Can mattresses be fully recycled?
Mattress recycling is notoriously difficult. With 8.5 million mattresses being thrown away annually in the UK, what is being done to prevent them from ending up in landfill?
Made up of low-value products that are mechanically fixed together, the separation and segregation process in mattress recycling is not only time-consuming but expensive.
A combination of different materials used in mattress manufacturing contributes to this difficulty, as soft materials such as cotton and foam are often attached to inner springs – which can also make the disassembly process dangerous.
The complications involved in recycling mattresses, combined with the item’s high demand, means that a high quantity often ends up in a landfill or being fly-tipped. Although this destination may be the ‘cheapest, quickest and easiest option’, landfill accounts for roughly 70 per cent of the UK waste management sector's greenhouse gas emissions. This adverse end-of-life option is therefore being challenged by mattress collection and recycling services, such as The Furniture Recycling Group (TFR).
TFR told Resource that ‘8.5 million mattresses are thrown away per year, which equates to 300k tonnes of materials that we need to find a home for’. Further, research from 2019 showed that mattresses represent 13 per cent of all waste dumped illegally since 2013. “The main barrier to achieving a high level of mattress recycling in the UK”, TFR says, “is the lack of outlets for low-value materials used within mattresses.” This is something the Group are tackling with new ‘methods and processes’.
The industry perspective
Many queries concerning mattress recycling can be answered by the National Bed Federation (NBF) – a recognised trade association, self-titled ‘the bed industry’s conscience’. It represents a majority of the UK’s bed manufacturers and suppliers. Its ‘sister service’ – named Best Advice – provides individuals with ‘professional, unbiased, and generic advice in beds’.
Working towards various goals, such as ‘celebrating and promoting excellence’ and ‘providing education and guidance to help people get a better sleep’, the NBF offers information specific to each stage of a mattress's life cycle.
For instance, it advises that the average replacement cycle for mattresses in the UK should be between seven and eight years as ‘individuals shed around a pound of dead skin’ and ‘up to half a pint of moisture per night’.
Replacing mattresses within this time frame is a recommendation ‘purely on hygiene grounds, not to mention from a comfort and support perspective’.
Back in 2017, the Federation reported that the annual sales of replacement mattresses in the UK were ‘5.3 million units’, but that less than 20 per cent of those being replaced were being recycled. As a result, the Federations Circular Economy Committee set an increased target of 75 per cent by 2028.
Speaking to Resource, the NBF says that it now estimates 24 per cent of all mattresses disposed of are recycled.
Thee federation recommends buying new mattresses from a retailer who will take away and recycle your old ones and, alternatively, donating old mattresses that are in good condition to charity – however, the main issue that customers face when recycling mattresses is whether or not they have the option to do it.
What options are available to the public for mattress recycling?
The Mattress Recycling People (MRP), a mattress collection service operating through an online booking system, claims to divert 100 per cent of the mattresses they process from landfills. In order to ‘combat the 167,000 tonnes of mattresses sent to landfill every year, the collection service highlights its process that separates mattresses ‘into 19 component parts’.
This process has contributed to the company recycling ‘over one million mattresses’ in the last ten years, averaging around 7,000 per week. According to The MRP, this has resulted in ‘over 30,000 tonnes of materials being fed back into the economy’.
Although not listed on the NBF’s website, collection services are available for corporate clients. The TFR Group, for instance, says its recycling service ‘supports businesses and local authorities across the UK to remove end-of-life mattresses that are no longer fit for purpose’.
TFR Group explained to Resource that it provides two services, recycling and rejuvenation, in line with its aim to divert 100 per cent of all mattresses in the UK from landfill, and feed them ‘back into the economy as pristine new materials’.
How does the mattress recycling process work?
To address the time-intensive nature of mattress recycling, TFR Group has developed its ‘automated pocket spring recycling machine’ – which dismantles and separates the components in the pocket springs of a mattress in two and a half minutes. Usually, pocket spring mattresses can take over a half day to deconstruct.
Therefore, the service is contributing to an increased processing capacity of mattresses, for rejuvenation or recycling, and a resulting reduction in mattresses sent to landfill.
TFR Group explained its recycling process to Resource, clarifying that the pocket springs from the mattress are separated into steel and polypropylene waste streams, leaving recyclable components, while the steel springs are baled up and collected by scrap metal merchants.
Textiles are sanitised, blended and baled ready for transferring as products for further processing. Afterwards, foams are sanitised and repurposed into new products including yoga mats and sun loungers.
This machine, therefore, serves to find ‘outlets for low-value materials used within mattresses’, utilising the mattress waste steam to produce ‘useful, recyclable components that can be sold on, re-used or recycled, creating a circular economy’ – which would have otherwise been terminated at landfill. 90 per cent of the materials are sent for ‘further processing into manufacturing of new products to support the circular economy’. The rest goes to energy from waste.
‘Rejuvenation’, the Groups second service, prevents mattresses that ‘still have life in them’ from becoming waste. This process is designed to support retailers and online brands recover losses from comfort guarantees and online orders – for example, the comfort guarantee of mattress company Benson for Beds: ‘If after 40 nights you don’t find your bed totally comfy, we’ll exchange it for a new one’.
Mattresses that pass TFR Group’s ‘quality assurance process’ are sanitised in its ‘in-house’ sanitisation system. They are then repackaged and sent back to the retailer for resale. Mattresses that fail the quality assurance checks for rejuvenation are recycled, the firm says.
Collections through the TFR Group are tracked from start to finish, with the objective of offering full transparency throughout the journey. When mattresses arrive at the TFR Group’s facility, they enter a waste acceptance procedure. Afterwards, they are fed through a process line, where the team dismantles each mattress into 19 component parts.
Could my local authority collect and recycle my mattress?
According to Bed Advice UK, most local councils offer a bulky waste collection and disposal service, which includes beds and mattresses. But it can be surprisingly expensive and there’s often no guarantee your mattress won’t end up in landfill.
In fact, incidents of fly-tipping have increased since the majority of bulky waste collection charges were introduced. Best Advice UK highlights that this cost councils over £50 million in 2014/2015 for clear-ups.
The main challenge councils and waste companies currently face when attempting to recycle mattresses is ‘the cost of recycling mattresses’ according to the TFR Group. “This is something that we are providing solutions for with our compression system. It reduces the cost of transporting mattresses five-fold, as well as our automated mattress dismantling which will reduce the gate fee by over half.”
In 2020, TFR Group partnered with SUEZ to offer mattress recycling for Greater Manchester residents.
The NBF also highlights that individuals should not leave mattresses outside if a local authority is collecting it, as a 'soiled or wet mattress cannot be recycled'.
But before mattresses reach these groups, how much is being done to shift the end-of-life focus of mattresses towards recycling?
Would EPR shift producer focus to a mattress’s end-of-life?
The NBF highlights the importance of consumer behaviour for effective mattress recycling. Consumers should pay attention to its approved member list – which is independently ordered in line with the company’s mandatory code of practice. It urges these members to be cautious about what they claim to recycle, due to greenwashing and a need for transparency between retailer and customer.
Consumers can also care for a mattress throughout its lifecycle – using mattress protectors that are regularly cleaned, getting mattresses professionally cleaned, and vacuuming a mattress to get rid of dust and dust mites. These actions will protect materials and make them ‘more recyclable’.
Yet, the responsibility is not solely on the consumer. Although it is possible to recycle mattresses in the UK, Government regulation and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) could have compelling benefits on mattress recycling.
Efforts have been made to regulate recycling, such as Zero Waste Scotland and the NBF’s project to assess EPR approach to improve mattress circularity in Scotland, but UK residents still face a ‘recycling postcode lottery’ when it comes to disposing of old mattresses.
Confirming that mattress production and the UK challenge of mattress waste and recycling would benefit from EPR legislation, TFR Group told Resource: “EPR or the cost for producers under the EPR scheme will force designers to take account of the end of life of the product or cost of the end of life of their product in conception”.
“Recycling services need to be more widely available, which our compression system will enable. In terms of steps to be taken, we need certainty on the timelines of EPR integration to enable the industry as a whole to move forward with the initiative.”
For now, following advice from the NBF and making use of available recycling collection services are the best way to ensure your mattress gets recycled.