Footsteps in the Forest

Search
Close this search box.

Planet-Friendly Patio Furniture

What Materials Are Most Eco-Friendly & Sustainable?

We want everyone to spend more time outdoors – that’s our core goal here at Footsteps In The Forest!

That doesn’t just mean hitting the trails or kayaking down your favorite river. Getting outdoors can literally just mean going outside your house to enjoy the natural world. And few things will make your outdoor space more inviting and comfortable than some high-quality patio furniture.

Unfortunately, many common kinds of outdoor furniture are environmentally harmful.

Some are made from toxic synthetics, which release harmful compounds during the production process, while others are made from materials that require enormous amounts of energy make, giving them a huge carbon footprint. And some outdoor furniture materials are neither biodegradable nor recyclable, leading to long-term pollution problems.

But don’t worry – there is plenty of eco-friendly, sustainable outdoor furniture on the market too.

We’ll try to help you navigate this issue and learn some of the things you should focus on when picking outdoor furniture below.  

How to Select Eco-Friendly & Sustainable Outdoor Furniture

sustainable outdoor furniture
Pixabay

Because outdoor furniture is a huge product category, there are a ton of things to think about when shopping for the most eco-friendly options. However, the material from which the furniture is constructed is likely the most important factor to consider.

Manufacturers make outdoor furniture from a variety of different materials, but seven of the most common include (in alphabetical order):

  1. Aluminum
  2. Bamboo
  3. Eucalyptus
  4. Plastic
  5. Rattan
  6. Teak
  7. Wrought Iron

When trying to compare these materials, you’ll want to think about:

  1. Whether or not the material is renewable. In terms of outdoor furniture, this consideration basically boils down to whether or not you can grow the material. Materials harvested from plants and trees are renewable, while everything else is derived from a material that’s only available in finite (if potentially enormous) quantities.
  2. Whether or not the material can be recycled. Recyclable products can be reprocessed to make new goods once they’ve reached the end of their lifecycle. However, it’s important to note that recycling some materials (such as plant or tree fibers) may simply mean composting them (aka “nature’s recycling program”).
  3. Whether or not the material is biodegradable. Like recycling, biodegrading frees up resources to be used again. However, unlike recycling programs which rely on human-driven processes, the process by which materials biodegrade is carried out by bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms.
  4. Whether or not the material is considered sustainable. There are myriad definitions for the term “sustainable,” but most focus on ensuring that future generations are not harmed by the current generation’s actions. Many also express the importance of addressing the “three pillars of sustainability.” This includes the social, environmental, and economic ramifications of a given activity.
  5. Whether or not the material creates harmful pollutants or greenhouse gases. Manufacturing processes and materials vary in their tendency to pollute the planet’s air and water or contribute to landfills. The fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases produced, the more environmentally friendly the process or material is.  
  6. Whether or not the material is waterproof. This consideration is mostly about user experience – you don’t want to leave non-waterproof furniture exposed to the elements; you’ll have to keep it in a covered area or use individual furniture covers. But it does tangentially relate to the material’s environmental impact. Non-waterproof materials may need to be sealed or they will suffer from short product lifespans.  
  7. How durable is the material? Durability affects the overall usable lifespan of the product. With all other things being equal, materials that are more durable will require less frequent replacement, and they will therefore be more environmentally friendly.
  8. How much does the material weigh? Weight is an important consideration for several reasons. It’ll influence the amount of elbow grease needed for moving the furniture around, and it will play into the will-the-wind-blow-this-away question that always comes up when thinking about outdoor furniture. But it also influences things like shipping – heavier goods create larger carbon footprints.  

We’ll detail each of the seven materials in the next section, but we’ve put together a handy comparison table to make things easier.

Outdoor Furniture Materials: Examining 7 of the Most Common Options

We’ll provide some basic information about some of the most common materials used to manufacture outdoor furniture below, including the relative pros and cons of each. Just understand that many types of outdoor furniture are constructed from several different materials.  

We’ve listed the materials in alphabetical order.

1. Aluminum

Canva

Aluminum is used in a variety of outdoor furniture contexts, but it’s most commonly used as framing material.

In terms of usability, aluminum works well enough for outdoor furniture. It obviously doesn’t break down or rot in damp weather, and it’s pretty durable too. It can be finished in an array of colors to match any décor, but it will get hot when left in a sunny location.

Aluminum is also lightweight, which makes it easier to move around and less environmentally damaging to ship (though that does mean you’ll want to secure it in windy weather).

In terms of sustainability and environmental impact, aluminum is a bit of a mixed bag.

On the one hand, aluminum is considered infinitely recyclable. According to Columbia University, approximately 68% of modern aluminum cans comes from recycled material. However, the aluminum manufacturing process is incredibly energy intensive, and the acquisition of new aluminum ores involves a significant amount of habitat damage. Aluminum is also damaging to freshwater ecosystems.

But because aluminum outdoor furniture will likely last for decades, you may find it to be a net positive. It would, however, be wise to preferentially seek out aluminum outdoor furniture that’s made from recycled material.  

2. Bamboo

Unsplash

Bamboo looks like a tree, but it’s actually a grass. But unlike the grass growing in your front yard, bamboo becomes quite rigid as it grows.

Bamboo can be used in a variety of ways to create outdoor furniture. It produces very thick culms (the technical name for a bamboo “stick”), which can be used as structural components, but it can also be converted to planks or long, flat strips.  

Bamboo has some water-repellent properties, but it can’t just be left outdoors permanently, as it will rot. However, many furniture manufacturers appley sealants or waxes to make the bamboo waterproof and capable of being left outside.

From an environmental point of view, bamboo is a very attractive building material. It grows incredibly quickly; some varieties grow up to 3 feet per day. This makes it an easily renewed resource, and bamboo can typically be grown without the need for fertilizers or pesticides.

Bamboo is also biodegradable, so it doesn’t contribute to landfills. Coated bamboo furniture will not biodegrade very quickly, but polyurethane-coated pieces will eventually breakdown (soil microorganisms are capable of breaking down polyurethane).

Bamboo furniture made from large pieces can be heavy, though wicker-style furniture made from bamboo typically isn’t super heavy. It is durable enough to last for 10 or 20 years, though it is not as indestructible as some other woods (like teak).

Ultimately, bamboo is an attractive option for eco-conscious consumers in need of outdoor furniture.  

3. Eucalyptus

Canva

Eucalyptus is another wood used for outdoor furniture, and it’s growing in popularity.

Strong, attractive, and durable, it offers many of the benefits consumers want in an outdoor furniture material. And because of the tree’s rapid growth rate, eucalyptus wood is also more affordable than its most similar alternative – teak.

However, eucalyptus wood is not naturally water-resistant like teak is. This means it is often treated with an oil-based finish by the manufacturer. However, you’ll likely need to reapply a similar protectant periodically to keep it from absorbing water or decaying. Additionally, it tends to fade in strong sunlight quicker than teak.

Additionally, eucalyptus wood is susceptible to cracking in cold weather, so it’s generally wise to bring it indoors during the winter.

From a sustainability perspective, eucalyptus scores well. There are more than 700 species within the genus Eucalyptus, but most of those used for timber production are very rapid growers. This helps to keep the cost of the wood low, and also helps with carbon sequestration.

Eucalpytus trees grown for timber production are typically raised in large plantations, so old-growth forests are not destroyed to make eucalyptus furniture. Additionally, because these plantations are located in many places around the globe, it is sometimes easier to source the wood (or finished products) from areas that are closer to the consumer’s home. This helps reduce the impact of the most carbon-intensive portion of the product’s lifecycle.

However, like all monoculture systems, eucalyptus plantations do present some environmental problems, such as reduced biodiversity. Additionally, they are considered a fire risk in many areas.

4. Plastic

Canva

“Plastic” is an incredibly broad category of materials. And because many of the specific plastics used to produce outdoor furniture bear complicated and technical names, consumers often throw up their hands when trying to research the details.

Nevertheless, the three most common types of plastic used to create outdoor furniture are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

  • Polyethylene (PE) is typically characterized as the most commonly used plastic in the modern world. It’s usually used to make packaging – like the myriad plastic bags and containers lining retail shelves. It’s praised for its ability to tolerate low temperatures, its durability, and low cost relative to polypropylene.
  • Polypropylene (PP) is also common in the modern world, but its benefits relate to its light weight, resistance to high temperatures, and overall strength. However, it isn’t as flexible as polyethylene. Polypropylene is, however, easier to color in most cases, as its natural color is whiteish.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the final common plastic used in outdoor furniture, is also durable and strong, and it offers superior chemical resistance to the other two common plastics. However, PVC may degrade with prolonged UV exposure, it is flammable, and the fumes produced when it burns are highly toxic.

Ultimately, no plastic is great for the environment.

All three of the ones listed above are produced from petroleum, making them non-renewable. Additionally, PVC creates toxins at every stage of its production.

And while they all breakdown over time, none of the three biodegrade.

At least, not according to Columbia University’s definition of the term, which entails a material being broken down in a by bacteria or other microorganisms in a matter of weeks to months. And once the process is complete, it only leaves behind water, carbon dioxide, and compost.

Plastics don’t do that.

Plastics do break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but this often takes decades or centuries. And the chemical makeup of these particles doesn’t change much.

That’s part of the reason that microplastics are contaminating the planet’s oceans.  

It is also important to note that plastic is used in different ways to create outdoor furniture. Some plastic is formed or molded into individual furniture components, while some is formed into plastic or plastic-composite lumber and then assembled like you would wood furniture. And some plastic is made into rattan-like strands and woven into wicker-style furniture.

In terms of its suitability for outdoor furniture, plastic can work very well.

Plastic is completely waterproof, so you don’t have to worry about protecting it from the elements. It’s also pretty light (although plastic lumber and plastic-composite lumber are heavy), and plastic furniture pieces often nest, providing storage and transport benefits. Some plastic will begin to fade when exposed to UV rays, but manufacturers often include additives to prevent this from happening.  

Most plastics are also fairly durable, which means they’ll have long lifespans, thereby reducing your need to purchase new furniture. And while PVC is not recyclable, PE and PP both are (if you can find a place to accept polypropylene). Many plastic furniture manufacturers even use already-recycled plastic in their production process.

5. Rattan

Pixabay

The word rattan refers to any of the nearly 600 species of palms in the subfamily Calamoideae, as well as furniture or goods made from these plants. Found throughout the tropics, the majority of the species in this group are climbing plants, though some are free stranding.

Although it is often considered synonymous with wicker, rattan refers to the material; wicker is a weaving technique. Willow, bamboo, and synthetic materials are also used to create wicker furniture. And while rattan is often used in the creation of wicker furniture, there are also examples of non-wicker furniture that is made from rattan.

Rattan is generally considered a sustainable product, as it is both renewable and beneficial to the peoples and economies of the developing nations in which it is most frequently harvested. However, it is imperative that as demand for rattan products grows, the harvesting methods used are implemented in a manner that protects the surrounding habitat.

Accordingly, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has been operating a sustainable rattan and bamboo project in Southeast Asia for the last 16 years to help ensure the well-being of the environment and animals living in the region.  

Rattan is a reasonably affordable material, though rattan furniture is often pricier than some other options. Most people also consider it pretty attractive, though rattan chairs and couches vary in terms of comfort.

The big problem with rattan is that it is not UV- or water-resistant. It can be painted, but this won’t make it completely waterproof. So, if you use rattan furniture outdoors, you’ll need to take care to protect it from moisture.

6. Teak

Canva

Because it is attractive, affordable, and incredibly durable, teak is a very popular material used to construct outdoor furniture.

The wood is incredibly rich in oils, which help to protect it from rot and decay. In fact, teak wood doesn’t have to be treated with sealants; the bare wood will resist water damage naturally. That’s part of the reason it has been used in boat construction for more than 2,000 years.

Additionally, teak doesn’t shrink much, which also prevents it from suffering damage in the frequently changing conditions outdoor furniture experiences.  

Teak trees (Tectona grandis) are historically native to a region stretching from India to Indonesia. They’ve also been introduced to Africa and some Caribbean Islands, where they’ve become naturalized.

In the past, teak lumber was harvested from old-growth forests. This was (and remains) a problem, because it reduces biodiversity in the region. However, a significant portion of the teak sold in the current marketplace comes from plantation-grown trees. One of the largest suppliers is Perhutani – a state-controlled business in Indonesia.

This kind of harvesting pattern is arguably sustainable and helps protect old-growth teak forests, but it’s not without its problems. These kinds of single-species farms (monoculture) don’t provide the kinds of habitats many native plants and animals require.

Nevertheless, teak is a reasonably sustainable material for making sustainable outdoor furniture. And because it lasts for years and doesn’t require sealants to be durable, it deserves consideration from conservation-minded consumers.    

7. Wrought Iron

Unsplash

Wrought iron is one of the more common materials used in outdoor furniture, thanks to its strength, durability, and aesthetics. You don’t have to worry about the elements damaging wrought iron, and it’s heavy, which means it isn’t going to blow away when the winds howl.

However, it is important to note that most modern products described as being made from wrought iron are actually made from a similar material called mild steel. Mild steel is chemically similar to wrought iron, but it’s cheaper and easier to make in the modern world, which is why it’s taken over the marketplace.

You may also see this material referred to as low-carbon steel or plain-carbon steel. But no matter the name applied to the material, it’s essentially an alloy (a metal made from multiple materials) primarily containing iron and a small amount of carbon.  

In terms of its sustainability and environmental impact, steel offers a combination of pros and cons.

On the downside, iron – the primary component of steel – is not renewable. There’s only so much of it on planet Earth. However, there’s a lot of it; iron is the fourth most common element in the Earth’s crust and represents 5% of its mass.

The steel-making process also requires quite a bit of energy, releases greenhouse gases, and yields polluting byproducts.

But on the upside, steel is infinitely recyclable. In fact, because it’s magnetic, it’s relatively easy to sort from waste streams. And steel’s recyclability isn’t merely a theoretical benefit, it’s one that is put to good use. Some sources claim that 81 percent of the steel produced across all industries is recycled.

Don’t Forget About Cushions When Comparing Sustainable Outdoor Furniture

Unsplash

We’re tackling cushions and pillows separately for a few different reasons.

  • Not all outdoor furniture includes cushions.
  • Cushions will almost always wear out and require replacement before the furniture frame does.
  • Cushions can be swapped out or replaced (you could even make your own).

But it’s still important to think about the impact cushions have on the environment.

Unfortunately, the cushions included with most kinds of outdoor furniture – especially those at the affordable end of the price spectrum – are made from polyester. And we mean the cover and the fill material.

Polyester isn’t very environmentally friendly. It’s neither biodegrade nor renewable, though it can be recycled. It’s not really sustainable in most respects, and the manufacturing process creates pollutants.

So, if you’re forced to pick polyester furniture cushions, try to hunt around for some made from recycled materials.

But whenever possible, opt for cushion covers made from more eco-friendly materials, such as certified-organic cotton, hemp, or linen. In terms of fill materials, natural latex, cotton, and down are among the best choices.

Of course, you can always opt for outdoor furniture that doesn’t come with cushions, and then simply make some yourself. You can use 100% repurposed materials in this manner, which will considerably reduce the environmental impact of your outdoor furniture.

Bottom Line: Which Patio Furniture Material Is the Most Eco-Friendly?

Canva

Determining the most eco-friendly patio furniture is a pretty subjective exercise.

Is it more important to select furniture that’s made from a recyclable material or the one associated with the lowest carbon footprint? Does it really need to be renewable if it’s found it quantities that we could never reasonably exhaust?

Ultimately, it’s all about tradeoffs and personal priorities.

If you care most about the carbon footprint of your furniture, you probably want a lightweight, wood- or plant-based product like bamboo or rattan. But if you want to maximize the lifespan of the outdoor furniture, it’s hard to beat aluminum or wrought iron.

But there is one pretty clear takeaway: PVC outdoor furniture is among the least eco-friendly options, and polyethylene and polypropylene plastic both have plenty of downsides as well. Still, you could at least reduce the environmental impact of these two by opting for furniture that’d been made from recycled material.  

We hope you’ve found this comparison helpful and that you have gained some clarity about the best ways to help the planet with your patio furniture. And for the record, many of the materials discussed above are used in other types of outdoor equipment, so apply the lessons learned to all of your gear purchases.

But now it’s time to pick the type of furniture that speaks to your specific environmental concerns.

We’d love to hear about the things you took away from this comparison. Did any of the info provided change your mind? Did we leave out a material you’d like to know more about?

Let us know in the comments.

Footsteps in the Forest is reader-supported. When you purchase products via links on our site, we may receive a small commission.

Related Articles

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Newest Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *