The Mattress Recycling Council is investing in initiatives that can find new uses and end markets for mattress components, make recycling sites leaner, increase recycling rates and more
Someday components from used mattresses could find new life in batteries or in a construction material designed to improve concrete. The Mattress Recycling Council, which operates state-mandated recycling programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island, is funding research into those ideas — and many others.
MRC invests $1 million annually in research to identify new end markets for mattress components and also to increase recycling rates, make used mattress collection and recycling more efficient, and help recyclers improve their profitability.
“Our research is focused on improving our recycling rate. Right now, we’re recycling 75% by weight of all the used mattress material that comes in. We’re happy with that statistic, but also need to make sure our program is sustainable far into the future,” says Mike O’Donnell, MRC managing director.
In one of the latest MRC research projects, MSW Consultants LLC, based in Orlando, Florida, is examining the approximately 25% of materials that aren’t currently being recycled by sorting and categorizing the materials left over from the mattress recycling process at two California recycling facilities.
“It’s common in the solid waste field to perform waste characterization studies where you go to a landfill and closely look at what people are throwing away,” O’Donnell says. “This study will do something similar by looking at the nonrecycled materials at mattress recycling facilities. It will provide a statistical breakdown of the number of pounds of shoddy pad, foam, wood, etc., that are not being recycled and why.”
Some possible reasons: Materials might be too contaminated or too difficult to separate for recycling, or there may be no profitable end markets for some components, says Mike Gallagher, MRC research consultant.
“My hope is that the waste characterization study will show us two or three common reasons why materials aren’t being recycled,” Gallagher says. “For example, maybe it will indicate that we need to go upstream to mattress manufacturers and say, ‘We’re having trouble recycling this material. We need a strategy. Can other materials be substituted during manufacturing? Can a mattress be designed differently?’ ”
Results of the study are expected later this spring.
Another new research project will tackle sustainability in a broader sense by assessing the environmental impacts of the entire mattress recycling process, from the time a used mattress reaches a collection site through the dismantling and recycling components for end markets (or disposal in landfills).
“We want to understand the impact of our environmental footprint and then determine how much can we improve,” Gallagher says. “Once it’s modeled, we can make the existing system better and use it as a guideline if other states implement mattress recycling programs.”
To calculate these environmental impacts, MRC has hired Scope 3 Consulting, headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, to perform a life cycle assessment of MRC operations in California, with the specific goal of determining baseline performance in terms of CO2 emissions, energy use, landfill avoidance and other metrics.
Results are expected in the summer of 2022. “This will give us the ability to put a lasting imprint on mattress recycling in the U.S.,” O’Donnell says.
Here’s a look at other projects that are underway or that have been completed recently:
New uses for components
A potential use for chemically recycled foam: Last May, MRC awarded a research contract to the University of California, Los Angeles to study a potential new application for chemically recycled urethane foam — as a component in an alternative concrete composition. UCLA researchers are studying using zeolites (abundant, strong, naturally occurring porous materials) in combination with chemically recycled urethane foam. The MRC-funded research builds on results from earlier UCLA research funded by a federal grant that demonstrated the potential of zeolite concretes as a low carbon footprint building material.
While “concrete production is very energy intensive,” Gallagher says, relatively little energy is used to process and purify zeolites. But alone, zeolite cements aren’t strong enough to be a substitute for concrete. Chemically recycled urethane foam could have value in several nonstructural concrete applications, including building façades, mortars and decorative moldings, Gallagher says.
“This is an early-stage development project. There will undoubtedly be technical challenges to overcome to bring this potential innovation to market. But if successful, it would use a tremendous amount of chemically recycled foam and create a valuable new product for the building and construction sectors,” he says.
Turning mattress components into battery components: In early 2020, MRC awarded a research contract to scientists at Pittsburg State University’s Kansas Polymer Research Center in Pittsburg, Kansas. They are evaluating a variety of mattress materials, including polyurethane foam, polyester, cotton and coconut fiber, to determine if they are suitable for use as components in batteries and supercapacitors. As MRC notes, energy storage is one of the fastest growing industries as makers of electrical vehicles and portable electronic devices seek batteries that are safer, rechargeable, longer lasting and more powerful.
The university’s researchers already have converted a wide variety of waste materials, from orange peels to jute, to produce high-quality carbon for batteries. Under the direction of Ram Gupta, a professor of chemistry at the university, researchers recently completed the first phase of the study of mattress components, which indicated that several materials had key performance advantages over common electrode materials such as carbon and graphene.
“We were very pleasantly surprised by how good the initial results were,” Gallagher says. “The technology looks very promising.”
Upcycling mattress materials into battery or supercapacitor components, instead of those materials being landfilled or recycled into lower-end goods, could drive up demand and provide mattress recyclers more profitable markets.
Making recycling more efficient
Addressing the challenge of pocketed coils:The pocketed coils found in so many of today’s mattresses present a challenge at the end of a mattress’ life. While it’s easy to separate the spring unit from other components, it is not cost-effective for recyclers to manually separate the individual coils from the polypropylene or woven cotton fabric sleeves that encase them. With MRC estimating that pocketed coil mattresses represent at least 25% of the current recycling stream and with each unit containing between 250 and 1,000 individual coils, it’s important to find a cost-effective way to separate the metal coils from the fabric.
Through MRC-sponsored research, Knoble Design LLC successfully constructed a low-cost, workable, small-scale machine that automates the process and achieves an output stream with a purity greater than 99%. (A YouTube video shows how it works. Watch it at YouTube.com/watch?v=dVtF32Q-SfE.) Knoble Design, based in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, now is seeking investors to help take the machine to market and can be contacted directly at KnobleDesign.com.
“We’re excited about the pocketed coil prototype,” O’Donnell says. “More work is needed to bring the machine to commercial scale, but it’s an excellent start to developing an affordable and innovative pocketed coil recycling solution. Our hope is that mattress industry suppliers find enough merit in the work to carry the development further.”
Kaizen Events at recycling facilities: In an effort to make mattress recycling facilities more efficient, MRC funded lean assessments at mattress recycling facilities in California, giving each recycler a confidential report indicating areas of potential improvement. Beginning this year, MRC is sponsoring Kaizen Events, facilitated by MWS & Associates, based in Lakewood, California, to build on those earlier efforts.
“In general, the recycling industry seldom does lean manufacturing assessments the way mattress manufacturers would, so recyclers were eager to participate,” Gallagher says. “A key conclusion of the initial aggregated report in early 2020 was that every recycler could find about 30% in ‘free money’ if they could improve bottlenecks and make other improvements. That’s huge in a low-margin industry.”
During the Kaizen Events, which last three to five days, each participating recycler will develop, test and adopt process efficiency improvements recommended in their customized lean assessment report.
Improving mattress collection sites:MRC also uses its research funds to improve infrastructure and upgrade equipment at mattress collection sites in California.
New and existing MRC collection sites are eligible to apply for funds, up to $10,000 per collection site. The goal of the program is to lower collection costs, improve safety and increase the recyclability of discarded mattresses. Previous funds have been used to build storage space and add weather coverings to protect mattresses from rain and to purchase items such as loading ramps, forklifts and fencing.
“It’s been a very successful and effective program, and nearly 50 collection sites have received some kind of support so far,” Gallagher says. “We’ve invested about $400,000 in the first three rounds — an investment that makes collection sites safer, makes on-site transportation easier and results in cleaner mattresses for recycling.”
Do You Have a Good Idea?
The Mattress Recycling Council seeks innovators with creative ideas for improving mattress recycling processes or exploring new applications for used mattress components. MRC has an open request for proposals (link to RFP) that allows innovators to submit their ideas via a pre-application concept paper at any time.
“We’re looking for innovators who have that next great idea,” says Mike O’Donnell, MRC managing director. “The pre-application is a one-page template. They can fill it out, submit it, and we’ll review it in about a week. Not every project is a home run, but there are a lot of singles that move us closer to our circular economy goals.”
Get updates and more information in the research section of the Mattress Recycling Council’s website. While there, you also can sign up for an e-newsletter to stay up to date on all MRC activities.