Environment

How to Avoid Fast Furniture and Minimize Waste

Cheap, trendy and easy-to-ditch furniture comes with a hefty environmental toll.

By Carla DelgadoJan 26, 2022 9:00 AM
fast furniture
(Credit: Hadrian/Shutterstock)

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Compared to fast food and fast fashion, the idea of “fast furniture” is relatively less known and understood by the general public. In all of these, the word "fast" refers to the quick, cheap manufacturing and production of the product it describes. On the surface, it’s easy to see the benefits of fast furniture: an abundance of choices, low prices and constantly-changing design trends. However, bubbling beneath are the disadvantages we constantly overlook, like a rapidly-increasing amount of furniture waste that only gets worse each year.

There's nothing wrong with creating a more comfortable living environment. But the way many of us replace and discard furniture is wasteful and far from sustainable. And the drive to meet the increasing demand for mass-produced furniture — which is often made with poor-quality materials — is harming the environment in the process.

What Fast Furniture Means

Fast furniture refers to inexpensive and non-permanent furniture that lasts between one and five years, says Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Art and Design. “Consider it similar to fast food, in that it satisfies an immediate need but lacks sustainable nutrition.”

Nowadays, more people feel comfortable throwing out furniture and switching to trendy pieces to fit a chosen aesthetic because new ones will always be available. Furniture is increasingly being treated as disposable goods because these items are not built to last in the first place. 

“[Fast furniture] is furniture that is not only not made to last, but designed not to last, from cheap materials and construction to styles that are planned to be replaced by new fashions year after year,” says Rolf Skar, special projects manager at Greenpeace USA. “Fast furniture is often relatively cheap to buy, but almost impossible to repair or refurbish leading to an expensive, wasteful cycle of buying and throwing out.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 12 million tons of furniture are thrown out and brought to landfills every year. Although some are combusted for energy recovery — which means the waste is converted into usable heat, electricity, or fuel — toxic chemicals from fast furniture can affect the planet’s soil and water whether they end up in landfills or incinerators, says Skar. What may be surprising, however, is that “the biggest environmental and social impacts of fast furniture are linked to its creation,” he adds.

Wood is one of the most common materials used to make furniture, and the increasing global demand for low-cost timber products threatens the world’s natural forests. The deforestation caused by illegal and unsustainable logging worsens the climate and extinction crises, in turn affecting occupational health, increasing the risk of pandemics, and contributing to biodiversity loss. Toxic chemicals added to furniture products during the manufacturing process, such as formaldehyde and chlorinated tris, also pose a health risk in homes and contaminate our air and water.

“The whole lifecycle of fast furniture has a carbon footprint we can't afford,” adds Skar. “We need economies to be more ‘circular’ to maximize reuse and recycling and to minimize waste. Fast furniture takes us in the opposite direction.”

Choose Long-Lasting Material

To avoid playing a role in the cycle of fast furniture, treat your purchases as long-term investments that you’ll reap over time. “Approaching furniture as non-permanent leads to unnecessary waste and inexpensive but less durable purchasing decisions,” says McDonagh. “Consider existing needs, emerging needs, and future needs of your household.”

Many kinds of furniture today easily fall apart, so to ensure that they are able to last, consider the material itself before going through with the purchase. “One of the world's first furniture materials — real wood — is still one of the best,” says Skar. “If possible, look for FSC-certified wood or wood sourced from the U.S. where the risk of illegal logging and human rights and labor abuses are low.” Solid wood is a durable material because it can be repaired, retrofitted and resurfaced to last longer. High-quality metal furniture also lasts long and can be repaired depending on the need, or recycled if it is well-built.

Similar to major consumer products like refrigerators and washing machines, some furniture has built-in obsolescence, says McDonagh, which means it is not made to last, forcing people to replace it.

It’s best to stay away from common materials that are easily damaged and difficult to repair. For instance, fiberboard is made of chips of lower quality wood pressed together into a board shape, which is often glued together with toxic chemicals that can pollute your home, explains Skar. In addition, they are much harder to fix than solid wood. The kind of thin, hollow metal used in cheaply-made outdoor furniture tend to rust, break, and bend easily, so they’ll have to be thrown away and replaced constantly. Moreover, plastic components and coatings in furniture also wear out over time.

“Virgin plastics are made from oil and gas, and their extraction, refining, and manufacturing have a toxic impact, especially on BIPOC communities,” says Skar. “In addition, short-lived plastics are fueling the climate crisis, something none of us can afford. PVC plastics are particularly important to avoid given the toxic chemicals that can harm human health during their manufacture, use, and disposal.”

Extend Furniture Lifespan

Still, people can minimize furniture waste by extending the lifespan of their existing pieces. By taking care of them and practicing proper maintenance, their good condition can be preserved for a longer time. Accidents do happen, and furniture damage can’t always be prevented, but that’s no reason to throw an item out immediately. Most of the time, the damage isn’t permanent and you can either fix it yourself or have it repaired. “If things like water damage, tears, or breaks go beyond your capacity to fix, there are businesses that specialize in restoring and repairing furniture, from reupholstering to repairing and replacing worn-out parts,” says Skar.

If you need to get rid of furniture while it's still in good and usable shape, you can donate items to charities and secondhand shops, or sell them off online. Keep in mind that solid wood may be repurposed, as well, and you can separate materials like steel, aluminum, and metals from the furnishings and drop them off at recycling centers.

But the best way to increase your furniture's lifespan is buying items designed to last, says Skar. “That's easier and cheaper in the long run than spending time and money trying to fix something that will fail repeatedly over time. If you can, save up and spend money on a well-built piece of furniture that could last a lifetime, and even be passed on as an heirloom to family or friends.”

Make Mindful Purchases

In general, you can avoid fast furniture by buying more mindfully. Take the time to mull over your purchase by weighing its pros and cons and envisioning how it fits into your lifestyle. That way, any furniture you’ll bring into your home is something you will genuinely use for years to come. “Build up your collection of pieces that are useful in multiple home environments,” says McDonagh. “Purchasing furniture for specific spaces does not allow for the furniture to be useful should you move houses. Focus on timeless design, durable materials, avoid ‘fashionable’ colors and ensure emotional sustainability.”

If you need new furniture, try looking for secondhand pieces in garage and estate sales, resale stores, or online marketplaces first. Exhaust all available options before buying something new, and whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you truly like. “What is clear is that owning fewer objects that carry more meaning is a healthier approach to how we fill our homes,” says McDonagh. “Less can literally mean more. If we carry that to the next level, each item we introduce into our homes and lives becomes an investment. We shift our mindset from disposable to life journey and fast furniture becomes the exception rather than what we have filled our homes with.”

Beyond that, being deliberate about the things you choose to buy and own reflects that your a home is more than just a storage space — it's a living space. Each new piece of furniture you acquire should ideally be meaningful and functional.

“We are increasingly called ‘consumers’ instead of ‘people’ and companies spend huge marketing budgets convincing us to buy more and more things that we may not need, may not really like, and won't keep for long,” says Skar. “We have to take a step back and ask whether short-lived, cheaply-made stuff is actually worth our time and money and the impact on our planet.”

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