Waking Up To Mattress Recycling

Nick Oettinger, managing director at The Furniture Recycling Group, discusses the current trends in UK mattress recycling industry and what needs to be done by manufacturers, recyclers and consumers to improve standards across the industry. 

An estimated 5.9m end of life (EoL) mattresses were disposed of in 2014, with a recycling rate of just 16%, which begs the question: How can it be that there is no regulatory framework in existence to encourage the ethical and environmentally friendly disposal of such a high-volume waste stream?

The situation is now at crisis point. UK retailers are running major advertising campaigns advising consumers to ‘MOT’ their mattress after just seven years and to replace them after just eight, but the recycling rate hasn’t been able to grow in line with this increase in disposal rate, despite the rate having increased by an estimated 20% from 2012 to 2014.

So, while some figures are providing a promising outlook for the future of mattress recycling, the UK still has a very long way to go to balance the scales and create a circular economy, in which the materials that are recovered from EoL mattresses are fed back into the manufacturing process.

The Problems

Of the estimated 5.9m EoL mattresses disposed of in 2014, just 16% were recycled, the majority (73%) were sent to landfill and the remaining 11% were incinerated, creating an environmental headache for local authorities. Despite the government increasing the cost of sending waste to landfill as a deterrent, this form of disposal remains a cheaper option than recycling – a problem that can be countered with co-operation from manufacturers, retailers and other recycling operators, who often violate their duty of care obligations.

So, while the 20% increase in the mattress recycling rate from 2012-2014 is positive, it is still a relatively low figure when you consider the fact that consumers are now replacing their mattresses every eight years, a move away the previous norm of every 10-12 years. This increase in replacement frequency will mean that more mattresses are disposed of each year as consumers heed the advice of major retailers and manufacturers to buy a new mattress after eight years of use. A great deal of pressure therefore falls on retailers to stop sending old mattresses to landfill as part of their replacement schemes.

Instead, responsible retailers will inform consumers of the sustainable and environmentally viable way to dispose of their old mattresses, and send the ones they receive to recyclers rather than landfill, but sadly, not all do. As a result, the UK’s landfill sites’ ‘mattress mountains’ are growing rapidly.

If the EoL issue is to be properly addressed, manufacturers need to take into account the origin of the materials used in creating new mattresses.

In response, manufacturers absolutely must bring production in line with waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle – and, to do so, they need to pay close attention to the EoL issue when designing mattresses. Incorporating materials that will extend the average lifespan of mattresses (from eight years to a more viable 10-12 years) will reduce the frequency of disposal and lessen the strain on landfill resources.

As well as extending the lifespan, one of the many ways in which the recycling process can be improved – and the EoL issue addressed – is by using open-coil springs rather than pocket springs, which are much easier to break down and reuse. Responsibility lies heavily upon manufacturers here to ensure that the fabrics and designs used in mattress production are chosen with end of life in mind, rather than the recyclers having to deal with the consequences.

A New Direction

If the EoL issue is to be properly addressed, manufacturers need to take into account the origin of the materials used in creating new mattresses. While many manufacturers are already using recycled steel to create new mattress springs, if good quality mattress springs were to be reconditioned and reused on a wide scale for low cost mattresses, they could further reduce the energy and costs required to manufacture the coils as the existing ones are already at the correct quality grade for reuse.

Not only would this create a circular economy, but it would also have a positive effect on manufacturers’ bottom line, a clear incentive for a shift in manufacturing process.

The use of recycled fabrics to create new mattress felt is already a positive step, however over 90% of these fabrics are imported, which significantly increases the carbon footprint of the entire process. If manufacturers were to use reprocessed mattress fillings, this would significantly reduce the dependency on clothing stock from outside the UK.  It would reducing the process’ carbon footprint and also creates a perfect circular economy for the end of life of a mattress.

The 5.9m mattresses disposed of in the UK, represent a missed opportunity to use this quantity of available fibres within the UK in the production of new mattress fillings. TFR Group is actively working with retailers, manufacturers and some textile reprocessors to create products using recycled mattress fillings, with the aim of increasing the circular economy in mattresses.

Best Practice Framework

The need for a mattress recycling association to provide a best practice framework for manufacturers, retailers and recyclers is greater than ever.

We would want part of this association’s remit to provide thorough insight into the industry and facilitate the availability of much-needed data. For example, data on the environmental impact of different types of mattresses is not currently available, yet access to this data would allow manufacturers to build this knowledge into product design.

Consumers would also then be in a position to make informed choices when selecting a new mattress, hopefully opting for the most sustainable products and thereby facilitating the circular economy.

By setting out the use of reusable and recycled components from the UK market as best practice for the industry, a mattress recycling association would be the driver for meaningful change and regulation in the UK mattress sector.


References

[1] http://www.nbfrecycle.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/NBF-End-of-Life-Mattress-Report-2016-final1.pdf

[2] WRAP Product Opportunity Report 2013 – Mattresses

[3] WRAP Product Opportunity Report 2013 – Mattresses

[4] WRAP Product Opportunity Report 2013 – Mattresses

[5] WRAP Product Opportunity Report 2013 – Mattresses

[6] http://www.nbfrecycle.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/NBF-End-of-Life-Mattress-Report-2016-final1.pdf

[7] http://www.nbfrecycle.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/NBF-End-of-Life-Mattress-Report-2016-final1.pdf

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  1. Does this mean that all Recyclers will now try to be legally compliant with permitting regulations even when running under an exemption?

    For example not use mechanical methods to deconstruct a mattresses or mattress components without an environmental permit? (as this is prohibited whilst operating under exemption) Also be more diligent on employing workers from overseas and pay living wage and not minimum wage? Or even use eastern European employment websites to target low paid staff? What about companies that knowingly break the law on mattress storage limits whilst operating under exemptions? Who would seriously want to deal with any company who knowingly did all of this?

    The EA has to clamp down on mattress recyclers who break the law, and operate unethically in terms of employment. Trading standards need to look at those who sell on consigned waste mattresses as “new mattresses” without the required exemptions in place.

    There are other concerns over legally compliant outlets of recovered mattress waste components, as foam, and contaminated textiles are difficult materials to recycle using bona fide legally compliant (permitted or exempt) facilities either in the UK or abroad. If materials are being exported, are they being exported as waste to green listed EA countries and facilities using the correct TFS paperwork to show transparency?

    I think a mattress recycling council would be beneficial provided it reports non compliant companies directly to the environment agency.

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