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Mattress recyclers on the wrong side of the bed

It is difficult to sleep easy on the subject of mattress recycling: the National Bed Federation (NBF) certainly does not. Publishing a report on the subject earlier in the year, it found that the facts and figures for mattress recycling are far from clear.

Research in its first End of Life Report for Mattresses has put together estimated recycling figures. It finds that nearly 600,000 mattresses were collected for recycling in 2013, a jump from the 450,000 collected for recycling in 2012.

But this figure represents a recycling percentage of only around 13%. Five million mattresses are sold every year and an estimated 70-80% are replacement items, meaning that up to four million mattresses are being discarded each year. The majority of these are ending up in landfill.

The NBF asked consultancy Oakdene Hollins, a specialist in recycling and end of life (EoL), to produce the report because the industry body was concerned that, at some point, the bedside spotlight will be turned on to mattress recycling. As chair of the NBF’s recycling group, Tony Lisanti explains in the forward to the report: “It is becoming increasingly clear that, at some stage, it will be deemed to be entirely unacceptable, for either environmental or financial reasons, to simply send EoL mattresses to landfill as a method of disposal.”

The NBF was concerned that manufacturers will be held accountable for EoL mattresses under producer responsibility laws such as those adopted for white goods and tyres. “Rather than have legislation from either the Government or Brussels foisted on manufacturers, we should develop recycling strategies that work for both the industry and the Government,” says Lisanti.

“In essence, we do not want to have to deal with a bed industry version of the white goods fiasco, when EoL legislation resulted in mountains of old fridges being stockpiled with no plan as to what to do with them.”

Producer compliance-style schemes for mattresses are already operating in some US states, such as Connecticut. Across France, a levy on furniture and bed makers brought in five years ago helps to pay for mattress and furniture recycling services. The NBF believes the UK will follow suit at some point.  

However, to establish what sort of scheme might work in the UK, it would help to have a clear picture of what is happening. Yet with no mandatory reporting of mattress recycling, it is difficult to come to accurate figures.

UK mattress recycling

The NBF report highlights some of the main barriers to mattress recycling. The biggest cited by NBF members was the high costs of recycling, which was compounded by a lack of facilities and infrastructure. Authors of the report note that the top-performing councils in the recycled mattress stakes were all close to a specialised recycling facility. The cost of haulage from an area where there is no such facility can be prohibitively high. So landfill currently often remains the cheaper option to recycling, the report found, although this will undoubtedly change as gate fees increase.

The lack of infrastructure is particularly highlighted in Scotland where, in 2012, due to financial constraints and a fire, two mattress recycling facilities closed. Jessica Alexander, executive director of the NBF, explains that due to the technical and logistical difficulties involved in mattress recycling, it is not uncommon for such businesses to close down. Alexander was in the process of confirming the closure of yet another mattress recycling facility.

She added: “Every time you think you’ve found one, it seems to close.”

The challenges involved also appear to be making recyclers very secretive about how they treat the mattresses and where they sell the end materials, a further obstacle to understanding what is going on.

“Most of the recyclers are protective of what happens to the constituent parts. I guess they feel they have worked hard to find end markets and want to protect them,” says Alexander.

More top barriers to recycling included contamination on delivery lorries and a lack of on-site storage to collect enough mattresses to make it worthwhile to recycle them. Other challenges included a lack of recovery facilities for either whole or deconstructed mattresses or their components; reluctance of retailers to offer and charge for a recycling service; reliance on local authorities for recycling, most of which treat mattresses as residual waste; and the design and material composition of mattresses, making them difficult to recycle.  

NBF members were also asked to make suggestions as to how to promote more recycling in the UK. Ideas put forward included: a landfill ban on mattresses; legislation to cover mattresses similar to WEEE regulations; levying a collection and management fee; making it mandatory for all councils to offer mattress recycling; and allowing delivery and collection vans to take mattresses direct to a recycler with no gate fees charged.

Improving technology could transform the landscape as it has done in other areas of recycling. In summer 2012, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council unveiled a mattress recycling scheme in Llwydcoed at its facility at the Bryn Pica landfill and waste recycling centre. A machine – thought to be the first of its kind – built by specialist equipment and machinery supplier EBS Automation, completely breaks down mattresses into their component parts, allowing for 100% landfill diversion.

The impressive aspect about this machine is that it automates the process. Stephen Arthurs, head of sales and marketing at EBS Automation, says: “It takes out all the hassle because it is difficult to remove all the constituent parts by hand.”

The machine can potentially recycle 100,000 mattresses a year. It has helped the council to reduce the volume of mattresses going to landfill by 1,300 tonnes a year. While the machine is aimed at councils, it is a hefty investment of £150,000. But EBS Automation believes there is a market to sell further machinery and is about to embark on a marketing campaign.

With WRAP recently redefining the waste industry’s three Rs – reinvent, rethink and redefine – in its five-year plan as part of a bid to move the UK closer to a circular economy, it raises the question of reuse. Alexander suggests that very few beds are reused or rebuilt around second-hand springs, and most that are recycled are broken down into the steel springs and textiles which are then recycled or incinerated. But the NBF is not in favour of the idea of reuse.

“We are concerned about the reuse of mattresses,” Alexander says. “It isn’t like a dining room table. There are hygiene issues and getting the right quality sleep is very important, so it is different to other furniture products. The number of mattresses being reused is very small and the options are really dismantling and recycling.

“Reuse in beds is not really a viable option. WRAP has done a number of studies and come to the same conclusion. You cannot really know what is in a mattress just by looking at it. The only viable options for reuse are returns, where a mattress has been sent back after only 20 or 30 days use – that’s not too bad. But if you are talking about a 20-year-old item, most people would not like that idea.”

She adds that it is impossible to know what shape the springs are in on a reconditioned mattress, even if you replace everything else. But she says that extending the life of mattresses is probably one of the many approaches that will be taken to address the current problem.

She recalls a story in the Telegraph about a mattress that had lasted nearly 50 years. This had a steel spring base, was stuffed with wool and bought in Italy in 1968, yet apparently was still very comfortable. Maintenance on it involves washing the wool in batches when it needed a clean and recarding the wool to make it ‘fluffy’ again as it slowly compacts.

Alexander points out that a wool mattress today would cost more than £1,000, so would only work at the top end of the market and will not be able to compete with mattresses costing £200-£300. “Life extension is going to be an element of the solutions developed,” she says. “We may have to become more used to paying more for mattresses.”

The NBF plans to repeat its report next year and, for now, is keeping a ‘watching brief’ on the situation in order to better understand how the process of encouraging recycling can be helped. Mattress recycling has a long way to go before it becomes a sweet dream.


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