Over 50,000 mattresses are disposed of daily in the United States. Yes! 50,000! That’s equivalent to the weight of 800 adult elephants.
Sadly, the vast majority of these disposed of mattresses end up in landfills. How can we even begin to solve this problem? We’ll cover that in this article as well as how it truly does benefit the world to get rid of your mattress the right way.
We Have a King Size Problem and You Should Care
Since they are designed not to compress easily, mattresses occupy 400 times more space in landfills than regular rubbish.
So what? Right? Can’t we just make more landfills? Actually, states across America are running out of landfill space and the passage of stricter landfill permitting policies is reducing the number of new landfills permitted for operation. In the grand scheme of things, this is progress that benefits us all. Ultimately, it leads to innovation and better resource management practices. However, it requires us all to change our consumptive behaviors and start to reconsider the way we perceive waste.
As a matter of fact, the lack of landfill space and increased disposal cost are the key factors that led states like Connecticut and Rhode Island to pass statewide mattress recycling Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies. Leading up to the passage of these policies, the City of Hartford, Connecticut produced an intriguing report highlighting the burden of mattress disposal cost on municipalities. A comprehensive exploration of EPR policies can be reviewed on Re-Mat’s website—that post will cover most of the FAQs on the topic.
Re-Mat is a nonprofit social enterprise I founded in 2017, and our mission is to divert old mattresses from landfills while creating living-wage second chance employment opportunities for disenfranchised adults. My name is Christopher Moken, and I’m a circular economy fanatic and author of this blog. I started Re-Mat because I was frustrated by mattress disposal practices in my current city of residence: San Antonio, TX. The amazing team at Grow Ensemble graciously invited me to contribute to their outstanding collection of posts, and it’s an honor to write for you today. I hope you find the following information to be enlightening and inspiring.
Environmental Harm Caused by Old Mattresses
Beyond cost and lack of landfill space, GHG emissions are another issue with landfilling old mattresses.
Most mattresses contain carbon-based materials. When placed in a landfill, these carbon-based materials anaerobically break down and create methane gas. This methane gas slowly escapes from landfills and contributes to global warming 23 times more than carbon.
Some mattresses are incinerated instead of rotting in landfills. This process produces environmentally toxic pollution and isn’t 100% effective as a disposal method.
After incineration, 40% of a mattress still needs to be landfilled. Aside from the pollution, both incineration and landfill disposal of mattresses are costly. This is one of the most important reasons why you should care about proper mattress disposal alternatives. The cost of mattress disposal normally falls upon municipalities, governments, and consumers.**
Ultimately, you as a taxpayer or consumer foot the bill. No thanks! Fortunately, there’s a cornucopia of alternatives to landfills and incineration that are not only cost-effective, but environmentally friendly.
The Environmental and Economic Benefits of Sustainable Mattress Disposal
In 2017, The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) conducted the first every statewide analysis of the economic and environmental benefits of Connecticut’s 4 statewide EPR policies. Among these policies was the implementation of the nation’s first mattress recycling EPR.*
According to the PSI report, Connecticut recycled approximately 130,000 mattresses in 2016 which resulted in GHG emission savings of 4.2 million kg of carbon equivalent, saved 48.7 million megajoules (MJ) of fuel energy, and saved municipalities nearly $1.5 million. As Tommy Boy says “Holy Schnikes!” The PSI has a wealth of similar information on their site including a map of states with EPR policies. Need an idea for a dissertation? Notice a pattern?
In addition to these incredible benefits of mattress recycling, one of the most critical benefits of sustainable mattress disposal is job creation. An average adult can recycle about 6,000 mattresses/year working full time. That’s about 180 tons of materials. To put this in perspective, that’s about 20 garbage trucks full of waste. To add some additional context, the largest mattress recycling operation in the United States, DR3, recycles over 100,000 mattresses a year. Sustainability and environmental advocates normally focus solely on the environmental benefits of sustainable waste management practices and policies. Often, the economic benefits of job creation aren’t adequately demonstrated or presented when arguing for changes to waste management infrastructure and practices. But the science is in for this sustainable practice, and it’s something to celebrate!
The Power of Job Creation
Being able to document and communicate the job-creating benefits of environmental or sustainable waste management practices is the greatest weapon advocates have. Every advocacy initiative, including those led by national 501(c)4 organizations, should develop their messaging to highlight the job-creating benefits of their policies. Some states have actually already done the research.
So why not use it? For example, The State of Texas recently produced a comprehensive report on the Economic Impacts of Recycling in Texas. The report estimates that an additional 6,000 jobs can be created if the statewide recycling rate increased by 40%. Currently, the statewide recycling rate for Texas is under 30%. That’s a lot of room for innovative job creation!
Circular Economy: Saving the Planet While Creating Jobs
An example of intelligent incorporation of economic benefits into actionable policies can be found at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They are one of the premier organizations pushing for a transition from a linear economy to a circular economy. A linear economy produces products, consumes them, and then disposes of them.
Simply put, the circular economy is “anything that isn’t the linear economy” (Steven Roberts, Sustainability Strategy and Marketing at Dell). In a linear economy, little thought is put into design, manufacturing, and usage to maximize cradle-to-cradle resource stewardship. A circular economy disrupts this wasteful system. Plaine Products is just one example of how purpose-driven and mission-driven companies can disrupt the linear economy.
If you’ve never heard of the circular economy, you will over the next few years. It’s one of the largest shifts in economic policy since capitalism first emerged from under feudalism.
Remember the Magna Carta? It will transform the way almost all goods are designed, manufactured, transported, used, and recovered to eliminate a lot of the destructive and avoidable waste we currently accumulate. Sustainable mattress disposals plays an important role in this economy of the future.
Sustainable Ways to Dispose of Your Mattress
As with any material, it’s always best to follow the zero-waste hierarchy. In this model, it’s better to first design products with end-of-life management in mind.
This would involve, for example, building a computer knowing exactly how each of its components will be managed after the computer reaches the end of its usable life. These sustainable product design practices are the manufacturer’s responsibility. Meliora is an example of how concerned entrepreneurs can develop a business that considers the environmental impact of its products.
As a consumer, your first opportunity to make the greatest impact is to engage in conscious consumerism by reducing your consumption or purchasing products designed with sustainability in mind.
Follow the Zero-Waste Hierarchy
For example, sleeping on the floor eliminates the need to purchase a mattress and prevents a generation of mattress waste. Cultures across the globe embrace such a lifestyle.
This is the same logic that is driving the push to rid the world of single-use plastics and other materials.
But, most Americans will probably find the idea of sleeping on the floor a distasteful solution. Therefore, the most reasonable first step for most readers will be reusing your mattress. Primarily, finding a way to donate or sell it.
If you’re looking to donate your mattress, consider a local charity or a national nonprofit such as Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, or the Salvation Army that may accept mattress donations. However, the growing concern over bed bugs has made it harder to locate a nonprofit when donating your old mattress. You can also try selling your mattress via sites like Craigslists. Additionally, you can perform a DIY creative reuse project utilizing your old mattress or box spring.
St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County Oregon, a.k.a the godfathers of mattress recycling, were one of the first to manufacture dog beds, fire starter logs, and other clever items from old mattresses. They’ve also developed numerous reuse and recycling programs covering everything from appliances to glass. They also work closely with Cascade Alliance to teach other nonprofits how to implement recycling and reuse programs that generate positive operation revenue.
If you want to repurpose your mattress and need additional inspiration for a DIY project, take a look at some of the creative ideas on Pinterest.
If reuse doesn’t look feasible for you right now, next on the zero-waste hierarchy is recycling.
The Role of Mattress Recycling
Over 80% of every mattress is recyclable. Traditional innerspring mattresses are primarily composed of steel, cotton, foam, and textile materials. Inner-spring mattresses are deconstructed by hand and their materials are extracted and bailed.
This time-lapse video captured by the San Antonio Report shows the typical deconstruction process. Steel is smelted and transformed into new products. Cotton and textile materials are reused by the textile industry and also incorporated into oil filters, eco-rags, etc. Foam is reused as carpet rebounding and furniture cushioning; including the foam from 100% memory foam mattresses.
There are 3 states that mandate mattress recycling and dozens of recycling centers across the nation that provide mattress recycling services to individuals and businesses. Many of these recycling centers provide mattress pick-up services and fees for drop-off services typically only range from $20-$40.
However, drop-off fees at approved sites in California, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are free thanks to state-mandated programs. Visit the Bye Bye Mattress website to see if there’s a recycling facility or drop-off location near you. Some of these facilities will also accept your old box spring and an additional small fee may apply.
For most consumers, the last and final alternative will be the landfill. Most large municipalities provide some form of bulky waste or large item collection service annually or bi-annually.
Contact your local government to see if and when they provide bulky waste collection in your area. If you live in a location without such a service or need immediate disposal, there are countless removal services you can contact which will provide curbside pick-up for your old mattress and/or box spring.
In most cases, these mattress removal services will simply take your old mattress to the landfill. Some might take them to a recycler if one’s nearby. Be aware that these services will cost at least $60-$100—given this common price tag and the possibility to reuse or recycle instead, we consider this a last resort for disposal options.
Buying a New Bed and Bed Bugs
If you’re purchasing a new bed, some retailers might haul away your old mattress when they deliver your new mattress. However, usually, only physical retail outlets will provide this service.
If you’re buying a new mattress from an online shop that mails your new mattress in a box, most of the time, the responsibility for your old mattress falls on you. Although with Leesa Mattress, our favorite eco-friendly mattress company (who is also a certified B Corp), you can request a White Glove Delivery service in which they will take away your old mattress and recycle it for you (and set up your new mattress!).
Another important consideration when purchasing a new mattress, its effect on your health! Many mattresses contain organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs) which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has deemed as carcinogens. They’ve gone so far as to recommend pregnant women and children avoid mattresses with OFRs. Don’t panic! Several companies make Eco-friendly mattresses. This guide will help you find a toxin-free mattress that’s safe for your family and the planet.
A not so exciting topic, but important and mattress related: bed bugs! We all want to keep our current mattress in good condition and critter-free. Also, if you’re buying a used mattress, you’ll want to make sure you do your due diligence and inspect the mattress for a potential bed bug infestation. So, what can you do about bed bugs?
The State of Connecticut provides a variety of useful resources on bed bug identification and management. Some mattress recycling operations and most waste haulers will handle a bedbug-infested mattress if properly notified. Fun fact, dogs can be trained to smell bed bugs. Need to find such a dog or interested in starting your own bed bug detection company? Peruse the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association website to learn more.
Want to Have a Bigger Impact?
So, you’ve read this blog and want to go beyond just responsibly disposing of your mattress.
Great news! There’s a lot YOU can do.
First, you can share with everyone you know and love the current map of all mattress recycling facilities in the United States. There might not be one near you, but you can help spread the word to others that might be near a location—help us, help you, help them.
For those with a tough hide, next up is political action. The most impactful material stewardship programs are lead by state legislative action.
Get Political and Advocate for Mattress EPR Stewardship
If you’re really passionate about making a larger impact, engage your local state representative and advocate for statewide mattress recycling policies. The lovely State of California created a powerful guide for advancing mattress recycling stewardship. Use it as your bible. When approaching your local state representatives, you can even provide them with legislation that’s already been written by states that previously passed EPR policies for mattresses: California, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Don’t forget to remind them of the economic benefits mentioned earlier in this blog.
If approaching your state representative is too daunting, you can approach city council members. The City of Minneapolis is the only city in the United States that currently has a citywide mattress recycling program without any support from state mandates. Take a look at how their program works and see if a city council member wants to replicate their method.
Help Re-Mat Launch a Recycling Facility in Texas
Another approach, start or help an existing recycling program. If you’re engaged with local nonprofit organizations or serve at a nonprofit with the capacity for mattress recycling, pitch the idea to decision-makers. When properly executed, a nonprofit mattress recycling program can be close to self-sustaining from operational revenue alone.
As I mentioned before, I founded a nonprofit called Re-Mat, and our mission is to recycle mattresses and create jobs for disenfranchised adults. We’re currently working to launch a mattress-recycling facility in San Antonio, TX. Once operational, our goal is to recycle over 20,000 mattresses, create 5-7 full-time jobs, and reach self-sustainability through operational revenue within our first year of operation. Over the next 3 years, our goal is to scale up to recycling well over 50,000 mattresses/year and expand into Austin, TX.
We’ve received about $15,000 in grants from Philanthropitch and The New Earth Foundation over the past year. Our fundraising goal is $100,000, and we need your help to raise the remaining funds. You can have a massive impact by lending us a hand. Imagine the impact a mattress recycling operation can have in the 7th largest city in the United States! You can make a donation on our website. We’re also always looking for in-kind donations, board members, and passionate supporters. If you’d like to get involved with our mission, please contact us.
Throwing a mattress in a landfill is bad for the planet and the economy.
Fortunately, there are several methods you can employ for sustainable mattress disposal. These options are part of a larger shift in economic thinking toward the circular economy (but you already know about that).
Of course, it’s best to follow the zero-waste hierarchy when possible. However, recycling will be the most cost and time-effective solution for the majority of people seeking sustainable disposal of their old mattress.
So, what are you waiting for?
Get out there, make an impact, and remember the words of Geroge Shaw!
“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” ― George Bernard Shaw
Founder of Re-Mat & Circular Economy Fanatic
Chris is the Founder of Re-Mat, a Texas based mattress recycling nonprofit. He’s fanatical about implementing circular economy practices and is a member of the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling, Rotary International, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and is a New Leaders Council Alumni. Chris helped draft the City of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaption Plan and is also a co-organizer of ElementzFest, San Antonio’s first annual sustainability art and music festival. His dream is to travel the world working on circular economy projects.
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