1966-1990: Out with the old

The International Sleep Products Association’s first 100 yearsPart VI of the third installment

Industry works to keep used mattresses out of circulation

BY JULIE A. PALM

With the nation’s first statewide mattress recycling law taking effect in Connecticut this year and those in two other states—California and Rhode Island—set to go into effect in 2016, it’s worth noting that the mattress industry’s concerted effort to find an efficient, cost-effective way to dispose of used mattresses can be traced back to the late 1970s.

The problem of what to do with used bed sets at the end of their useful lives has plagued the industry for decades. Big and bulky, mattresses and foundations are hard for consumers to manage. And, as a practical matter, if you as a consumer don’t know how or where to dispose of your old bed set, you’re less likely to buy a new one—stretching the mattress replacement cycle by years. No one in the industry has ever liked that. There’s also been the perennial matter of unscrupulous renovators who have endangered consumer health and safety—as well as the reputation of the entire industry—by selling unsanitary bedding. An early, industry-approved solution to disposing of used beds was giant, retailer-hosted bonfires, but for safety and other reasons that practice fell out of favor after its heyday in the 1920s.

1978 Sealy survey on bedding disposal
In 1978, Sealy undertook a survey to determine what recent purchasers of Sealy Posturepedic mattresses had done with the bedding being replaced. Only 26.4% of respondents took the bedding out of circulation.

With general concerns about the environment accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, the question of what to do with used bed sets took on greater urgency. Increasingly, landfills stopped accepting old mattresses and foundations or started charging large tipping fees to do so. Just as troubling to the mattress industry was the knowledge that so many used mattresses continued to stay in circulation, moving from master bedroom to guest room to relative’s house to charity or renovator. A survey conducted by Sealy Inc. in 1978 showed that almost three-quarters of consumers at the time disposed of their old mattress in a way that kept it in circulation—“put it on another bed,” “gave it to someone else in the house,” “gave it to a charitable organization,” “stored it,” etc. Only a quarter of respondents either “threw it away/disposed of it” or “traded it in on a new mattress,” according to an article in the January 1980 issue of Bedding magazine.

In 1979, the Suppliers Council of the National Association of Bedding Manufacturers created the industry’s first official Bedding Disposal Committee and tasked it with developing “an industry program for the physical disposal and/or recycling of used bedding.” One of its initial efforts was sponsoring “Old Mattress Clean-Up Month,” a pilot program in Springfield, Illinois, that teamed with Goodwill Industries to pick up old bedding from consumers’ homes at no charge. Goodwill workers then would tear down the mattresses and foundations into components for recycling. About 500 pieces were collected during the month. Unfortunately, the program ran into some of the same troubles that would plague the industry’s efforts to bring about widespread mattress recycling for years to come, including the fact that the Springfield Goodwill was unable to find enough financially viable markets for components.

Despite the many obstacles, the association never abandoned its goal of finding ways to make mattress recycling practical and cost-effective. It continued to investigate and support the development of mattress-recycling innovations, as well as the formation of new markets for components. At the same time, the broader industry began to evolve in ways that eventually would make widespread recycling more feasible. For instance, as a competitive advantage, more retailers began routinely taking away old bed sets when delivering new ones, and the market for recyclable components started to improve, albeit in fits and starts.

But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ll pick up the story of the association’s mattress-recycling efforts during our final installment of centennial stories in the November issue of BedTimes.


Read all seven parts of this month’s special ISPA 1966-1990 centennial section:

Part I – Main feature: ‘The challenge of change’
Part II – New directions for mattress industry public relations
Part III – Uniform Monday Holiday Act brings sales, promotional opportunities
Part IV – The industry enters the computer age
Part V – The Sealy wars erupt: Sealy Inc., Ohio-Sealy duke it out
Part VI – Out with the old: Industry works to keep used mattresses out of circulation
Part VII – Product trends of the time: Waterbeds make waves

View this special section as it appears in the print magazine: BedTimes’ August digital edition.

Read previous chapters in the 100-year history of ISPA:
1915-1940: An industry comes together
1941-1965: A time of war, a time for peace