The Billion-Dollar Furniture Waste Problem

Before buying that new couch, consider one thing: furniture waste.
A Black mom and dad pick up an armchair with a 4 year old kid sitting in it. They're all smiling and laughing together.
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Mid-century modern, bohemian, colorful, or minimalist—furniture companies cater to our tastes by selling a gluttonous amount of furniture every year. The e-commerce furniture market was worth more than $27 billion in 2021—and a report from Next Move Strategy Consulting projects that it will surpass $40 billion by 2030.

But many of those purchases won’t last five years—and these pieces that are inexpensive, trendy, and low-quality are creating a furniture waste problem. Like its clothing equivalent of fast fashion, e-commerce and big box store furniture is an environmental nightmare.

Fast, Cheap, Toxic

Many wood-style furniture pieces are made with particle board (sawdust and wood chips glued together). Particle board cannot be sanded and refinished as it ages, and the mixed materials make it impossible to recycle.

Laminates, particle board, and medium-density fiberboard may release formaldehyde fumes, which are present in synthetic glues, adhesives, and paints, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Formaldehyde can cause skin, eye, throat, and lung irritation in small amounts, and with prolonged exposure it is carcinogenic. Workers are most at risk from formaldehyde, which is currently not banned from household furnishings.

Some companies offer impressive-sounding sustainability commitments. IKEA aims to be “climate positive” by 2030, buying back furniture for recycling, and making plastic products from corn, beet, and sugarcane. While these are steps in the right direction, how can companies that sell mostly flimsy furniture, from IKEA to Wayfair and Amazon to Target, be truly sustainable? (It’s not just furniture—fashion faces the same criticisms.)

Once furniture breaks and can’t be repaired or recycled, it will end up in the landfill. The furniture that once polluted indoor air will also contaminate the environment with plastics and toxic chemicals. When it’s replaced, the cycle starts again.

What can we do about the furniture waste problem?

Buy Secondhand

Top tip: Find used furniture on community-based online marketplaces, flea markets, consignment shops, and thrift stores. Even if you buy secondhand fast furniture, extending its life is a better fate than directly to the landfill. Some companies are even turning reuse into a business.

Find Materials That Last

Solid wood can last decades. Consider supporting your local woodworkers and custom furniture makers to invest in quality furniture. While it is costly, these pieces become 100-year-old heirlooms. Ask your woodworker if the wood is sustainably harvested—look for the Forest Stewardship Council certification to ensure that your piece is sustainable from harvest to home.

Repair, Refinish, Reupholster

High-quality furniture can be repaired. A solid wood chair leg can be repaired by a woodworker when it breaks, and wood dressers can be sanded and refinished for a different look.

Is the print too dated? Take it to a reupholstery shop or re-cover it yourself. The cost of reupholstering a set of dining table chairs is more cost-effective in the long run than going through several different fast furniture sets.

Keep It Out of the Landfill

When it’s time to move, you can sell furniture or donate it to those in need. Refugees need furniture when they resettle—consider donating to your local International Rescue Committee office. Similarly, find your local United Way office, houseless coalition, or relief group, and ask if they’re accepting donations.

From Green American Magazine Issue