The currently available alternatives to formaldehyde are somewhat limited. However, the growing public demand for "green" products is driving research on new resin technologies. It is likely that more alternatives will be developed in the near future.
One safer alternative is low-emitting resins. These resins are not formaldehyde-free, but they do off-gas much less formaldehyde. The most common low-emitting resin is phenol-formaldehyde, which is often used for exterior panels and other non-decorative applications. One drawback of this resin is that it is red-black in color, making it a poor option for visible uses. In addition, it does still emit formaldehyde, albeit in low concentrations. Proper ventilation can maintain formaldehyde levels at a near-undetectable concentration.
MDI (methyl diisocyanate) resins are a popular "green" alternative. These resins are polyurethanes and do not contain formaldehyde. LEED recognizes MDI-based materials as "low-emitting"3; however, these materials carry a significant price premium. Growth in demand may lead to lower cost. Another issue with MDI resins is that MDI is, itself, a toxic chemical. Wood products made with MDI may not off-gas formaldehyde, but the chemical cannot be considered "natural" or even particularly green.
The above resins were not rated safe by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) due to their levels of toxic chemicals. TURI identified 4 priority alternatives to formaldehyde. One of these is the Purebond panel, made by Columbia Forest Products. This panel uses a soy-based resin. The Purebond panel is a good option for consumers looking for a natural alternative to formaldehyde-based plywood, since it is derived from a plant.
Two other alternatives are made in a different way, and seek to replace plywood rather than the resin. One of these is recycled paper boards, made by Homasot. The other alternative is the wood fiber-Portland cement board, manufactured by Viroc. Several companies make recycled paper products, such as Thermoply boards from Covalent Coated Products. Finally, one new technology is plastic-wood fiber panels. These products bind wood fiber with plastic to create a strong, non-emitting product.