Compostable furniture might sound strange at first, but the idea isn’t as far out of reach as you might think when considering the latest advancements in sustainable design. While digesting the concept of eco-friendly furniture, Jonsara Ruth wants you to think about wood. The co-founder and design director at Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab says this might be the simplest form of biodegradable furniture. “That’s the one that everybody’s familiar with,” she adds. Sprouting from the Earth, wood can just as easily degrade back into it, nourishing the next generation of plants to grow. In fact, it’s what it’s supposed to do.
When discussed like this, your bed frame, table, or dresser aren’t just aesthetic pieces of decor, they could be the beginning of a compostable furniture revolution. “We call it timber, we call it framing, we call it all kinds of things, but it’s plant cellulose at the molecular level,” Jonsara explains. “It’s a plant and it biodegrades.”
The term “compostable furniture” probably sounds futuristic, but really it’s anything but that. “It takes a new way of thinking, which is actually a traditional way of thinking,” says Elise McMahon, founder of LikeMindedObjects. “What seems kind of new and novel now is actually the way the world had been operating until the Industrial Revolution.” Elise creates decor, furniture, clothing, and accessories through LikeMindedObjects with the goal to design with sustainable, circular systems. “I don’t want to claim perfection though,” she adds.
Whether a piece of furniture can biodegrade comes down to one thing: the material it’s made from. “One strategy for biodegradable or recyclable furniture is for it to be mono-material,” Elise explains. Many substances, like wood, may be easily recyclable or compostable when they’re by themselves. However, when combined with other materials, as so many furniture pieces are, the product loses its ability to decompose.
For example, the reason so much of our wooden furniture isn’t biodegradable at the moment is because it’s coated in synthetic finishes, like polyurethane. “Basically what you’re doing is you’re coating it in plastic, so it slows down its ability to biodegrade,” Jonsara says. However, if the product were coated in a plant-based oil like linseed or tung oil, the bigger issue, like the product itself, may one day disappear. Model No., a furniture company based in Oakland, California, uses bio-resins that compost easily over time to finish their products. Jeffrey McGrew, CTO and co-founder of the company, describes bio-resins as “smooth to the touch.” He also notes that “the surface has excellent wear characteristics over time, so it still looks good after hard use.”