How mattress recyclers adapt to evolving consumer trends

As more states consider policies to encourage mattress recycling, changes in the way mattresses are purchased may have an impact on the recycling process over the next several years.

The pledges of mattress recycling appeal to local governments who are hoping to reduce transportation costs and achieve zero waste goals. Because mattresses are bulky and extremely difficult to compact, they pose a waste management challenge and in some areas municipalities can be charged significant amounts for their disposal.

As a result, mattress recycling legislation has gained momentum in recent years. As of 2015, California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island introduced expanded manufacturer responsibility laws (EPR) for these products. Other states hope to follow suit. A similar program is currently under consideration by the Massachusetts legislature. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), 600,000 mattresses are produced annually. An estimated 75% of this volume ends up in landfill or incineration plants. The agency also has its own ban on the disposal of mattresses.

However, as the pandemic accelerates the ongoing shift towards a “bed in a box” mail order system, the industry needs to consider the impact of new buying habits and materials that can increase the number of mattresses discarded annually and decrease the number of traditional end markets.

Source: Mattress Recycling Council

Mattress recycling today

As an item that has historically been designed to last, there is a significant delay between buying a mattress and throwing it away. According to Mike O’Donnell, executive director of the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC) – a group formed by the International Sleep Products Association to oversee and expand mattress recycling in the United States. This is an important factor in considering how programs will develop.

“We have about an 11 year lag between what is made and when it goes into our recycling facilities,” said O’Donnell, referring to a study conducted by MRC in 2019 examining the dates on incoming mattresses to help the organization make “predictions for the future”.

The industry has long been dominated by traditional box spring mattresses. These are made from a variety of materials, from steel in its springs to wood in its frame.

In the past decade, modern mattresses have evolved into a more homogeneous composition of polyurethane foam.

This is a consequence of the “bed-in-a-box” mail order phenomenon, in which companies compress their mattresses to reduce shipping costs. Boxed Bedding has been around since at least 2006, but only with the rise of the Casper brand, theirs accomplished and ubiquitous marketing brought the trend into the spotlight. And as the pandemic pushes more consumers to buy goods online, it has only accelerated.

While the mattress industry is picking up on this new trend, modern mattress recycling has largely been developed for the old mattresses. The process is highly mechanical and involves separating a number of materials. In box spring mattresses, recyclers can regain up to 75% of their weight (or 40 pounds of each mattress, as estimated by the MRC).

Approval granted by the Mattress Recycling Council

These secondary markets are diverse: steel springs, for example, will go to the scrap industry, where they are used as building material or as lining for new devices. Wood from frames is shredded into mulch for landscaping projects. Fibers from the fabric lining enter industrial oil filters. The foam padding inside is recycled for carpet insulation.

Recyclers say this diversity has its advantages. Stronger end markets like scrap metal can help strengthen weaker markets like Shoddy. This inferior pulp made of fibers and resin that makes up many inner mattress toppers has little to no value. In the end, recyclers can strike a balance that makes the process worthwhile. While only a small percentage of the 15 million mattresses thrown away in the US each year are collected for recycling, the industry is keen to ensure that processing systems can withstand the increase in volume as recycling efforts increase.

“Many of the recovered products will be inexpensive and mature into declining markets that are prone to the business cycle,” said O’Donnell in one Webinar last December, where he presented MRC’s funding opportunities to seek new ideas for end-market applications. “I’ve been around long enough to see the recycling industry rise and fall. So we obviously want a robust program that will survive economic change. One way is to diversify the market. ”

However, as recyclers seek to replace parts of mattresses that are difficult to recycle, these efforts overlook the fact that for some goods, the mattresses themselves are the end market.

For example, sloppy mattress toppers have long served as a valuable and rare end market for 5% to 10% of used textiles that are unsuitable for Trade on the used market. And as the quality of clothing continues to decline, more and more fabrics go bad as the end spirals downward. Replacing this material with foam, for example, creates a further imbalance in this already fragile ecosystem.

David Chessman is Vice President of New Jersey-based M. Chasen & Son, a third generation company that has recycled textiles since the 1920s. While he used to have several outlets for Shoddy, today most of his production is for end use as upholstery in box spring mattresses. But that also decreases quickly.

“The foam mattress bed in a box has definitely taken off and has definitely reduced sales for innerspring mattresses,” he said Chessman. “It definitely hurt sales [for shoddy]. ”

Bed in a box

Some reviewers say the main concern isn’t so much about the changing makeup of mattresses. In fact, many recyclers say the markets for foam as an input for carpet underlays are quite strong right now. Instead, they worry about the consumer behavior changes that mail order mattress manufacturers are promoting.

Boxed bedding companies like Casper and Helix offer generous extended warranties to attract consumers so that customers can return products for periods ranging from 90 days to a year. One Wall Street Journal reporter Checked and found all guarantees online All available offers would technically enable her to sleep “free” on a mattress for up to eight years.

Jessica Alexander of the National Bed Federation in the UK said one of the unfortunate consequences of these extended guarantees is that return rates for “faulty mattresses” have increased. One of her sources, who is a major recycler in the UK, told her that the return rate for comfort guarantees they receive from five different suppliers is between 14% and 20%. In connection with this, mattresses that are sold more conventionally in-store through retailers without these extended warranties have significantly lower return rates of around 1% or 2% or “possibly slightly higher return rates for other reasons such as comfort problems, around 5%” on. . “

Alexander is concerned about what will happen to the mattresses that are being returned after such a short period of use. According to their source, around 75% on eBay and Amazon will be renovated and sold as rejuvenated mattresses, while an estimated 25% will be dismantled and the materials recycled because the condition is not in good enough condition.

According to Schachman, who also collects polyurethane foam mattresses in addition to the poor workmanship, the increase in returns is clearly visible. Several years ago, his company worked with Casper to shred the foam, ball it, and sell it to a Connecticut processor for recycling into a carpet underlay.

“We used to take all their rejections because you get those attempts and if they’re corrupted or something they just throw them away.” he said. Eventually the volume became unmanageable. “We had to stop because we drove like a trailer for a week. And we had to take a trailer every day, if not more. And I couldn’t handle it. So we had to turn it down. “

The pandemic has continued to discourage shoppers from buying in-store and has accelerated this trend. Casper declined to comment on this story.

Future trends

Despite changing trends in the production and consumption of mattresses, some states and municipalities remain optimistic about the prospects for future mattress recycling.

For example, in Massachusetts, despite the failure of Senator Ed Kennedy’s bill to establish a mattress study commission, his team is now attempting to submit a bill for the current legislature to mimic EPR programs already in place in Connecticut, Rhode Island and California.

In the meantime, MassDEP has given grants to local authorities in recent years in the hope of promoting the recycling of mattresses early on. Greg Cooper, director of waste programs, says many cities are motivated to take advantage of this funding as mattress disposal fees have become quite high. In some cases, this can cost up to $ 50, compared to $ 19 or $ 20 for recycling.

Landfill operators can also be motivated to increase the diversion for cost reasons. According to a report These mattresses from Conigliaro Industries – a Framingham, Massachusetts recycler – take up valuable space, especially when uncompressed, and generate relatively low returns.

Building on this, MassDEP is planning a ban on the disposal of mattresses, which could come into force next year. Mattress industry advocates fear that a ban without EPR laws in place could be premature and put a strain on recycling infrastructure in nearby states, while freight forwarders and transfer station operators have also raised concerns about enforcement.

According to a statement from Sen. Kennedy’s office, there is hope that the ban can ultimately accompany EPR laws. “The availability of mattress recycling is currently inconsistent across the Commonwealth,” Kennedy wrote. “We need an affordable, unified system that makes it easier to recycle a mattress than to throw it on the curb or landfill.”

Ten years from now, when today’s mattress trends find their way into recycling streams – or sooner when box bedding has been gaining market share for at least five years – recycling program managers expect no problems. Cooper even suggested that switching to foam could simplify the recycling process, which is currently very intense for “filleting”.

“I think it’s a lot easier to deal with the degradation,” he said. “When you think of a bed in a box, it’s just a big, huge piece of foam.”

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