Man in Kitchen with MDF cabinetry.

MDF, what is it and why is MDF recycling non-existent in New Zealand?

Most modern kitchens, bathroom cabinets, shelving, cupboards, cheaper kit set furniture, bedside cupboards, wardrobing, tall boys, office desks, credenza’s and retail shop fittings you name – it – MDF is literally everywhere.

So, what on earth is all the fuss about then? Large scale production of this very popular building material started in the USA and Europe in the mid 1980’s. Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is an engineered wood product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres, combining it with wax and a resin binder, and forming panels by applying high temperature and pressure. The problem is that this “resin binder” is actually formaldehyde – a recognised and very dangerous carcinogen. So we have every right to be incredibly fussed- about our own health and the health of our environment and planet earth.

MDF is a Growing Health and Environmental Concern

British medical authorities have likened MDF to a modern-day Asbestos. In the early 1990’s there were rumours that MDF would be banned in the US and Australia due to the high levels of toxic formaldehyde. The US has since dropped its’ safe exposure levels to three times below that of the UK standards. The rumour went nowhere, as there is big money to be made in the MDF manufacturing industry, including in NZ- where we pump out our fair share.

Dr Andrew Watterson, director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at De Montfort University, Leicester in the UK, and an expert in chemical hazards, said: 

‘I believe we have significantly underestimated the potential risk of MDF. There is evidence that formaldehyde-exposed workers have high rates of lung cancer and (nose and throat) cancer.’

We also need to think about end of life with anything constructed of MDF. Smashing and cutting furniture or old kitchens up causes hazardous particles to be released into the atmosphere. Just as with asbestos- this dust can be breathed in and causes long term health issues including increased rates of Asthma and unidentified allergies, which seem to be growing in prevalence. There is also growing concern that health problems can arise simply from having MDF products in the home, especially around young children and allergy sensitive individuals.

According to UK based Mick Holder, of the independent advisory service known as “London Hazards”, gas emissions from brand new MDF furniture and new cars can cause ill health.

‘If there is poor ventilation in a house or the inhabitants suffer from certain allergies or chemical sensitivities, we believe the formaldehyde emitted from MDF, although in a very small amount, can cause serious ill health,’ he said.

People working with MDF should use standard PPE protection, such as wearing high quality dust masks and cutting in properly ventilated places,

One of the biggest problems with formaldehyde is- it is a substance that keeps on giving, and even if you paint the piece, you are simply locking the toxic chemicals in until later.

MDF is a Challenge to Recycle

As functional as it is while in service, it does cause “headaches” when the time comes for it to be replaced. MDF cannot be safely recycled in New Zealand. The main option people default to is to order a skip, load it and get it taken to the tip where it will end up in landfill, and leaching the toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, the soil and eventually the waterways. Or alternatively, try and find places and people that will re-use or find creative ways to use unwanted MDF panels, shelves, sheets and desks. Junk Run sees hundreds of the large L shaped 2 metre-long work desks and many other old MDF office furnishings, no longer desired or needed each year. Commercial businesses are moving to smaller premises, with flexible working arrangements with open plan offices and smaller rectangle desks suitable for desk hopping and desk sharing.

Reducing the Environmental Burden

A Junk Run removal truck loaded with MDF. Junk Run reallocates MDF for reuse whenever possible.

With all but the most blinkered members of society now determined to reduce their environmental burden, be that commercially or domestically, it pays to be very aware of what you are buying in the first place, and shop for second hand – or find real wood options instead. End of life scenarios need to be carefully thought through when decisions are being made about purchasing new furniture, and the eventual cost both financially and environmentally for disposal need to be factored in upfront.

Whilst sustainable removal of MDF waste is a challenge- here at Junk Run, we have extensive networks that will take useable MDF furnishings and kitchens to be put to good use in a second home.