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  • Katherine Dudley Hoehn

Sweating the Big Stuff - Repurposing Brown Furniture Can Help the Environment

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

Repurposed doors in a restaurant in Las Vegas

We’re re-using bags, switching from plastic straws to paper, and refusing to buy water in plastic bottles (at least some of us are) - but what about the big stuff? Not enough people are repurposing furniture.

Resale shops and consignment stores are overrun by quality furniture that is being overlooked in favor of box store imports, mostly from China. The landfills are overflowing with furniture. Sadly, auctioneers and thrift stores are selling furniture for pennies on the dollar.

Collectively, 20-30-and 40-somethings are responsible for shunning “brown furniture,” as they furnish their homes. There is plenty written about their refusal to incorporate older pieces of furniture. For a generation that is supposedly more concerned about the environment, it doesn't make sense.

I believe the waste is in part because millennials have become accustomed to having all things new and disposable, which is the fault of my generation. Additionally, they are bombarded with advertising focused on immediate gratification (shipped for free in two days) and breaking away from Baby Boomers (don't become your parents). They are the Amazon generation.

They grew up with paper plates and plastic forks at birthday parties and with school lunches and fast food provided in plastic wrap, pre-packaged, and served in Styrofoam. During their formative years, bottled water sales begin to soar. Now it is practically assumed that water doesn’t come from a faucet but a case from Costco! We taught them to be wasteful!

Baby Boomers grew up with re-usable plates and stainless silverware in public school cafeterias, washed by ladies who wore hairnets. Our disposables were paper products: milk cartons, straws, and paper napkins.

My parents refinished this pie safe in the 1950's, replacing damaged tins with wood slats. No longer used for pies, it houses books,

In lieu of solid wood furniture from their parents and grandparents, millennials are buying poorly constructed creations from box stores or purchased online and imported primarily from China. The furniture they are turning down is likely made of solid cherry, walnut, mahogany, oak, or even pine felled when there was an abundance of trees.

Mamas need to get over the idea that painting beautiful wood is OK. Better painted than thrown in a landfill. Paint can be removed someday. Millennials - painting or staining old wood furniture gives it a fresh look, preserves a bit of history, saves money, prevents more environmental disasters, and makes your Mama happy that it stayed in the family.

Home improvement guru Bob Vila includes particle board furniture (think Target, Walmart, Ikea, Amazon) in his list of things that thrift shops don’t want. Nonprofit thrift/resale stores are plagued by people dumping furniture behind their stores to avoid the cost of taking it to the landfill. Much of it is cheap, damaged, and made of particle board.

According to the EPA, 9.69 million tons of furniture and furnishings were dumped in landfills in 2015 compared to 10,000 tons that were recycled. How much of it could have been repurposed?

In 2017, Forbes published an article that really hit a nerve with Baby Boomers, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff.” It resonated with so many, but nobody has really tried to turn it around on the kids to say, “I thought you cared about the environment. Think of the footprint that junk from China leaves.”

Why is buying cheap imported furniture so bad?

o It isn’t made to last. The cheap price reflects its quality. It will fall apart.

o It is often made of particle board with a laminate or cheap wood veneer.

o Energy was used to make it, ship it to the United States and then to the retailer that sold it to you. The carbon footprint is from an enormous shoe.

o It was probably delivered by a package truck which used fossil fuel.

o Most furniture imports are packaged in large cardboard boxes. Even those from recycled cardboard waste resources and require energy to produce. They aren’t always recycled, either.

o Mail order furniture is wrapped in plastic or more paper inside the box, with plastic tape. Most of it will go in the landfill. Every step requires energy that uses resources.

o Do you really believe supporting China is a good thing?

The quality construction of older furniture far surpasses most that is imported today and older furniture can be adapted, recovered, painted, or even reconstructed. I had a wonderful tall game table that was made about 1920. When I no longer needed it for that purpose, I cut the legs off to make an amazing coffee table. Years later, it ended up in a child’s first apartment, giving it more than three good lives.

Every time you repurpose an old piece of furniture, you save landfill space, save your money, and preserve a bit of history. There are several things to look for when assessing the quality of an antique piece of furniture or considering how to repurpose it. Suffice to say that dovetail joints will not appear in a piece purchased at your local box store.

Slab bottom chairs painted

Billiard stand repurposed to hold beach finds on porch

New glass drawer pull added to old desk.

How can you turn your grandmother’s old dining table or your parents’ dresser into something useful and beautiful for your home:

o Strip it yourself (visit your local hardware store for help)

o Hire a professional to restore it or even stain it to a color you like better

o Use a fabulous color. Check out this HGTV site for popular colors in 2019.

o Paint or stain it yourself or hire a painter to do it for you.

o Sometimes a new drawer pull can make an old piece pop in a new way.

o Add wheels to old drawers to make under-bed storage for toys or games.

o A drop leaf dining table can become a cool coffee table or even a children’s game or art table.

o An old bookshelf can be used for closet shelving.

o Sewing tables with drawers can be painted a child’s favorite color and used for art supplies.

o An old bench can be painted used as a shelf for potted plants.

We are focused on bags and straws while perfectly functional pieces of furniture made from BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN WOOD are being tossed in the landfill in favor of poor quality replacements the Ikea/Target/Amazon generation favors.

Creative minds are coming up with amazing things by repurposing. Encourage others to consider saving a piece of quality furniture. And parents and grandparents - quit whining about painting an antique. It is better to use it than send it to a landfill where It takes up lots more space than a straw.


How to Find Furniture to Repurpose

o Your parents, grandparents, or friends who are downsizing

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