Throwing plastic trash into a recycling container, then rolling it to the curb is, for many of us, an easy habit — part of our weekly household routine. But what happens with bulkier furnishings when it’s time to buy a new mattress and the old one, dragged from the bedframe, is staring you in the face?
Susan Inglis, executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, faced such a challenge in Chapel Hill, N.C. She began her search for a recycler by perusing the “Bye, Bye Mattress” Find Your Facility link of the Mattress Recycling Council website. Unfortunately, North Carolina hasn’t set up a recycling program with the MRC. After asking a couple of charitable organizations about local recyclers and contacting the Orange County Solid Waste Department to no avail, Inglis reluctantly hauled her mattress to the dump.
“I wanted this mattress to go someplace useful,” Inglis said. “In the longer run, and what gives me hope with the MRC work, is that everything we throw away needs to be feedstock for new production.”
Circular reuse process
Although Inglis’ mission fell short, mattresses are being recycled in a few states, and the momentum is growing. Some new mattress components are made from recycled materials, and parts from used mattresses, “the feedstock,” can be recycled again.
Steel, for instance, can be endlessly recycled. Ryan Trainer, president of both the MRC and the International Sleep Products Association, noted the steel springs used in mattresses are made from new steel wire that, in turn, is produced from recycled scrap steel. The polyester fill is created from recycled beverage containers. Fiber in a used mattress transforms into insulation. Used mattress foam morphs into carpet underlay. The wood from box foundations becomes mulch or fuel sources. More than 80 percent of a mattress’ components can be recycled into products.
The MRC, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va., is the key player fueling this process of reuse. The organization’s primary mission is to work alongside states that have enacted mattress recycling laws, in the development and implementation of statewide recycling programs. Currently, the MRC supports programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Residents who drop off used mattresses at designated recycling facilities and collection points receive from $1 to $3 per discarded unit.
MRC program updates
Amanda Wall, MRC marketing and communications manager, said these “Bye Bye Mattress” programs started in 2015. Mattress manufacturers and retailers are required to register through an online portal with the MRC, provide recycle fee information to customers on their receipts, and remit recycling fees that pay for the recycling of customers’ discarded mattresses. Because of these initiatives, more than 136 million pounds of useful materials have been diverted from landfills. Additionally, the MRC now offers a grant program to encourage new research that will further the recycling process.
Since Bye Bye Mattress began, Connecticut and Rhode Island have recycled 500,000 and 245,000 mattresses, respectively; California’s total is nearly 4 million. An exciting update for CalRecycle program retailers: In late April, MRC began a commercial volume pickup. The MRC “provides no-cost containers, transportation and recycling of discarded units to retailers who have 100 or more units to discard,” reports Wall.
Trainer adds that Maine, Oregon and Massachusetts are seeking to implement mattress recycling laws and come on board with the MRC. ISPA, which he also heads, initially worked with the mattress industry and with lawmakers in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island to craft laws that would lead to recycling programs before the MRC was formed in 2013.
Dismantlers versus renovators
Trainer says ISPA and its members support mattress recycling and dismantlers: “They take used mattresses and tear them apart, so parts go to other industries.”
By contrast, refurbishers/renovators seek to refurbish returned or discarded mattresses and resell them. This resale is regulated by state law and requires that the mattress be sterilized and brought up to compliance with federal flammability standards. The fact that the mattress is a “used bed” must be disclosed on the product. Unfortunately, these renovators often engage in “reskinning the bed” by sewing a new fabric cover over an old, soiled mattress, according to Trainer.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission has recalled a number of renovated mattresses that fail to meet the federal flammability standards. “Quite often, these beds are sold minus the required labeling to unsuspecting consumers who believe they’re buying new beds,” Trainer says.
On the recycling walk
On the bright side, there are retailers in states outside of the purview of the MRC that are striding down the recycling walk. Take Ryan Baty, owner of the Mattress Hub in Wichita, Kan.
He explains in his early 2019 Snooze Better post, “Doing the Right Thing,” how he and his staff developed a program that diverts between 1,500 and 2,000 mattresses collected in two of his warehouses from landfills each year. Instead, inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility are paid to dismantle and process mattress items for recycling.
MRC’s Wall said Mattress Firm and Home Furnishings Association member Jordan’s Furniture in Massachusetts are among a growing group of mattress recycling retailers in states not currently part of the MRC program.
The State of the Mattress Recycling Industry report published by Cascade Alliance in July 2017 reveals that “Americans dispose of an estimated 20 million mattresses and box springs every year,” with most left in landfills and incinerators.
As Inglis said, all trash “goes somewhere.” If furniture industry leaders and state legislatures advocate for mattress recycling, these furnishings can become part of the circular process of reuse instead of fodder for landfills.
To receive more information about MRC’s services and policies, retailers can sign up for emailed MRC monthly program updates.