February 18, 2023
Does anyone ever question the basic assumptions of recycling?
How do we know energy consumption and pollution created during collection, transportation and recycling of some items does not exceed the environmental benefit of making a new product from recycled material?
On Feb. 7, the Mattress Recycling Council presented a detailed analysis of the environmental impacts of recycling the multi-material product. The council is a nonprofit created by the International Sleep Products Association, an industry trade group, to implement California’s Used Mattress Recovery and Recycling Act, mandated by the Legislature in 2013. Since 2016, the council has facilitated the recycling of nearly 10 million mattresses and box springs in California and also manages compliance with state-mandated programs in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
For the study, the contracted consultants, Santa Barbara-based Scope 3 Consulting, started by assuming nothing, proceeded by questioning anything and concluded by measuring everything related to mattress recycling.
Their analysis, completed in November, measured every possible impact of collection, transportation, processing and re-manufacturing with recycled material, down to the boots and gloves of workers cutting apart mattresses to send materials to end users.
When held up to this degree of hard analysis, recycling performed well — but not as well as often assumed in one regard.
Many measurements of recycling assume “one-to-one displacement.” That would mean, for example, a pound of old mattress foam recycled into padding for a new carpet displaces a pound of polyurethane otherwise needed to make the carpet.
Scope 3 research modified this one-to-one assumption, substituting more conservative displacement claims.
The report maintains some products made with recycled material would have otherwise been made with less raw materials. In some cases, products made from raw materials are more durable than those with recycled material.
Another deduction: Some products using recycled content would not have otherwise been made.
For example, most wood ground up from old bed frames is recycled into mulch. Mulch is great, because application to gardens and farms retains soil moisture without watering, reduces erosion without tarping and suppresses weed growth without herbicides. However, gardeners and farmers might not have watered, used tarps or applied herbicides, so these often-touted benefits of recycling are calculated to be smaller in this study than usually assumed.
Landfill was the destination for 23% of the material in mattresses delivered to recycling collection locations in California. The double-handling and landfilling of this material, which required more energy than sending it directly to landfill, also counted against recycling. Landfilled material was mostly textiles, and the mattress council is sponsoring research and trials to develop markets for this material.
The bottom line?
Despite collection and processing challenges for this massive, bulky, hard-to-handle, multi-material recyclable, mattress recycling in California tremendously benefits the environment.
A slide shown during the mattress council’s online presentation quantified California’s yearly savings in familiar terms. The 75 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions cut is like reducing 98 million miles of car emissions. The 818 million gallons of water saved in extraction and manufacturing processes would meet the annual water needs of 37,500 average Californians. The 174 megawatt-hours of energy saved would power homes of 40,000 residents.
In Ventura County, there are five free drop-off locations for mattress recycling. You can find the nearest one at byebyemattress.com.
However, the easiest way to recycle a mattress is to ask the retailer delivering your new mattress to take your old one. Even online retailers are required by law to do so without additional charge.
Another option, for people with residential curbside refuse collection service, is to call your garbage collector and ask for your free, annually allocated bulky-item collection.
David Goldstein is an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency. He did not write this column in his capacity as a member of the California Mattress Recycling Advisory Committee. Goldstein can be reached at 805-658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.