10 Dec, 2020
Social Solutions for Environmental Problems
If you were to stop what you are doing and look around right now, chances are you would find something made of MDF close by. It might be a piece of furniture, a kitchen cupboard, or an office desk. You know, those wooden-looking panels used in the production of many items, from expensive wardrobes to cheap furniture kits.
But unfortunately, this popular material isn’t as brilliant as it seems. MDF can cause major harm to humans and the environment. This year, All Heart NZ were part of the solution to enable MDF to be responsibly recycled and avoid negatively impacting people and planet.
Let’s start from the beginning…
In the 80s, the USA and Europe started mass production of MDF.
Through a process of breaking down wood into its fibres, adding wax and resin to the mixture, and applying high temperatures and pressure to the material, they were able to create incredibly versatile panels.
These panels can be manufactured at almost any thickness, cut into complex shapes and patterns and have a surface ideal for painting or laminating.
The result of this clever invention is that MDF – or Medium Density Fibre – boards have become the choice of professional interior designers and do-it-yourself enthusiasts alike.
Ok, so… What is the Problem?
The problem is that the ‘resin binder’ used in the production of MDF contains formaldehyde – a well-known carcinogen also used in the manufacturing of items such as cosmetics and paints. This makes cutting, sanding or machining MDF panels harmful to humans. We can inhale the formaldehyde saturated particles released in these processes deep into our lungs.
MDF panels also cannot be safely recycled in Aotearoa New Zealand. When disposing of unwanted MDF, the option for most businesses is to send it to landfill. This wastes valuable resources and misses the opportunity to create jobs. Additionally, if MDF is not disposed of responsibly at a modern, engineered landfill, there is the potential for contamination of our soil, waterways and ocean.
The All Heart NZ Solution
With funding from Auckland Council’s Waste Minimisation and Innovation Fund, Foundation North and other community partners, All Heart NZ was able to purchase the equipment needed to set up an MDF upcycling centre at our Manukau community hub in July this year.
The hub, which opened in July 2019 employs two full-time staff and a number of volunteers who redirect pre-loved goods to communities working to improve health, education and employment outcomes in the community. Already, this innovative space has repurposed a number of MDF items which would have ended up in landfill.
L. J. Unia, the hub’s Community Enterprise Developer, says that one of the most common items repurposed is the big MDF L-Shaped desks found in many offices around Aotearoa New Zealand. Due to their size, they cannot be easily re-used, but with the right equipment and training, the hub aims to convert many into smaller desks.
This is not only a socio-environmentally positive outcome. It also caters for a growing need in the market as the recent lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are driving many businesses to shared or smaller working spaces and workers to work from home, which increases the demand for smaller furniture.
Socially Positive, Environmentally Friendly and Economically Sound
The upcycled items are sold and the money is reinvested towards the sustainability of the hub or donated to local communities to help those in need. To date All Heart NZ has redirected 2.6 million kgs of unwanted items, corresponding to NZ$6 million raised in support of 319 communities. Many of these communities are ensuring the vulnerable and lonely in the area are given access to local services and activities, working in health promotion, social services and disability support and empowering young people to develop life and professional skills leading stronger participation in their community.
Additionally, the hub is providing employment opportunities and vocational training for at-risk-youth, vulnerable people and people with disabilities. These people are gaining the practical expertise required to upcycle the MDF panels and learning crucial workplace skills, further contributing to the local economy.
The benefits gained by these individuals also spread to their whanau and their community. The hub has ongoing relationships with a number of community organisations as well as WINZ, Department of Corrections, On Demand Logistics and local secondary schools, who refer students and volunteers.
Finally, the hub’s upcycling facilities give businesses another avenue for repurposing unwanted MDF items which minimise the amount of resources – aka ‘waste’ – being lost to landfill.
The environment benefits and this solution contributes to the creation of a circular economy and a zero-waste society.
While the project has been a success, the plan is for the hub to recycle far more than just MDF. Repurposing textiles and refurbishing chairs are next on a long list of possibilities.
This means there will always be an ongoing need for training of staff and volunteers, which can only take place with additional funding.
Lastly, it is important to remember that even though businesses and organisations are increasingly more aware of the social and environmental impacts of their actions, there is an urgent need to consider the consequences of their purchasing decisions more carefully.
End of life scenarios and meaningful policies addressing the true socio-environmental costs of decisions must take centre stage in the strategies of organisations and businesses so that problems brought by materials such as MDF are never created in the first place.
All Heart NZ is a charitable trust. We believe that sustainable business practice can positively affect the lives of people and our planet. We see the value in recovering resources and establishing a circular solution that put people and planet first.
If you are a business who believes in sustainable operations that positively impact people and our planet, check out our services and find out why All Heart NZ truly is a one-stop. We are here to help your business thrive!
If you are someone who is after good quality pre-loved items and wants to make a positive impact in our communities and our environment, then shop for good at one of our All Heart Stores.
All Images: © All Heart NZ / Artur Francisco