Making an effort to recycle is a way of taking responsibility – not only for our own actions and effects on our local environment (no fly-tipping here, thank you) but also for our global environment (no greenhouse gases for future generations, thank you too)!
The upshot is we all know we should be making an extra effort, but do we always know how or even why, particularly with those hard-to-dispose of items such as mattresses?
Mattresses on the rebound
The good news is that most mattresses can be fully recycled to provide other useful materials which either support efforts to improve our green credentials by:
- Being a useful part of production lines.
- Reducing the need to manufacture new raw materials.
- Providing renewable sources of energy.
To get these goodies from our mattresses, mattresses are cut open so the layers which previously offered comfort offer instead their component parts, ready to be separated out:
- Springs bounce back
An average mattress can have between 300 to 600 steel coils nestled inside. All metal, including box springs, are extracted from fabric parts using special machine saws, which shred fabric aside whilst magnets remove the springs.
From here, depending on their type (for example steel or iron) metal parts are sent to scrap metal recyclers where they are melted, then recast back into usable elements for:
- Steel mills and foundries.
- Supply of recycled metal component parts, rather than costly production of new raw materials. These recycled components are then used in the production of household and industrial appliances, as well as building materials.
Future for foam
All fabric elements, including any layers of foam padding or latex, are retrieved from mattresses and then sorted. These materials are then compressed into large bales, which may be:
- Used as waste-derivative fuel, a renewable and far greener alternative to fossil fuels.
- Cleaned and recycled back into the textiles industry as carpet underlay.
The oily aspects of foam also have potential for recycling. Those oils which originate from plants, such as castor bean and soya oils, are found in many polyurethane products and may also be recycled into production lines – but not food ones, of course, no one’s advocating eating the recycled parts of a mattress!
- New ways with wadding
As well as springs and memory foam, mattresses are often stuffed with wadding. Once removed during the recycling process, wadding can be reprocessed as alternative fillings for pet beds and in furniture upholstery.
- Fabric to fuel – and beyond
The re-use market for the fabric extracted from mattresses can be a difficult one to negotiate, as restrictions around contamination and safety apply. However, even those fabrics, like some foam elements, which cannot be recycled back into production lines can be used in waste facilities as refuse-derived fuel.
Although this may not sound very useful, such fuels are indeed a welcome alternative to using fossil fuels by providing green energy and heat from renewable sources.
Other mattress fabrics, such as cotton, can undergo vigorous cleaning processes and then be reused within industrial oil filtration systems and other recycled textile projects, whilst buttons (which feature on most mattress designs) can also be removed, cleaned and recycled.
- Wood becomes ‘evergreen’
Since environmental-responsibility and sustainability began to be acknowledged by bed manufacturers, the foundation wood of modern beds has been sustainably sourced from non-endangered species. So, it makes sense that effort to put renewable materials into bed production lines should be sustained at the end of the bed’s life, with modern mattresses and bed parts being passed on for further reuse!
In bed and mattress recycling, all wood components are stripped down and sent to appropriate recycling plants where they could provide:
- Recycled fuel sources, such as compressed logs.
- Recycled products, including pet litter.
- Landscaping mulch and chippings.
In all, more than 80% of a mattress can be recycled but, depending on the recycling facilities used and type of mattress, it can also be possible to recycle up to 100% of a mattress.
So who benefits?
Environmental issues just don’t disappear each time the spotlight moves to something else. Recently, the issue of greenhouse gases hit the headlines again with reports of a record surge of CO2 in our atmosphere (BBC report), evidence that taking responsibility for recycling is going to keep bouncing back, just as mattress materials can.
The recognised benefits of recycling a mattress, rather than dumping it in landfill are many and varied – at local, national and international levels, and include the fact that by responsibly recycling your old mattress, you can:
- Reduce our landfill crisis – mattresses are large items and over the course of the average year, 169,000 tonnes worth of mattresses are left in landfill.
- Reduce instances of fly-tipping.
- Bring down the cost of new products (by contributing recycled components).
- Create growth in the recycling industry itself – if the recycling industry grows, then cheaper, more streamlined processes and practices can develop, encouraging everyone not just to see recycling as ‘alternative’ but as the
- Reduce ground pollution – because whilst some of those mattress components might eventually biodegrade in the ground, this isn’t a process like composting, which offers benefits to the soil. Indeed, a mound of mattresses in the ground is a huge problem, with many components stubbornly sitting there or disintegrating with dangerous effects. For example:
- Steel springs and many synthetic fabrics and foams will never biodegrade – or may take centuries to do so.
- Flame retardant chemicals (used to enhance mattress safety when in use) become dangerous poisons when they leach into the ground via landfill.
- The bleaches and fungicides used to treat our mattresses also contaminate the ground and groundwater. In the case of older landfill sites, this can mean that over time there is direct seepage of these noxious liquids into groundwater sources.
And of course by not lumping your mattress into landfill, you won’t be contributing to air pollution either, as the chemical effects of landfill sites contribute significantly to the growth of greenhouse gases. To find out more about why it’s important to recycle a mattress, check out Collect Your Old Bed’s Why Mattress Recycling Matters.
So, is a mattress recyclable? Not only yes, but also more easily than ever before, as the latest recycling technology can strip a mattress for recycling in 4 minutes, saving time, money, landscapes, oh and the environment too!
James Murray is a community coordinator for Collect Your Old Bed, which specialises in the collection of old beds and mattresses.