More than plastics: Expanding innovation in waste management

Nick Oettinger, Managing Director of The Furniture Recycling Group, explains why innovation needs to be supported across the waste industry, not just focusing on plastics.

Nick Oettinger standing by mattresses ready for recycling
Nick Oettinger with mattresses ready for recycling
In June, the government announced plans for a £20-million fund aimed at developing a more sustainable end-of-life process for plastics. The Plastics Research and Innovation Fund will focus on reducing the environmental impact of plastics manufacturing processes by finding new innovations to put in place instead, moving the UK towards a circular economy.

The news comes following the announcement of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan at the start of this year, which placed its focus firmly on plastic waste and explored the idea of injecting funding into plastic innovation.

In recent months the government has banned microplastics, confirmed plans for plastic bottle deposit schemes and proposed a ban on plastic straws and stirrers. A new Resources and Waste Strategy is expected to be announced this year, as well as a plan to change the tax system to incentivise more resource efficient business models. The focus of these is still under wraps; however, it’s likely plastics will loom large in the plans.

While this is all undoubtedly great news, and both consumers and producers are definitely taking a step in the right direction, there still hasn’t been any movement towards tackling the bigger, bulkier types of waste, such as mattresses.

Mattress mountains

The disposal of mattresses has become a huge problem, and mattress recycling in this country is woefully insufficient. Over seven million mattresses go to landfill each year in the UK, which is enough to fill Wembley Stadium five times over. While landfill tax is increased every year as a deterrent to stop people from sending so much bulky waste to landfill, landfill is still currently a cheaper option than recycling.

The government needs to grasp the fact that landfill capacity in the UK is reaching crisis point, and the only way to deal with this is to expand the focus on recycling to include all types of waste. For example, it was estimated in 2010 that the UK would run out of landfill sites by 2018, and while that hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves in a situation where we’re left with hundreds, possibly thousands, of mattress mountains.

However, it’s not just a case of the government enforcing legislation that dictates that the ever-growing pile of mattresses is directed towards recyclers, as this will only shift the problem to become the recycler’s responsibility, and cause a larger crisis as many recyclers already struggle to find space and time to deal with mattresses effectively.

Problems and solutions

Pocket-spring-based mattresses are the most problematic for recyclers; they consist of between 1,000 and 10,000 single springs each wrapped inside a polypropylene pocket. The only way of recycling pocket springs is to manually separate each spring from the pocket with a knife, which is incredibly time-intensive and commercially unviable. Many recyclers can become overwhelmed by the task at hand when it comes to mattresses, with the end result being huge stacks of mattresses being dumped in landfill or left in warehouses across the UK. It’s also a lot cheaper and easier for recyclers themselves to send these types of mattresses to landfill. So, we need a solution.

I believe the solution is innovation. With a commitment to research and development we can create more efficient solutions that allow us to deal with these bulky waste streams.

To tackle the landfill crisis, we need to prioritise our focus towards research and development by continually investing time and resources into developing groundbreaking systems that make mattress recycling more viable and more efficient.

It takes over half a day to deconstruct a mattress by hand, which isn’t an efficient enough solution to tackle the landfill crisis. Two years ago, we set out to improve this by creating a specialised pocket spring mattress recycling machine, managing to dismantle and separate the pocket springs of a mattress in just 2.5 minutes. But even with this innovative machine reducing the time it takes to recycle mattresses, there are still a number of lengthy steps involved in the recycling process.

Another barrier for mattress recyclers is the cost of transportation to a mattress recycling facility. There are two issues currently. Firstly, the financial cost of using the large trucks or trailers required to transport mattresses is very high when large volumes of mattresses need to be transported, which puts many organisations off the idea of sending their mattresses for recycling. The second issue is the environmental cost of transportation. With the UK’s upcoming target to reduce CO2 emissions by 34 per cent by 2020, we have to get our carbon footprint under control.

I’d like to see more support for recycling companies who may not have the time, resources or money to focus on research and development. As one recycler, we can do only do so much. Investment in a government led Research and Innovation Fund for bulky waste, like mattresses, would not only help recycling companies get to the end result quicker on this increasingly pressing issue, but could also allow for the opportunity to explore alternative options further.