid wood and other engineered wood like plywood or MDF. Thus, they generally have a lower transporting carbon footprint. 

The Cradle-to-Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of US wood composite panels mentioned above compares the environmental impacts of three types of engineered wood: particle board, MDF and hardboard. In terms of carbon footprint, particle board has the lowest impact. The emissions during manufacturing and transportation from cradle to gate of the composite panels are as follows:

  • Particle board: 402 kg CO2eq
  • MDF: 759 kg CO2eq
  • Hardboard: 759 kg CO2eq

The assessment also looked into other building materials like cement, steel, plastic, and glass. The carbon footprint calculated for those non-wood materials is much higher than for wood composite panels. In the case of cement vs particle board, it is more than 10 times higher. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Particle Board (Low-Density Fibreboard)

Using particle board furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture storage in the products. 

Though particle board is a wood-based material, it is not as durable as natural wood. The durability of particle board is also interior to plywood and Medium-Density Fiberboard. Because LDF generally has low water resistance, these panels should not be exposed to weather elements. Indoor LDF furniture can last a few years. If the furniture is not in regular contact with water or the LDF is modified with moisture-resistant resin, the product life might be extended further. 

Though most particle board panels are not biodegradable, recycling LDF and MDF panels are becoming more efficient. This means the carbon storage role of this engineered wood can be extended. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Particle Board (Low-Density Fibreboard)

The end-of-life stage for particle board furniture is not as sustainable as natural wood because most LDF panels are non-biodegradable. However, particle board panels can be recycled, which is the most sustainable scenario for its end-of-life stage. 

There are two scenarios for particle board products – furniture and household items – at the end of their life:

  1. They can end up in landfills. As long as they don’t decompose, they keep the role of carbon storage.
  2. Wood products can also be upcycled and reused, extending their role as carbon storage and reducing the fossil CO2 emitted as much as four times when comparing, for example, a recovered hardwood flooring with a new one. New wood products often travel much further to their markets, compared with recovered wood products. The latter is typically made in urban centers and sold locally, which lowers the transportation environmental burdens.

It is possible to recycle particle board material. Still, it requires the kind of facilities that are not always available at household recycling. However, some local Household Waste Recycling Centers will take LDF products, so make sure you check in your region. 

Currently, most formaldehyde-added particle board panels are incinerated or landfilled. However, more environmentally friendly particle board panels have been made with organic resins. This type of particle board is easier to recycle and, in some cases, even biodegradable. 

How Can You Buy Particle Board (Low-Density Fibreboard) More Sustainably

As far as the wood component in particle board is concerned, relevant environmental and original certifications would help you to pick a sustainable option. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the wood in your particle board panels comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners. 

Regarding glues, there are more environmentally friendly options that you can choose. Whenever possible, go for particle board panels made with formaldehyde-free, organic adhesive. This will lower the toxicity and volatile organic compound emissions into the environment.

Similarly, if you are to seal your particle board furniture (to lower the risk of VOC emissions), pick the most environmentally friendly options available. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change. 

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can buy particle board furniture as an alternative to natural wood. It is an excellent way of utilizing wood waste. However, you need to ensure that the wood chips used in particle board are from sustainably managed forests. Also, opt for the LDF options with no-added formaldehyde to reduce toxic gases in the environment. Most importantly, use particle board furniture for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled.

Stay impactful,



Sources

Photo of author

Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

Three Related Posts

One Unrelated Post