Mattress choice, care, disposal and recycling

December 27th, 2009
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Mattress waste poses a real problem. I’ve read that anywhere between 20and 40 million mattresses are disposed of in the USA alone each year,most ending up in landfill. 

20 million mattresses placed end to end would stretch around 22,700miles and thisamount of waste is generated each year from a single country!

What is a mattress composed of?

All sorts of materials are used in mattress, but the most common itemsare fabric, foam, cotton, wood and steel springs. Most of thesecomponents can be recycled – in fact, around 90% of a spring mattressis recyclable. However, recycling them isn’t that easy.

The mattress recycling challenge

Mattresses are very bulky and cumbersome making transporting the itemsto a recycling center a challenge for most people; but the problem atthe recycling end is due to the nature of their construction making itdifficult to separate materials; particularly where springs areinvolved.

Some successful programs have been established, such as the NortheastMattress Recycling Program. From June 2004 to May 2009, the programrecycled 58,252 mattresses and box springs, saving 6,898 cubic yards oflandfill space or 5,518 tons.

The used foam can be turned into carpet underlay or insulation. Thewooden frames can be chipped and used as fuel, the cotton is used inindustrial machinery oil filters and other textile applications. 

The springs, made from steel, have a high market value as scrap but aredifficult to compress. Cecil Taylor has developed a mattress springcompactor device that could address this challenge.

Flame retardants

Another issue with mattresses is the use of chemical flame retardants.These can prove to be toxic not only to humans, but when dumped in alandfill, these chemicals can leach from the mattress and contaminatethe wider environment through seepage into groundwater.

Disposing of an old mattress

If your mattress is on its last legs, you can try searching for a recycling program near you.

- In the USA, try the search function at the top of the page of Earth911.org

- In Canada, MattCanada in Montreal was the onlyrecycling program I could locate.

- In the UK there are a few pilot programs under way, but for the general consumer, the advice from the UK Environment Agency is for people to contact theirlocal council refuse department for advice. Matt UK handles mattress recycling in commercial quantities.

- In Australia, your best bet is probably the Dreamsafe Recycling Program or to contact your local council

In other regions, a search on Google for your country name + mattress recycling may bear some fruit.

Most recycling programs aren’t free – you’ll need to pay a small fee; but far less than landfill fees in most casesand you’ll know that your old mattress is being put to good use. Some recycling programsalso offer pickup services.

You could also try giving away your mattress via CraigsList orFreeCycle or donating your mattress to charity if it’s in goodcondition. Do not dumpthe old mattress on the charity’s doorsteps – call them first. Someorganisations can’t take mattresses due to health reasons, which iscompletely understandable given the amount of dust, bedbugs and bacteria an old mattress can harbor. 

Something else you can try (as you’ll likely also be in the marketfor a new mattressat the time) is to contact mattress companies to see if they will takeyour old one away if you purchase a mattress from them. It’s importantto then check what they will do with the old mattress. Some will simplyship it off to a landfill; others will be partnered with a mattressrecyclingprogram, shipping them off in bulk quantities.

Mattress choices

When shopping for a new mattress, give some thought to what you’regoing to do when the new one wears out. By buying a mattressconstructed for easy recycling, you can help minimize future disposalheadaches. One of the best ways to do this is to avoid mattresses withsprings.

For an even more environmentally friendly choice, look for mattressesmade from materials such as Forest Stewardship Council certified woodframes, natural latex cores, wool, bamboo, hemp and organic cotton. Ifyou have your heart set on a spring mattress, try to locate one thatuses recycled steel for the springs. The use of components such as woolalso removes the need for chemical fire retardants to be used.

If your budget isn’t too tight, considering spending a little more on amattress than you usually would. After all, we spend up to a third ofour lives lying on a mattress, so you may as well be comfortable! Whileenvironmentally friendly mattresses tend to cost a little more,the added benefit is they can last far longer too. For example, a goodquality natural latex core mattress can last for decades.

An ounce of prevention

The more life you can get from a mattress, the longer it will be before it needs to be landfilled or even recycled. 

Flip and spin your mattress every few months to allow for more evenwear and also invest in a mattress protector which will help preventrips and staining. Using a mattress protector also increases thechances that you’ll be able to donate your mattress to a charity at alater date.


Michael Bloch
Green Living Tips.com
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