BY BARBARA T. NELLES
The sight of a filthy, old mattress lying on the side of the road is an ugly reminder of a problem. What happens to beds at the end of their useful life? Where do they go and who is responsible for disposing of them?
Landfill operators hate bulky mattresses. They don’t compact well and their springs pop out and jam machinery. The mattress industry hates that too many used beds end up in the hands of unscrupulous renovators who perform a little cosmetic surgery and resell them as new, often violating federal flammability standards and exposing consumers to allergens and pests, such as dust mite waste and bed bugs.
Mattress recycling is gaining supporters both inside and outside the bedding industry. They agree: It’s good for the environment and for the industry’s image. It’s also good for new mattress sales when it cuts off the supply of used beds to dishonest renovators.
There are more than a dozen mattress recycling facilities in North America. (For a list, check www.sleepproducts.org and click the “Sustainability” tab.) The majority are run by nonprofits and most have found that financial viability depends on collecting a per–piece tipping fee. The going rate is $6 to $15 per unit. The market for reclaimed materials is unstable. Most recently, the recession pushed prices for scrap foam and steel down significantly.
Some in the recycling and mattress industries support the idea of a universal product disposal fee collected at the point of sale—much like what is done in many states with used tires, large appliances, automobile batteries, paint and other items. But others worry about increased government intervention. They prefer that the industry devise and manage its own solution.
There is increasing agreement, however, that within seven to 10 years, recycling of used mattress materials could become commonplace in North America. There is less interest in Europe, where mattresses are incinerated or burned for energy.
But, in addition to driving down prices for used components, the recession has slowed momentum when it comes to the growth of mattress recycling: The flow of beds has slowed, recyclers have closed and demand for components has dried up.
On a positive note, studies and anecdotal evidence show that a growing number of consumers are concerned about what happens to the mattresses they discard. Perhaps it’s the sight of those beds on the side of the road.
ISPA’s involvement in mattress recycling
Promoting mattress recycling is one of the goals of ISPA Earth, the cradle–to–cradle sustainability initiative of the International Sleep Products Association.
“ISPA’s primary role is as a facilitator, promoting and encouraging mattress recycling,” says Ryan Trainer, ISPA executive vice president and general counsel. “We work to stimulate discussion and awareness of mattress recycling; act as an information resource on processes, procedures and equipment; and are helping interested entrepreneurs and organizations connect with existing operations.”
One challenge for ISPA is budgetary constraints that prevent the association from fully funding all aspects of its recycling initiative, Trainer acknowledges.
However, ISPA has done much work to date. In 2003, it created a Mattress Disposal Task Force to study the opportunities and challenges posed by mattress disposal and component recycling. It issued a thorough analysis of recycling and made detailed recommendations on how the industry should move forward. (The report is available under the “Sustainability” tab at www.sleepproducts.org.) ISPA also has provided limited assistance to a recycling operation and sponsored a design competition for reusing mattress components in creative ways.
The association currently is exploring the efficacy of using tire–shredding machinery adapted for mattress recycling. These machines can shred an entire mattress or foundation in seconds. Afterward, a magnetized separation process is used to collect the metal. Many see such grinding as the best way to handle high–volume recycling and to prevent cast–off beds or their components from being reused by renovators.
“The mattress industry is trying to solve the recycling problem, in part, because it’s the right thing to do,” Trainer says. “But another important motivating factor is that we want to act now to avoid or lessen the costs and disruptions that might result if governments were to impose recycling obligations on mattress producers. California and other states are now considering legislation making manufacturers responsible for recycling a consumer product when it reaches the end of its useful life. Some of the options under consideration could be costly and impractical.”
“I’m very optimistic that the right solution or solutions to recycling will be found because ISPA members back some sort of initiative,” says Steve Willis, staff vice president of continuous process improvement at industry supplier Leggett & Platt, which has headquarters in Carthage, Mo. “The best approach is to develop two to three options that will fit everyone’s needs. One thing is certain, we need to tackle this issue and make it work fiscally and physically.”
An interesting model, Trainer says, is the independent nonprofit Rechargeable Battery Recycling Program (www.call2recycle.org), which funds the collection and recycling of rechargable batteries in North America.
“Although the funding mechanisms that finance this program wouldn’t work well for the mattress industry, we can learn a lot from how they have solved some of the logistical problems of getting the used products to a recycling center,” he says. “They have enlisted retailers as important links in the collection process and promote their industry’s green efforts.”
Less mattresses in landfill
Mattress retailers are on the front lines of disposal. Many majors, including Toronto–based Sleep Country Canada, Phoenix–based Sleep America and Rooms To Go, with headquarters in Seffner, Fla., have implemented programs aimed at diverting mattresses from landfills. They donate lightly used beds to charity, do their own recycling or contract with recyclers.
Retailers Slumberland and Art Van Furniture have invested in shredding machines to compact used bedding before taking it to the landfill.
“We use a shredder from SSI Shredding Systems that allows us to grind up mattresses, box springs and unusable products and compact the material about 20 to 1,” says Dave Rosenbrook, fleet and facilities manager at Slumberland, which has headquarters in Little Canada, Minn.
“But the industry as a whole needs to devise and manage a comprehensive solution,” Barrie Brown says. “Others talk about needing ‘a level playing field’ in order to begin, but if we do nothing, that may lead to government imposing a solution on the industry.” Brown is former president and chief executive officer of retailer Mattress Giant and now is a Dallas–based independent consult to small–box retailers.
Brown says he is a long–time advocate of mattress recycling and notes that Mattress Giant continues to send customer castoffs to recycler Conigliaro Industries in Framingham, Mass.
SOLinc (Save Our Landfills), a mattress recycling consultancy based in Phoenix, is “working to find a scalable solution for retailers of all sizes,” says principal and partner Daryl Newton.
“Fundamental to our mission is education of consumers, manufacturers, retailers and recyclers.”
One client is Correctional Industries, a public/private partnership based in Seattle that is establishing a recycling facility using prison labor.
Lee Quinn, chief executive officer of Sleep Products Inc., a Restonic licensee based in New Albany, Ind., says his company takes possession and disassembles all of its retailer returns. It sells metal and foam to scrap dealers.
“There may not be a single, ready answer to (industrywide) recycling,” he says. “It’s an expensive proposition. And in the current economic climate, people are concerned about every dime.”
Mattress manufacturer Corsicana Bedding Inc., based in Corsicana, Texas, has started recycling its retailers’ used mattress pickups at no charge. In October, it opened Dream Green, a separate operation where it manually tears down beds.
“In three months, we’ve kept about 1,000 mattresses out of landfills and out of the hands of renovators,” says Carroll Moran, Corsicana president. “I see a need for this and am trying to come up with a viable mattress recycling operation. Our goal is to at least be able to break even on collection, tear down and recycling.”
“We are absolutely anti–rebuilding,” Moran says. “We’ve witnessed renovators selling old Corsicana mattresses as new—for more than they were originally sold for. Our industry needs a solution to this problem.”
Mostly manual mattress tear-down methods
Most mattress recyclers manually “fillet” mattresses and pull apart the components.
At PPL Industries in Minneapolis, mattresses are dissected on roller tables using electric cutters. The operation is a subsidiary of Project for Pride in Living, a nonprofit that assists low–income families in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area.
“Our goal is to not automate further than we have to and to just break even,” says Doug Jewett, PPL chief operating officer. “But material handling equipment is really important.” PPL has invested in balers, forklifts and power pallet jacks.
PPL provides three to six months of job training for difficult–to–employ people—the homeless, immigrants or individuals recently released from institutions.
“We get complaints about the cost—$15 per mattress or foundation—but not from consumers. They’re on board with our program and what we’re trying to do,” Jewett says. Among those who say the per–piece charge is too high are retailers, municipalities and private waste haulers, he says.
The PPL facility opened in July 2008, but had a sluggish start because of the economy. Only 4,000 pieces were recycled in 2009. PPL plans on lowering its per–piece price, broadening its reach to a seven–county area and conducting community awareness and collection campaigns.
Goodwill Industries in San Jose, Calif., opened a small recycling facility in 2009 with the assistance of Rubicon National Social Innovations, a nonprofit with headquarters in San Francisco. Rubicon’s goal is to support the creation of businesses that provide training and transitional employment for “marginal” populations. It’s also involved with mattress recycling operations soon to open in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The San Jose Goodwill facility does both residential and commercial mattress pickups.
“The dismantling operation is highly manual,” says Jonathan Harrison, Rubicon director of operations. “We fillet the mattress, but use a machine to remove springs from wood. Then we saw and bale the wood. We don’t use expensive grinders.”
The largest mattress recycler in North America is the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, based in Eugene, Ore. It operates three facilities in California and Oregon that together process about 150,000 mattresses per year. There is a $6 tipping fee per unit.
“Our crew at DR3 (which stands for Divert, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in Oakland can deconstruct a mattress in 10 minutes using a machine that shears off the top of the bed,” says Terry McDonald, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County director. Components are bundled and baled, then shipped to companies across the country.
“Our community is supportive of mattress recycling and the good green jobs it produces,” McDonald says. “That’s important to our success.”
Governments in California and Oregon also are supportive—and way ahead of the rest of the country in terms of waste reduction initiatives, McDonald says. In 1990, the state of California mandated that municipalities reduce the number of products going to landfills and many cities put mattresses on that list.
MattCanada, which is based in Montreal, has three locations in Canada, including a new facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The company designed and patented a mattress dismantler. (You can view it in action at MattCanada’s Web site, www.mattcanada.com.) The company uses several other machines to strip, shred and compact materials, and offers free consulting services to anyone interested in starting a mattress recycling business.
“The first couple of years were hard until we gained the trust of customers. We have 32 accounts from different sectors, including retailers Sears and Hudson Bay,” says Abdul Erdem, MattCanada president. “We aren’t making millions, but we’re surviving.”
New uses for old mattress parts
- Steel springs Reclaimed steel is bundled and sold as scrap to be remelted and poured into new steel components.
- Foam About 70% of the foam in mattresses can be ground and reused in carpet underlayment and moving pads. It’s also used as a biomass fuel source. Studies are under way to convert used foams back into polyols for new polyurethanes.
- Fiber Cotton fiber can be mixed with wood fiber, carded and used in engine oil filters. Cellulosic fibers may be incinerated.
- Wood The staples in foundations are a complication, but most wood can be chipped and used as landscape mulch, stuffing for pet beds or biomass fuel for waste–to–energy production.
- Fabric Tickings can be reclaimed and used in items such as pet beds.
- Shoddy pads They also can be used as a fuel source for waste–to–energy production.
Recycling beds has ‘green’ appeal for consumers
Consumers generally like the idea of their used mattresses being diverted from landfills and having the components recycled.
“There is a marketing advantage to retailers in telling consumers you are being responsible for your waste stream,” Jonathan Harrison says. “Our research shows that consumers are open to paying a ‘green’ fee of $6 to $10 per unit to retailers for the disposal of their used mattress—as long as they have a guarantee that their old bed won’t be resold and it won’t end up in a landfill.”
Harrison is director of operations for Rubicon National Social Innovations, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that helped Goodwill Industries in San Jose, Calif., open a small recycling facility.
A 2009 SOLinc survey of 500 U.S. consumers who had purchased or were planning to buy a new mattress had similar findings.
“Our study shows that consumers are already behind mattress recycling,” says Joe Paviglianti, a principal and partner in Phoenix–based SOLinc, a mattress recycling consultancy. “They will choose one retailer over another if it is recycling used bedding. They don’t want their old mattress resold or landfilled.”
SOLinc’s study also showed that many consumers are confused by the term “recycling.”
“They associate it with renovation,” Paviglianti says. “We need better consumer education to explain that none of the reclaimed components are used in new beds.”
Abdul Erdem, president of Montreal–based recycling company MattCanada, agrees.
“Today’s consumer cares about where their mattress is going,” he says. “They are interested in mattress recycling. We want to see recycling become mainstream. It’s better for the environment and for the mattress industry.”
Widespread recycling could improve consumers’ impressions of the entire mattress industry, some say.
“Consumers deal with mattress disposal once every 10 years or so,” says Dave Rosenbrook, fleet facilities manager for Slumberland in Little Canada, Minn. “But when they do, it can be a real thorn in their sides and recycling can be a compelling story: ‘We’ll pick up and dispose of your old mattress in an environmentally friendly, safe manner.’ ”
Or, as Barrie Brown, a former mattress retailing executive who is now a consultant, puts it: “If we did something really bold about mattress recycling, it could shake up the industry’s bad image among consumers.”
Containing concerns about bed bugs
As many recyclers will tell you, there’s a stigma about handling old mattresses and all the publicity about bed bugs has only added to it.
Mattress recycling was spotlighted on the Discovery Channel’s hit program “Dirty Jobs” in September when host Mike Rowe visited a center run by St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. Rowe spent considerable time being grossed out by just the thought of dust mites and bed bugs.
In addition to having workers use gloves, wear protective clothing and wash their hands, Doug Jewett says his mattress recycling facility contracts with a pest control company to keep the premises free of insects. Jewett is chief operating officer of Project for Pride in Living in Minneapolis. All mattresses also are stored on roller carts lined with clean paper.
“You watch for telltale signs on the paper—droppings, bed bugs, roaches,” he says. “Roaches are a big problem on bedding that’s been stored in damp places like garages.”
Mattress renovators vs. mattress recyclers
Whether sold or stolen, used beds find their way into the renovation market from curbside, loading docks, transfer stations, landfills and elsewhere.
Industry representatives and recyclers that BedTimes spoke with estimate that 10% to 30%—most cite the higher percentage—of all discarded bedding finds its way to renovators.
“The used bedding market is almost impossible to quantify,” says Barrie Brown, a former retail executive who is now a consultant. “The harsh reality is that there are stores everywhere selling these products and they give the whole industry a bad name.”