How to make a sustainable future for the kitchen industry

For the kitchen sector to be truly sustainable it must make some fundamental shifts in how it operates, says independent consultant Terry Woods…

It was interesting to read the Sustainability Special in the May issue of kbbreview and to see how companies are starting to get their mind around the issue of sustainability to produce eco-friendly products.

But the real challenge will be how larger kitchen manufacturers and board suppliers adapt and buy- in to the opportunity that presents itself.

The global population is set to increase from 7.3 to 9 billion by the end of the 21st century, some 80% of this growing population will live in cities, most of which are yet to be built.

Of this projected nine billion people, three billion will belong to the middle class, with sufficient disposable income to purchase the consumer goods that others enjoy elsewhere in the world, further draining the planets already strained natural resources.

Moving to a circular development model – which works to reduce waste before it is produced, but which treats waste as a resource when it is – is essential, and holistic and integrated sustainable waste management will be crucial.

Every year the UK alone produces about 335 million tonnes of waste, the vast majority of which is commercial, industrial and construction waste.

We need to move from waste management in a linear economy to resource management within a circular economy, by creating products from waste that will never again become waste.

The world has already grown, harvested, processed and then thrown away most of the cellulose fibres required to make everything we need in our commercial and residential interiors.

I have spent 39 years’ experience developing new products mainly in the KBB sector but recently spent two years working for a company producing high value furniture and fittings for commercial interiors manufactured from low value waste fibres.

This gave me an insight into new technologies, eco-friendly materials and the opportunity to work with third parties to develop composite board materials manufactured from low value cellulose waste fibre which could then be used in our products to enable a fully closed loop and circular economy solution.

Therefore, I would like to set out my vision for the kitchen of the future and to inspire the industry.

We have to move on from using Melamine Faced Chipboard a product that has served the industry well for the last 60 years to cleaner alternatives which don’t rely on petroleum based resins and the burning of waste material but instead is formaldehyde free, 100% recyclable, bio-degradable and fully recyclable.

Timber used to produce MFC is sustainable only because of the re-forestation that has been built to support the industry, while an abundance of waste material currently goes unused.

Companies have already recognised this and have developed new technology to manufacture eco-friendly alternatives, such as:

Particle boards manufactured from agricultural waste material such as straw, reeds, wheat, rice,corn, cotton stalks, soybean, sorghum, flax, fruit tree twigs, branches and trimmings which are then bound together using a bio resin.

Companies are using low value cellulose waste fibre such as cotton, paper, cardboard urban, farm and forest materials in combination with water, heat and pressure and absolutely no additives to produce composite fibre board panels.

Both these solutions produce extremely rigid and strong, completely non-toxic, recycled and recyclable boards, all of which are 100% biodegradable, 100% formaldehyde-free and 100% recyclable to equal product (Cradle 2 Cradle).

The technology is moving at a fast pace and it is starting to be scaled up to provide viable alternatives to MFC and MDF. CO2-neutral laminates which are free from formaldehyde and phenol are already available together with decorative foils and edge-banding made from PLA (polylactic acid) which is made from corn-based resins which are non-toxic, biodegradable and has annually renewable resources.

In addition, bio resin impregnated decorative paper is also being developed.

This however is only half the challenge as kitchen manufacturers need to be looking at ways to reduce the number of piece parts and in turn reduce the material content that is used in a kitchen.

The best way to do this is to move away from the modular units that have served us well over the last 60 years and to move to a system where units are configured from the kitchen plan.

Current door sizes would be used but instead of manufacturing say three individual units, one wider unit with a single base panel onto which end panels and mullions are attached, thus reducing the number of side panels required and the amount of material required.

So instead of using modular units to configure a plan the kitchen plan will be used to configure the size of the units and therefore the bill of materials for production. Although planning software would have to be adapted this should be relatively easy to achieve.

Common piece parts would be used which could easily be replaced, reused and recycled.

Therefore, in future all kitchens would be become bespoke albeit units would be based on 50-100mm increments as they are now.

For all of this to happen a paradigm shift will need to take place, but as we enter a new world post-pandemic hopefully something positive will happen.

We have all been taken back by how much cleaner the air and sky are, how much quieter the world has become and the realisation just how much pollution we have caused and how right the environmentalists were.

As a new dawn presents itself now is the opportunity for large board suppliers and kitchen manufacturers to focus on environmentally friendly and sustainable products and fully adopt a closed loop and circular economy based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Find Terry Woods on LinkedIn

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