MRC Gauging Impact of Recycling

Results of the life cycle analysis are expected this year, plus updates on other MRC research projects

The Mattress Recycling Council expects results later this year from a life cycle analysis, which is assessing the environmental impacts of the entire mattress recycling program in California, from the time a used mattress reaches a collection site all the way through to dismantling the mattress and recycling its components for new end markets (or disposal in landfills).

The analysis will give MRC its first comprehensive look at the program’s environmental impact. It will look at the positive impacts (such as the tons of steel, foam, wood and other components recycled) and the negative environmental impacts of mattress recycling (such as electricity usage in facilities and miles driven by transporters) to get a complete picture. MRC will use this baseline data as a factor in evaluating changes to program operations. The analysis will be re-run in the future to measure improvements, as well as to gauge changes in the materials being recycled and shifts in how those recycled materials are processed for use in making new products.

“Large corporations and tech firms perform LCAs but it’s rare for anyone in the recycling world to do an assessment like this,” says Mike O’Donnell, managing director of MRC. “The findings will be a useful indicator of how well we’re doing and where we should focus our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. The LCA is also a tool that will help MRC and policymakers make better-informed decisions when evaluating different options for increasing and qualitatively improving our recycling efforts.”

Scope 3 Consulting, headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, is performing the analysis of MRC operations, looking at CO2 emissions, energy use, landfill avoidance and other metrics. In late 2021, the firm analyzed the types of mattresses in the recycling stream — an early stage of the life cycle analysis. “The results were unsurprising, but needed by Scope 3 for accurate measurements,” O’Donnell says. “For example, they found that queen size is the mattress size most frequently recycled, and that together, Bonnell and pocket coil springs make up 54% of recycled mattress core types.”

Here’s an update on other recent MRC projects:

1: Exploring use in batteries and supercapacitors

MRC expects a final report this spring from scientists at Pittsburg State University’s Kansas Polymer Research Center in Pittsburg, Kansas, who have been investigating whether a variety of mattress materials, including polyurethane foam, polyester, cotton and coconut fiber, 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. A first phase of the MRC-funded study of mattress components indicated that several materials had key performance advantages over common electrode materials such as carbon and graphene. 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, according to MRC.

2: Characterizing the waste 

In 2021, Orlando, Florida-based MSW Consultants LLC finished its waste characterization study of the 23% of mattress materials that aren’t being recycled either because there are no end markets for them or because the components are contaminated in a way that makes them unacceptable for recycling. The three most prevalent waste products (as a percentage by weight of total waste) are shoddy felt pad (22%), mixed nonwoven fibers (19.8%) and quilt panels (17.3%). On the other hand, “the mattress recycling process is highly successful at capturing steel, wood, foam and cardboard,” according to a final report from MSW Consultants, which sorted and categorized 19,000 pounds of the materials left over from the mattress recycling process at two California facilities.

“MRC will use the results to help guide its decision-making when commissioning additional research to determine more efficient ways to recycle those materials and create new end markets,” O’Donnell says. Additional research also could show if changes in the materials and assembly processes mattress manufacturers use would make it easier to recycle those products at the end of their useful life.

3: Finding new uses for chemically recycled foam

In late 2021, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, released results from a pair of MRC-funded studies showing that chemically recycled polyurethane mattress foam can be used to make concrete products with a low-carbon footprint and that used polyurethane mattress foam can be used to make new foam products. 

In the first study, researchers led by Samanvaya Srivastava, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, determined that chemically recycled polyurethane foam can be combined with zeolites to produce high-strength composites with properties comparable to ordinary Portland cement. (Zeolites are abundant, strong, naturally occurring porous minerals.) The composites exhibited  flexural strength and crack resistance and may be suitable for use in cast concrete and other products, such as concrete sound barriers and benches, according to the findings. The research also showed that the upcycled materials from recycled foam outperformed virgin polyurethane materials in such composites.

The technology has the potential to use thousands of tons of mattress foam each year. For example, one mile of a concrete highway sound barrier could use 600,000 pounds of recycled foam, according to the executive summary of the findings. Because the composites use recycled and naturally occurring materials, researchers expect that their production would be less energy intensive than typical cements and they are conducting a life cycle analysis to determine the size of the reduction.

In the second study, UCLA researchers determined that upcycled polyurethane products obtained from mattress foam are a feasible partial replacement for virgin polyol chemicals used in the production of new foam products.

4: Getting recyclers lean

MRC wants to help its recyclers increase their efficiency by removing operational bottlenecks and improving other processes that will make them more financially sustainable. In 2021, MRC sponsored Kaizen events to help contracted mattress recyclers develop, evaluate and adopt improvements to their processes that were recommended in customized lean manufacturing assessments conducted in 2020. MWS & Associates, based in Lakewood, California, facilitated the sessions, which lasted three to five days. MRC will continue to sponsor Kaizen events for recyclers that request them, O’Donnell says. “We’re committed to their ongoing efficiency and profitability efforts.” •