The Actionable Guide On Sustainable Furniture Disposal

Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
 by Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
2022-03-12
The Actionable Guide On Sustainable Furniture Disposal

The world produces about 2 billion tonnes of waste every year which is estimated to be piling up to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. Home to just 4% of the planet’s population, the U.S. stands first in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generation, accounting for 12% of the global total.

Furniture is the number one least-recycled item in an American household, thanks to the fast furniture culture that sends almost 80% of the furniture waste straight into the dump yards.

How are landfills harmful?

The three most direct and dangerous outcomes of landfills are toxins, leachate, and methane emission.

Toxins: Toxins, particularly from hazardous waste, seep into the soil and remain a threat to people and the planet for years to come.

Leachate: Leachate is a highly toxic liquid formed in landfills and pollutes the land, groundwater, and waterways nearby.

Methane Emission: Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emission in the U.S.. Being 30 times more potent than CO2, methane is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases (GHG). The methane emissions from MSW landfills in the U.S. were reported to be equivalent to the GHG emissions from more than 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year or the emissions from nearly 12 million homes’ energy use for one year.

Landfills

These three landfill by-products directly and enormously contribute to the local bio-diversity loss or change, water contamination, health hazards, global warming, and climate change.

Why Furniture Ends Up in Landfills

The long and short answer to that question is - “Fast Furniture”.

Fast furniture is typically mass-produced using poor quality material and is sold at an extremely low price that majority of people throw away a piece of still-functional furniture than selling or donating it. The business case fails even to carry them along when you move. The easiest and cheapest option of just shifting it out of the home to the curb side to be transported to landfill best suits convenience.

Recycling appeals less when it comes to furniture due to the complex and expensive process of sorting out the variety of materials involved such as wood, metal, plastic, glass, leather, rubber, foam, and cloth. Many of them also carry toxic chemicals that make it almost impossible to recycle, leaving landfills as the most preferred choice of disposal.

How to Handle Your Old Furniture More Sustainably?

Landfills are critical infrastructure needs of society. How can we do away with it?

The answer is we cannot, at least for now. Growing population and economies produce waste and it has to go somewhere on this planet.

The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to reduce furniture waste. We will explain about 8 different choices that you could make when it comes to dealing with your old furniture responsibly.

1. Rethink

You might be considering to dispose of furniture due to reasons such as end-of-life, damaged before lifetime, wanting to match with the changing concepts of aesthetics and trends, end of specific requirements such as crib, for simply getting rid of boredom, relocating, occasions or seasons. A piece of furniture that is replaced between 1 to 5 years is typically counted as fast furniture.

What counts as reasonable to throw away a piece and its affordability are relative. However, the damage that it can bring to the planet and people are the same.

The average American produces about 5 pounds of trash per day whereas the global average stands at 1.6 pounds. If the world consumed and wasted as much as the U.S did, the earth overshoot day, the day by when what earth can regenerate in the whole year is fully consumed, will arrive as early as in March!

Therefore, rethink, reconsider and weigh your reasons against these dimensions and be accountable for the choices you make. You may want to retain your furniture as it is or explore some of the options discussed further down here.

2. Restore

Furniture restoration is the process of restoring an old, typically a timeless antique piece to its original and fresh state without altering its structural veracity or outer appearances. The effort is often non-invasive and is limited to deep cleaning, cosmetic repairs or even adding a coat of original polish to make it look new.

Furniture restoration steps

The choice is most appropriate when you are dealing with an old asset that is structurally still very strong to sustain for another few years if maintained. This is often worth an effort if you are restoring an old family asset or sentiment.

3. Refinish

Refinishing is going a few steps deeper beyond restoration. When the furniture needs more than just cleaning, cosmetic repairs, and repolishing, you will need to get more invasive to save it. For example, if the paint or the finish is peeling off, reapplying it on top may not stick. Refinishing often involves processes that strip off the current finish, prepare the surface to be reset, and reapply a new material or coat that can potentially give a completely new look and/or life to the furniture. Refinishing can be applied to various materials such as wood, metal, glass, and plastic. Re-upholstering a couch can also be counted as a refinish effort.

The overall steps involved in refinishing can be similar to that of restoring. However, as opposed to restoration, refinishing can/may

  • Require more than cosmetic repairs and replacements.

  • Involve structural or material changes.

  • Deliver a completely new look.

  • Be more time-consuming and costly.

  • Even require some external help from an expert.

The whole project can be exciting and fulfilling, depending on your interest in the subject. E.g. distress painting is often accoladed by beginners that it liberates you from perfectionism and technical knowledge, takes minimal effort, and often delivers terrific outcomes.

4. Repurpose

When the furniture is reimagined to serve a different purpose and made to look like an entirely different product, that effort is called repurposing. A door may be repurposed as a tabletop, a tub reborn as a couch, chairs joined to make a bench, and so on.

You can consider repurposing when

  • The furniture doesn’t serve its current purpose but it has major still-functional part(s) that can be put to use.

  • You can afford to spend a good amount of time.

  • You are looking for DIY projects to be done alone or with family /friends towards making a memorable piece.

  • You want to explore your creative side.

  • You want to make a business out of your time and creativity.

You can find many examples online about how a thrift shop pennyworth furniture was transformed into a valuable asset worth a few hundred or thousands very creatively.

You can easily find many local businesses that provide Furniture Restoration, Refinish and Repurpose services. Here is a list of sample services sources that you can refer to.

5. Donate

If your specific situation does not allow you to opt for any of the four options we discussed so far, the next best option could be donating it to someone who needs it. There are several charity groups and non-profit organizations that can ensure that a good piece of furniture finds a new owner and home that it deserves than meeting its destiny in a dump yard. Most such organizations have their set of criteria regarding the type and condition of the furniture, and the guidelines to package them.

Donation allows you to save the time and effort required otherwise in the process of restoration, refinish or repurpose. At the same time, it also presents a potential opportunity to claim tax deductions while doing good for society.

Here is a list of agencies and non-profit organizations that can guide you on the subject.

Organization

Description

Donation Town

Works with local charities. Arranges for free pick-ups.

Pick Up Please

A critical support service for veterans. Accepts only small and lightweight items.

Furniture Bank Network

Picks up furniture donations that directly goes to those who cannot afford furniture to set up their homes.

Goodwill

The organization sells donated furniture through its thrift shops and the proceeds are used to fund job training and placement programs.

Salvation Army

Sells the furniture donations through thrift shops. The Salvation Army assists those in need across various categories, including survivors of domestic violence, homelessness, human trafficking, and natural disasters.

AMVETS

Sells the furniture donations through thrift shops. The proceeds are used to fund its veteran assistance programs, such as community outreach and job training.

Habitat for Humanity Restores

Network of non-profit home improvement stores and donation centers that sell new and gently used furniture. The proceeds are used to build strength, stability, and self-reliance locally and around the world.

Pick My Donation

Connects you with local charities to pick up your donations. Convenient for heavier goods.

Homeless shelters, Local Women and Family shelters

Check out your local organizations. Many of them accept furniture and home appliances.

6. Sell or Trade

Selling your old furniture can be the best-suited choice if you are moving across the country or moving urgently or downsizing, as you may have more to deal with in number and value. Several online marketplaces will enable you to get a fair value for your used furniture. These portals come with very user-friendly features that can make your journey smooth and seamless through listing, bidding, and exchange.

A few tips to keep in mind for faster and better sales are:

  • Pictures: Good photographs showing the potential of the piece can seal a good deal quickly. Setting the room and furniture for a pleasing click will pay back in time and price.

  • Description:Provide a simple but clear description of the product type and condition. Search engine friendly keywords can be helpful. Measurements, brand, age, and colors are important. It is better to disclose flaws if any.

  • Fair price: Quote a fair price. Overpricing is a common mistake observed in these portals. Research average prices on similar products listed around. Be ready to negotiate.

Here is a list of online marketplaces to sell used furniture.

An old-styled garage sale or a car boot sale may also be considered if that suits your location and objectives.

In recent years, some of the brands such as Ikea and Sabai have launched furniture buy-back programs as part of their sustainability initiatives and meeting their Net Zero targets. Trading off your old furniture for store credit with such brands can be an alternate choice to selling them.

7. Recycle

A good percentage of otherwise discarded furniture may still find a home if the options of ‘donation’ are well explored. However, it is possible that the furniture was so well used or damaged that you cannot find a fitting solution among any of the methods we discussed so far for various reasons. The last best option to deal with such wastage is to recycle them.

Recycling is the process of collecting, segregating, and processing the used materials to turn them into other useful products or by-products. Recycling conserves energy and the environment. Recycling just 10 plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a laptop for 25 hours.

You will need to call your local county or municipality to determine the most suitable recycling option available to you. Some charge a fee for bulk item removal and some may not accept specific types of materials or sizes. You will have to then rely on a local private junk removal service. Some of them even pay in the form of coupons, store credits, or even cash.

Having learned about fast furniture, the amount of waste being produced, and the limited recycling practices in furniture, do take an extra step to understand and compare the agencies on their recycling practices and statistics so that you are taking an extra step of accountability in making sure that your old furniture is not contributing to the planet’s destruction if that can be avoided.

Here is some useful information about recycling options and agencies.

Organization

Description

Organization

Description

Recyclebank

Provides a rewards program for every item you recycle. A certified B Corporation company.

Freecycle

The Freecycle Network is a worldwide network of "gifting" groups (giving and getting stuff free) to divert reusable goods from landfills.

Nextdoor

A hyperlocal social networking service for neighborhoods. Nextdoor accepts bulky items.

1-800-GOT-JUNK

Franchised junk removal company.

Earth911

Provides extensive recycling database, services, and solutions.

Recycle Nation

Provides technology platform to find recycling centers and solutions.

Useful information and guidelines from US EPA

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

8. Upcycle

When an item is recycled, it is getting either downcycled or upcycled. The term downcycle is almost used as a synonym to recycle as most of what is recycled is downcycled. In downcycling, an item is broken down to create new raw material, often of inferior quality, and is sent back to the production line to be reused. On the other hand, in upcycling, the waste products are repaired, reused, repurposed, and upgraded to create new products of higher value. This is similar to the ‘repurpose’ option discussed earlier, but differentiated to represent the industrial upcycle stream, after you send an item to recycle.

Upcycling when compared to downcycling

  • Consumes less energy as it reuses old material and does not go through the process of creation of new raw material.

  • Produces less waste.

  • More environment friendly.

  • Creates better value.

  • Reduces cost of reproduction.

There are established manufacturing organizations that reuse waste products to create upcycled products. As a consumer, you can promote upcycled products, services, and brands.

Brands such as SPACE, assist you in reinventing your workplace by upcycling and reimagining your existing furniture assets. The brands such as Etsy Reclaimed Furniture, Burrow, Made Trade and Sabai have launched products using upcycled material.

Wrapping It Up

To summarize, we have included all the points of the post in the decision mode belowl. The idea is that you can take any piece of used furniture that you are contemplating how best to handle for its future journey.

What you can do with your used furniture

We hope this can inspire some thinking in terms of alternatives to letting it end in the landfill. For any ideas or suggestions please reach out.

Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
by Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
Thara is an ESG strategist and consultant who advice companies on sustainable processes. On Interiorbeat Thara writes about the standards, eco-labels and processes used in the furniture industry. Her work is featured in media as The Economic Times and Fortune India.
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