Sadly the big furniture trend in Australia is for thousands of tonnes of cheap, mass-produced items to end up in the rubbish. Mark Vender looks at the problem – and some possible solutions.
We’ve all seen the mountains of wooden furniture – not to mention mattresses, white goods and other assorted cast-offs – that appear on the kerb during council clean-ups. It’s notable enough on a single street, but how does this add up across an entire city?
Furniture waste: the numbers
“There is a substantial issue with the disposal of used furniture at the kerbside, and it is a growing problem,” confirms Kevin Morgan, Managing Director of EC Sustainable, a consultancy that for almost 20 years has been surveying the types of materials disposed of in council clean-up collections.
Based on a compositional survey of more than 2,500 households in metropolitan areas, on average each household disposes of around 24kg of wooden furniture per year. Approximately a third of this are soft furnishings like sofas and armchairs, and two-thirds other wooden furniture.
“If you think of a population of 2 million households in the Greater Sydney Region, this could add up to 48,000 tonnes of used furniture per year disposed at the kerbside,” Kevin says.
To put that into furniture terms – and figuring in average furniture weights – that’s the equivalent of 800,000 three-seater sofas, 1.65 million dining tables, 3.4 million coffee tables or 6.85 million chairs, thrown away every year.
These numbers are for Sydney only and don’t include other furniture delivered directly to tips by households and businesses or illegal dumping. And the problem is getting worse.
A question of quality
While our disposable culture is undoubtedly an underlying cause, Kevin claims that the poor quality of modern furniture is also a major factor. “Much new furniture is generally useless after a few years, particularly the mass-market cheaper end.”
He points out that many of these products are made with veneers and engineered wood that can’t be sanded back or retreated – and they quickly swell and rot if exposed to moisture. On top of that, modern fittings are usually made of plastic rather than metal and are therefore less robust. And when a knob or bracket does break, replacements are often hard to find. Prices are so low, many people just opt to fling it and re-furnish.
How can we solve the problem?
A big part of the solution is to change the consumer mindset. When we purchase furniture, we should focus on quality and long-term use. And we could also be more conscious of how our furniture is made. In today’s globalised world, we often don’t see how each step of the production chain – logging, manufacturing, transport – affects our planet. By championing the production of bespoke, responsibly made furniture, Handkrafted is attempting to help bring about this change in mindset.
The Handkrafted community of independent, Australian artisans create quality pieces that are made to meet each client’s unique requirements – and made to last. There’s a direct dialogue with the maker, so clients know where materials were sourced, and who crafted them. All of this adds up to furniture imbued with meaning and sentiment that is more likely to be left to future generations rather than left on the kerb.
Handkrafted’s Founder, Fred Kimel, explains, “One of the primary reasons I founded Handkrafted was a result of my longstanding belief that the items we buy should be designed well and made to last. It’s so sad that so much of what we buy today is thrown away after only a few years. Surely more conscious consumption and greater adoption of the ‘buy less, buy well’ philosophy is the only sustainable path forward. Over and above sustainability concerns, it’s so much more meaningful to invest in household items that you really value, and whose design you’ve had a part in shaping.”
Alison Collins from Bombora Custom Furniture says the environmental impacts shouldn’t be discounted. “It is so easy to forget all the processes that have been involved in the manufacture of a single item. That every time something is thrown out, you are not just adding to landfill but you are also throwing away all of the energy and materials required to produce the item and using up more resources by purchasing the replacement. Our guiding principle is to purchase once and purchase right,” says Alison.
Cheap mass-produced furniture may seem like a good short-term fix, but it’s the planet that ends up footing the bill. By thinking long-term and sustainably, we can reverse the trend. The Handkrafted team is working towards that goal.
By Mark Vender
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