Here’s something to sleep on tonight: Americans dispose of an estimated 20 million mattresses and box springs every year and the vast majority end up in landfills or incinerators. That’s roughly 55,000 discarded each and every day.1 They contribute 450 million pounds of waste and fill more than 100 million cubic feet of landfill space every year.2 End-on-end, the number of disposed mattresses every year would circle the earth. Why should you care? Because as a mattress owner, you contribute to this disposal issue.
Mattresses and box springs become problematic once they reach the end of their useful life. Since they are bulky and hard to move, disposal is difficult. Mattresses also don’t compact well and their springs can pop out and get tangled in the landfills equipment, often damaging it. Most waste haulers will not pick them up with the normal garbage and at least where I am from you need to drive to the landfill to drop a mattress off and pay a fee, which could run as high as $50. As a result, many mattresses become an illegal dumping problem found on curbs, vacant lots, roadsides, and littering our beautiful nature.
Because mattresses use so many resources in landfills, recycling is becoming more of a popular choice in disposing of them. Deconstructing mattresses in order to recycle their still-usable materials is an increasingly popular solution to this vexing waste problem. However, recycling mattresses is not a profit-making, or even a break-even, business venture. The fluctuating revenue from the sale of commodities – steel, foam, fibers and wood – doesn’t cover the labor costs to recycle the mattresses.3 Currently, there remains considerable barriers to increasing the rate of recycling, many of which are shared by manufacturers, retailers and local authorities. For this reason, landfill is still the cheapest option.
So what can you do as a consumer in the market for a new mattress? Well, when looking for mattresses and deciding on options such as size and firmness, take into consideration environmental options as well. If you prefer an innerspring mattress, you can rest easy on beds made from organic cotton and wool, with steel coils that aren’t coated in chemicals. If you prefer a solid-foam mattress, you can opt for latex made from the milky sap of rubber trees. Do some research before you buy that next mattress and keep your decision as green as possible while getting the comfort that you desire.
Avoid memory foam if possible. Made from polyurethane, many people complain it gives off an unpleasant odor when new, and it releases hazardous emissions as a byproduct of being made. Natural latex mattresses are a better alternative to memory foam. Natural latex begins as sap from a rubber tree. Through one of two manufacturing processes, that sap eventually becomes a natural latex mattress. Of the two processes, Dunlop and Talalay, Dunlop latex mattresses are the most biodegradable and won’t create sinkholes in a landfill. Natural latex is cooler than memory foam as well.
If an expensive natural latex mattress is out of your budget, there are hybrid latex/innerspring mattresses that are highly biodegradable, but don’t carry such a hefty price tag. Your comfort preferences or allergy to latex may lead you to another type of bed. In this case, keep an eye out for eco-friendly components like: plant-based polyfoam, plant-based memory foam, and organic fibers in the cover like cotton or wool.
Some companies forgo foam completely, instead filling their mattress cores with cotton and wool. Wool gets a thumbs-up from many environmentally minded folks, because it’s naturally fire-resistant, which can eliminate the need for chemical flame-retardants. Cotton is also an environmentally friendly alternative as long as it’s organic. Even though you read about them, when shopping for a mattress ignore words like eco- and natural. Instead, seek out companies that explain ingredients clearly and can point to where materials are sourced. Ultimately, the greenest thing you can do is choose a mattress that you’re going to keep for a long time.
What all of us can do to combat this problem is support industry and government actions to address the disposal issue. Those who are able can assist in clean-up efforts of illegal dumping grounds where many old mattresses can be found. In addition, we all can help by extending the life of our current mattresses by keeping them maintained. Many manufacturers and retailers recommend that you rotate and/or flip a new mattress every two weeks for the first six months, then every three months after that. Don’t bend a new mattress or jump on it, and never allow a mattress to get wet.
You’ll be doing your part in taking care of your mattress, and taking care of the planet. That’s a feeling that’s much better to sleep on.
1 Recycling v Landfill, Greenbedrecycling.com (visited on February 13, 2017)
2 100 Places to Recycle Your Old Mattress, SleeponLatex.com (visited on February 13, 2017)
3 The Mattress Recycling Council Continues to Boost its Reach, Waste360, February 16, 2017