The GreenSpec review team has been debating the relative environmental merits of steel cabinets as compared to other alternatives. (GreenSpec
is reserved for the very top green products — and within that top few percent, those products that rise above the rest.)
Generally speaking, the up-side is that steel cabinets don't support mold; are low- or zero-VOC (depending on finish, principally); are long-lasting; almost always have some amount of recycled content; and have good end-of-life recyclability. All of these things can also be true of cabinets made from wood and other materials. In special purpose applications such as sterile and particle-free environments, metal may be the most appropriate solution.
Thin steel — including things like metal studs and roofing — is typically produced in basic oxygen furnaces, which are more polluting than the electric arc furnaces used for heavy steel. And while heavy steel typically has a very high percentage of recycled content, light steel only contains up to 30% recycled content (i.e., 70% or more virgin steel). How does this stack up against sustainably harvested wood or ag-fiber?
Steel cabinets are sometimes fitted with non-steel faces, such as wood or thermofoil-laminated MDF, which alters the equation. Is the wood from certified sources? How is it finished? Is the MDF high VOC? And what is thermofoil? (It's PVC.)
Certainly there are stinky, poorly-made, environmentally catastrophic wood cabinets available just about everywhere. But how does steel stack up against the best wood cabinets? And among steel cabinets, are there any that are substantively "better" than others?
So far, we haven't pinned it all down. Any thoughts?