This article was published by the Portland Press Herald on May 28 and was written by Mary Pols. Manomet’s Director of Sustainable Economies Andy Whitman was interviewed about how to make the most sustainable choice for your Adirondack chair. To read the complete article, click here.
Andy Whitman, Director of Sustainable Economies Program for Manomet, the New England–based nonprofit that specializes in sustainability solutions, said he wasn’t surprised that wood “won” in the greenhouse gas emissions analysis but was somewhat surprised that the difference wasn’t more stark. “It’s sort of comparing apples and oranges, and you don’t always get the results you would expect. With all that petroleum in those chairs, you’d think the footprinting must be enormously different, like five times the greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s not.”
Whitman is considering some new lawn furniture purchases himself, and he said the study gave him pause because he’d thought of buying a metal set for durability and aesthetic. In the manufacturing stage alone, aluminum furniture had three times the emissions of the plastic and 20 times that of the wood. But it can be recycled, almost endlessly.
THE NEW PLASTICS
Left out of that life cycle analysis is another kind of outdoor furniture, that’s made with what is called HDPE lumber, high-density polyethylene. This is a product made from post-consumer materials that include old milk jugs and plastic bottles that once contained everything from water to detergent. It’s so durable that some companies that build furniture with it give multi-decade guarantees on their Adirondacks. There’s even an Amish-owned company in Kansas that sells Adirondack chairs made from this material, which it calls “poly lumber.”
L.L. Bean sells both wooden Adirondack chairs and its version of the HDPE chairs (which come from an Indiana vendor, according to a customer service representative). The HDPE chairs are more expensive and described as eco-friendly and with the promise that they will not “rot, warp, crack, splinter, absorb moisture or ever need painting.” They’re heavy enough to not tip over and if you browse the more than 100 reviews on L.L. Bean’s website, pretty popular (although some complain about the material and say the chair isn’t comfortable).
If the high-density polyethylene material had been included in that University of Florida life cycle analysis, Whitman said it would probably have beaten out wood for the title of “greenest” furniture. That’s because the original impacts of extracting fossil fuels and making plastics from them don’t “count” in this kind of life cycle analysis.
It should count, says Stephen Shaler, the director of the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine in Orono. “The environmental burden is still there. You could argue that the impact of the milk jug is reduced, but you can’t ignore that all that extraction that created the milk jug wasn’t used for the chairs. The fact of the matter is, you still extracted the oil. And you are going to still have to dispose of the plastic, even if you are going to get a longer time of utility out of it.”
Shaler brought up another factor that needs to be included in a well-rounded life cycle analysis: how much use it gets.
“You have to define what the functional unit is,” Shaler said. In this case, it wouldn’t be the chair itself, it would be the number of hours of use the chair gets. Or the number of enjoyable hours you spend in the chair. Assume you buy two chairs, one plastic, one wood. You find the plastic one less comfortable, and therefore less functional.
“You never use the plastic one, so maybe it gets used for three hours, and the wood chair gets used for 30 hours,” he said. It’s getting ten times the use, and that increased functionality should be a factor in the overall equation about the chair’s impact. The chair you love will probably stick around the property longer than the chair you merely like. Shaler by the way, has metal, upholstered outdoor furniture. And “four Aubuchon plastic chairs that were on sale for $14 each,” he said. They’re for overflow crowds. Low cost, minimal use. “I didn’t look at the environmental cost,” he said. “That wasn’t part of my decision. Even though I do these things for a living.”
It’s Whitman’s hope, and a Manomet goal, that the world focuses on making more sustainable choices about materials up front in the future, planning for a circular or what’s known as a “cradle to cradle” economy. That is, we’ll invest in virgin materials only when we know they can be recycled, and reused endlessly, making a better decision about our resources upfront, rather than repurposing a bad one further down the line.