Building a Greener Bathroom – Things to Think About Before Buying a New Bathroom Vanity

Building a green home is a holistic endeavor. While it’s entirely possible to pick one or a few projects (like opting for more water-efficient fixtures or weatherproofed windows), creating a truly sustainable home means you have to look both at your own personal situation, and at the ways your green improvements interact with one another. Combined with the plethora of sometimes contradictory “green” options out there, it can be difficult to decide what the right option is for you, even with something as seemingly simple as choosing a new vanity for your bathroom.

Bathroom Vanity

Materials

One of the main considerations you need to keep in mind when choosing a new, eco-friendly bathroom vanity is what material the vanity is made of. It’s a choice that’s deceptively simple, especially when you factor in all aspects of your vanity’s impact on your home and the environment, both in its manufacturing and over the life of the vanity. To give you an idea of what your options are, here are three of the most common choices and the pros and cons of each.

Sustainably Harvested Wood

Many bathroom vanities are made out of solid hardwood. The primary advantage of this type of vanity is its longevity – while the vanity itself is made of more raw materials than, say, a vanity constructed from MDF or particleboard, the solid wood gives the vanity strength and creates a much longer lasting product. The drawback, of course, is the use of raw materials in the first place.

Before choosing a vanity, you want to closely interrogate the source of the wood the manufacturer uses. Solid wood bathroom vanities should, at the very least, be CARB certified and not treated with formaldehyde to prevent the release of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air in your home. If possible, look for wood that’s sustainably sourced from new growth (NOT old growth) trees, and opt for fast-growing, sustainably harvested materials like rubber wood, especially ones that hold up well in a moist environment, like bamboo.

No-VOC Particleboard

Particleboard or medium density fiberboard is made, essentially, out of sawdust or other scrap wood particles left over from the processing of larger planks of wood. This material is then combined with a binding resin and heated and compressed to form solid boards. MDF is a green friendly material in that it’s made from what would otherwise be considered refuse. That said, you need to be aware of what binding and adhesive agents are used in your bathroom vanity, because many are high in VOCs and very bad for your indoor air quality.

The Wyndham Collection is notable for their use of all natural, no-VOC adhesives and their multi-stage finishing and sealing process that helps their MDF bathroom vanities hold up better and longer in the hot, humid environment of the bathroom. While any kind of particleboard is more vulnerable to moisture than solid wood, proper finishing can turn what’s frequently considered to be a “throwaway” material into something that will last you for years.

Strawboard

Strawboard is a material that’s only recently gaining popularity, but that has become a darling of the green movement. Made from agricultural waste – namely, the straw left over from the harvesting of wheat, barley, and rice – strawboard is similar to traditional particleboard, but instead of using synthetic resins to bind the particles into a board, the natural resin contained in the rice wheat is what holds strawboard together. This creates an extremely sustainable vanity. In some cases, strawboard vanities are even considered to have a negative carbon footprint, because the straw would otherwise be burned as refuse. As with particleboard, though, you need to be aware of the finishing process, both for aesthetic reasons and to help ensure that your vanity will hold up well over time in the harsh conditions of a bathroom.

Metal

More rarely, it’s possible to find a bathroom vanity made in whole or in part from metal. These are more modern in style, but are extremely durable; aluminum bathroom vanities especially hold up very well to heat and moisture and won’t rust. As well, aluminum or stainless steel bathroom vanities can almost always be recycled at the end of their usable life. If possible, you should try to find a manufacturer that uses the highest possible recycled content in the construction of the vanity itself.

Considerations

As you can see, each type of material comes with its own advantages and drawbacks that co far beyond mere aesthetics. That said, the decision you make should be a personal one, based on your home and your home’s specific needs. These are a few of the main considerations you should weigh when choosing a material or even a specific vanity or company to buy from.

Sustainability

“Sustainability” is a large, almost catch-all term when it comes to green homes, but what I mean specifically here is where the materials that go into your bathroom vanity come from, and the overall environmental impact of the vanity itself. For solid wood bathroom vanities, that means what type of wood is used, where and how it’s harvested, how it’s treated and what with. It’s worth looking into the company you’re buying from as well, and what specific environmentally friendly practices they engage in. The fact that a company recycles its office paper might not change anything about the vanity you’re buying, but it’s important to support companies that take the same holistic approach to sustainability that you would in your own home.

Durability

Durability is the flip side of the kind of sustainability I’m talking about above – after you’ve considered the initial environmental cost of your vanity, you should think about how long it will last, and especially how soon it will need to be replaced. A strawboard bathroom vanity might have a lower initial impact, but might not last as long as a metal or even solid wood vanity. You should also consider what happens to the vanity at the end of its usable lifecycle, and what the compounding impact of a single or multiple vanities will be over the lifespan of your home.

Personal Context

Depending on how green your home is, and what specific sustainable features your home has, what you’re looking for in a bathroom vanity will be more or less important. If you have an extensive weatherproofing system, for example, finding a zero emissions bathroom vanity should be a top priority. While having an air-tight home is great for heating and cooling efficiency, it can have a negative impact on your home air quality, especially if you introduce lots of VOC-containing furniture. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in longevity and a visible natural style, a bamboo wood vanity might make more sense for you. No matter what material you end up buying, it should be something that meshes with the overall environment of your home, both in terms of sustainability and style.

Source/Labor

Sourcing your bathroom vanity is something that’s a little more difficult if you aren’t having one custom built. That said, how far your bathroom vanity has to travel to get to you is an important consideration as well. You can find bathroom vanities that are 100% American made, though they’re admittedly a little rare, and some companies are LEED certified for locally sourcing their materials and shipping locally. If it’s not possible to buy the vanity you want locally, something else to keep in mind are the business practices of the company you’re buying from, both in terms of the overall environmental impact of their manufacturing and shipping process to the treatment of their workers, especially if your vanity is built in another country. Look for companies with smart energy and water saving practices, ones that use recycled materials when possible (especially in shipping), and that at least conform to and preferably exceed international labor treatment guidelines.

Many elements go into building a green home, and much of the advice out there is contradictory or confusing. But remember that every step you take toward building a greener home is a positive step, both for the health of the environment and even the health of your family. So take the time to really think about your home and what aspect of sustainability is the most important to you, even before choosing something as seemingly simple as a new bathroom vanity.

Erin Emanuel