Industry Taking Lead to Recycle Mattresses in US

By Gary James / March 2013, BedTimes Magazine

As traditional methods of used mattress disposal become more expensive and subject to regulation in some states, recycling is assuming a more prominent role in helping the bedding industry manage the longtime challenge of what to do with big, boxy rectangles at the end of their useful lives.

In numerous states ranging from California to Massachusetts, nonprofit and for-profit ventures alike are increasing their efforts to transform waste into revenue and jobs while turning discarded materials into new products. Recycling centers keep used bedding out of landfills and a number have plans to expand their services into neighboring counties or additional states in the coming year. (The International Sleep Products Association maintains a list of recycling centers in the United States and Canada. That list currently includes about 40 mattress recycling centers in North America.)

But with an estimated 20 million mattresses and foundations hauled away from homes and hotels each year as a result of new bedding purchases, there’s still a huge gap between the number of mattresses being recycled and the volume that ends up in landfills or being resold by unscrupulous renovators.

Getting rid of mattresses in a responsible way isn’t easy,” says Ryan Trainer, president of ISPA, which conducted a workshop on mattress recycling for manufacturers, retailers and suppliers at the winter Las Vegas Market. “A growing number of landfills don’t want them, since they are bulky, hard to crush and can jam machinery. There are third parties that will take or buy used bedding from retailers, but many of them are unscrupulous renovators, who often just sew a cover over a filthy used mattress, making no effort to properly sterilize the old bed or meet national fire safety standards, and then deceive consumers into thinking they are buying an all-new mattress.”

Recycling offers the industry “a responsible solution to the problem of mattress waste that protects the environment and the public, and conserves resources,” Trainer says.

To deter unscrupulous renovators, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission has stepped up the pace of its enforcement actions. Most recently, it issued a recall order against Mattress Cloud Inc., a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company that had been selling new and renovated mattress sets for $80 to $175 that failed to meet the mandatory federal open flame standard. This action follows several other renovator recalls announced by the CPSC in 2012.

Such mattress renovation gives “the entire industry a bad name,” says veteran mattress retailer Barrie Brown, owner of Sleep. You Deserve More in Campbell, Calif., and a longtime mattress recycling advocate who helped launch the Spring Back program in Nashville, Tenn., and other programs in Oregon and the Northeast.

“Unscrupulous renovators build a business out of acquiring mattresses that are covered in stains and infested with bedbugs, sewing new covers on and then selling them to the unsuspecting consumer,” Brown says. “They take away as much as $1 billion in sales from legitimate manufacturers and retailers.”

ISPA’s long-term goal is to establish a national system for mattress recycling. With an estimated 50,000 mattresses discarded each day in the United States occupying as much as 23 cubic feet of landfill space apiece, an efficient recycling solution is needed, Trainer says. Communities across the nation are growing stricter about what can be disposed of in landfills, raising tipping fees or banning the practice of accepting mattresses entirely.

“All the resources contained in used mattresses are going to waste if they go to a landfill,” Trainer says. “ISPA is encouraging the development of a self-sustaining infrastructure for handling used bedding so that steel and other components can be efficiently extracted from mattresses and foundations and put to new uses. To do that, we need to develop new programs and increase participation in existing programs.”

Running a successful mattress recycling program isn’t easy. For starters, programs must establish an efficient way to collect and store mattresses. Then there’s the mattress disassembly process itself, which in North America still relies largely on hand labor to tear apart layers and separate and bale components. Finally, finding buyers for the components can be difficult, with raw material prices rising and falling with market demand. The cost of handling the old mattresses, tearing them down and preparing the recyclable materials for sale usually exceeds the value of the recycled materials, so most programs charge a processing fee just to break even.

To help cover expenses, most recycling centers currently charge a processing fee that can be $5 or more per piece.

When it comes to selling mattress and box-spring components, steel innersprings contain the most value, since there’s a steady market for scrap metal in most areas. Foam and fiber can be shredded and used in carpet padding and possibly insulation, and wood can be chipped for mulch or animal bedding or burned as biomass fuel. Finding a market for used cotton, shoddy and other textiles can be trickier. Mattress recycler Goodwill Industries of Duluth, Minn., is working with the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota to develop applications for its used cotton, perhaps as diesel and locomotive oil filters.

“It takes a great deal of time and effort to find destinations for all the key components,” says Greg Conkins, contributed goods manager for Goodwill Duluth, a nonprofit. He says that in the past fiscal year, the program shipped a total of more than 750,000 pounds of recycled bedding materials to its partners for use in making new products.

According to Brown, who spent much of his career as president of multistate retail chains Mattress Giant and Sleep Country USA, mattress recycling centers work best when they have a steady supply of product and an established market for component materials.

“Everything works more efficiently,” Brown says. “It makes it possible to automate some of the functions and drive down the cost. Larger recyclers also can take advantage of better commodity prices as they sell steel and foam.”

In order for economies of scale to be achieved, more segments of the industry need to get involved, Brown adds.

“We need the participation of all the major parties, from bedding manufacturers and retailers to hotels, schools and other institutions that handle large quantities of used bedding,” he says.

Recently, both the U.S. Navy and the Hilton hotel chain have announced mattress recycling campaigns. The Navy initiated a pilot program with Nine Lives Mattress Recycling in Pamplico, S.C., to break down 13,000 used mattresses from several ships. The program reportedly costs $12,000 less than simply having the discarded mattresses end up in a landfill and saves more than 100,000 cubic feet of landfill space.

Nine Lives charges a $5 recycling fee for each mattress and box spring it takes, and recycles up to 90% of mattress materials. The Navy says it hopes to expand the program to other naval ships, barracks and facilities.

On Nov. 1, Hilton Worldwide announced the launch of a mattress recycling program connected to the installation of new Serta mattresses and foundations at its properties. Working with DH Hospitality in Haymarket, Va., Hilton will recycle 85% of its hotels’ mattresses and box springs rather than diverting them to landfills. The components will be recycled into products such as tools, automobiles and construction materials (from reclaimed steel springs); tempered flooring, particleboard shelving and pressed wood products (from foundations); oil filters, mats and stuffing (from cotton fibers); and carpet padding (from foam quilt scrap).

DH Hospitality is installing and removing mattresses at Hilton’s properties, which have bought more than 50,000 mattresses in the past two years alone, the hotel chain says. DH will ensure that all components of the mattresses and box springs are being recycled, not resold or re-covered, by requiring partner recycling centers to provide a certificate of recycling. DH is a turnkey supplier of recycling, liquidation, transportation and warehousing nationwide.

“Programs like these send a strong message that recycling is the right thing to do,” Trainer says. “Hilton and other major businesses are recognizing the value of recycling in protecting the environment and connecting with consumers.”

A survey of 1,500 consumers by Spare Our Landfills in Phoenix found that 64% were strongly against mattresses being sent to landfills. In addition, 57% said they would support a recycling fee on the purchase of their next mattress and that $17.23 would be a reasonable fee. Nearly 80% said—all things being equal—they would select one retailer over another because it recycles.

“The idea of paying to dispose of something doesn’t translate into tangible value for many consumers, but that attitude seems to be changing,” Trainer says. “As interest in recycling grows, we as an industry need to offer more safe and efficient venues for disposing of mattresses in a way that meets consumers’ expectations.”

Goodwill program in Duluth hits its stride

Goodwill Industries of Duluth, Minn., has deconstructed more than 120,000 mattresses and foundations since its mattress recycling program was launched in 2004. During the past two years, it has processed an average of 1,600 units a month—or 19,000 pieces per year—and those numbers keep going up, says Greg Conkins, contributed goods manager for the nonprofit.