Anyone who has ever needed to dispose of an old mattress – and that’s almost everyone – knows the problems involved. There is very little demand for used mattresses; unless they are in very good condition most charities and used furniture companies won’t take them, for obvious reasons. Trying to sell even a very slightly used mattress is usually a hopeless endeavor. Therefore, most of them wind up in a landfill – and that’s a problem we all need to think about.
In the US alone, it is estimated that between 20 and 40 million mattresses are thrown out each year, and though the number is lower in the UK, the statistics are probably quite similar. There are a few pilot programmes being undertaken, but at present the UK Environment Agency suggests that consumers contact their local council for advice about disposal.
There is one agency that handles the recycling of used mattresses, which is located next to the SELCHP plant in London. It is called Matt UK, and mostly deals with bulk quantities from commercial sources and from local authorities. The recycling process is a bit of a nightmare even so; it requires dissecting the mattress by hand using a tool like a box-cutter, and then separating the different components, mainly metal, cotton and other fabric, foam and wood.
Metal from box springs has a good market value as scrap, though the springs are difficult to separate from the rest of the material. Foam can be recycled to make carpet padding or insulation; cotton and other fibres can be used for industrial oil filters and other applications; wood can be reduced to chips for fuel or mulch, for example. Basically, as much as 90% of the average mattress can be recycled, but it’s not easy to do.
This is where consumers can help in several ways. When purchasing a new mattress, ask if the retailer will accept the old one for recycling; not all companies do this, but it’s worth trying to find one that will. Consider spending more for a an ‘environmentally friendly’ mattress, well made with mostly recyclable materials; a good one with a natural latex core will last for decades.
Also, at least until technology catches up with the plethora of unwieldy, troublesome old mattresses that are clogging landfills all over the planet, try an ounce of prevention. If you shift and turn your mattress every couple of months it will wear more evenly and last a lot longer. Invest in a good, comfortable mattress cover that will help prevent stains and other damage so it can be used by someone else when you just have to have a new one.
Unfortunately, not much initiative has gone into the logistics of turning an old mattress into its components and putting them to use in new products. However some progress has been made, and you can do your part by investigating every possibility before hauling your old mattress to the dump.