Compostable furniture might seem strange at first, but the idea isn’t as out of reach as you might think when you consider the latest advancements in sustainable design. While digesting the concept of ecological furniture, Jonsara Ruth wants you to think about wood. The co-founder and design director of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design says this might be the simplest form of biodegradable furniture. “It’s the one everyone knows,” she adds. Growing from the Earth, wood can just as easily degrade in it, nurturing the next generation of plants to grow. In fact, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
When we talk about it, your bed frame, table or chest of drawers aren’t just aesthetically pleasing decor items, they could be the start of a compostable furniture revolution. “We call it wood, we call it frame, we call it all kinds of things, but it’s plant cellulose at the molecular level,” says Jonsara. “It’s a plant and it biodegrades.”
The term “compostable furniture” probably sounds futuristic, but it really is anything but. “It takes a new way of thinking, which is actually a traditional way of thinking,” says Elise McMahon, founder of LikeMindedObjects. “What seems a little new and new now is actually how the world worked until the Industrial Revolution.” Elise creates sets, furniture, clothing and accessories through LikeMindedObjects with the goal of designing with sustainable circular systems. “But I don’t want to claim perfection,” she adds.
The case of mono-material design furniture
The biodegradation of a piece of furniture depends on one thing: the material from which it is made. “One strategy for biodegradable or recyclable furniture is for it to be mono-material,” explains Elise. Many substances, such as wood, can be easily recycled or composted on their own. However, when combined with other materials, as is the case with many pieces of furniture, the product loses its ability to break down.
For example, the reason so much of our wooden furniture is currently not biodegradable is that it is coated with synthetic finishes, such as polyurethane. “Basically what you’re doing is coating it with plastic, which slows down its ability to biodegrade,” Jonsara says. However, if the product were coated with a vegetable oil like linseed or tung oil, the bigger problem, like the product itself, might one day go away. Model No., a furniture company based in Oakland, Calif., uses bio-resins that easily compost over time to finish their products. Jeffrey McGrew, CTO and co-founder of the company, describes bio-resins as “soft to the touch”. He also notes that “the surface has excellent wear characteristics over time, so it stays looking good after heavy use.”