December 16, 2023
The 28th United Nations Conference of Parties — COP28 — bringing together the 197 countries that signed a 1992 agreement on climate change wrapped up in Dubai last week. They came to unanimous consensus on a tentative world agreement related to transition away from fossil fuels.
However, the Alliance of Small Island States and others pointed to “loopholes” in quantification methods and policies many countries could adopt in response. Implementation depends on national laws and investments, and quantification of compliance depends on reporting from a wide variety of sources.
On the local level, with more modest environmental goals that are much simpler to measure, we can see how policies vary in implementation and how quantification presents challenges. Even something as seemingly easy as determining a recycling rate can befuddle experts.
For example, one might think discarded mattresses are among the easiest items to count. Mattresses require special handling and cannot be easily landfilled. Nevertheless, at a public meeting on Jan. 11, some surprising data will be reviewed by experts in the field of mattress recycling.
The California Mattress Recycling Advisory Committee will meet with the Mattress Recycling Council, or MRC, a mattress industry-led nonprofit managing statewide programs to boost mattress recycling rates.
A key item on the agenda will be review of the recycling rate published annually by the MRC, which has consistently shown about 80% diverted from landfills, compliant with state standards.
However, as pointed out by a presenter at a recent conference of the California Resource Recovery Association, calculation of the recycling rate depends on quantification of disposal.
Unfortunately, not all landfills count every mattress disposed. At least at our own local landfills, dozer operators are not required to disentangle garbage and look under loads to count the number of mattresses disposed from mixed roll-off boxes and private vehicles.
Using an alternate disposal quantification method, the presenter, Steve Lautze of Resource Revolution, who is a former president of the California Association of Recycling Market Development Zones, calculated a recycling rate closer to 30%. He based disposal on the number of mattresses sold, using MRC’s annual report on the $10.50 recycling fee charged on the sale of every mattress and box spring sold in California.
In response, Mike O’Donnell, chief operating officer of the MRC, said dividing the number of units recycled and renovated by the number sold in the same calendar year is a flawed approach for determining the recycling rate of a product that remains in use for many years. An MRC study determined mattresses received by recyclers average 13.9 years old, he pointed out, and “consumers often give away used mattresses to friends, family, neighbors, OfferUp and Craigslist.”
On Jan. 11, the group will discuss how these factors affect disposal. Perhaps when a person buys a new mattress, a used one is discarded, regardless of how long the purchaser kept the old mattress or whether an old mattress is discarded by another person who received the purchaser’s previous mattress. A growing California population or an increase in the number of mattresses per person would account for mattress purchases without disposal, but neither of these seem to be likely.
More significantly illustrating the challenges of determining environmental progress by aggregating data from many sources, even if mattresses are missing from disposal counts, O’Donnell pointed out, mattresses may also be missing from recycling and reuse figures, keeping recycling rates high. Besides reuse among family members and professional refurbishment, he also noted many used mattresses are exported to Mexico without data collected by border control.
While global or even statewide quantification of environmental progress may be difficult, we are in control of individual actions. When buying a new mattress, see if family or friends want your old one. If not, take advantage of California’s mandatory retailer take-back programs. If you receive a used mattress, recycle your old one through annually allocated hauler collection programs or through drop off sites listed at byebyemattress.com.
More information is at calrecycle.ca.gov/Mattresses/, including a link to join a listserv under the “more information” heading.
David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, also serves on the California Mattress Recycling Advisory Committee but his column does not represent the committee’s views. You can contact him at (805) 658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org