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Rest Easy: Mattress Recycling Can Work

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According to the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), Americans discard more than 50,000 mattresses discarded each day, and each of those mattresses occupies up to 23 cubic feet of landfill space. A mattress recycling solution is clearly needed, but exactly what that solution might be—and who should pay for it—remains undecided.

Who Pays?

In 2012, California, Connecticut and Rhode Island all considered legislation that would put the financial burden for mattress recycling onto mattress manufacturers. As the trade association for more than 700 mattress manufacturers, ISPA would be expected to oppose such legislation, but the organization asserts that there is a more efficient and beneficial way to make mattresses sustainable than to stick manufacturers with the bill, a move that, they say, hurts the industry and the people employed by it.

To that end, California State Sen. Lou Correa introduced a new bill (SB 245) in February 2013, a bill that, Correa says in a recent editorial, “balances landfill pressures and environmental objectives with industry concerns.” The bill would create a non-profit mattress recycling organization to head the program, funded by a fee paid by consumers when they purchase a new mattress. The bill would combat California’s significant illegal mattress dumping by providing a financial incentive for proper mattress collection.

Senator Loni Hancock (who also introduced California’s defeated mattress recycling bill last year) has another idea. Also in February 2013, Senator Hancock introduced SB 254,which would require mattress manufacturers to create and register a mattress recycling and recovery plan by 2015—one that would put zero recovery and recycling costs on consumers.

What works?

Both plans use existing recycling programs as their models. Senator Correa’s bill relies on a consumer-paid fee for funding, a strategy used for a number of challenging recyclables, such as electronic equipment and batteries. Senator Hancock’s plan, on the other hand, cites manufacturer-funded recycling programs for bottles and computers as support for her bill’s practicality. So which works?

Both plans hinge on the fact that for mattress recycling to be cost-effective, someone must pay a fee, but as technology improves, that fee becomes less all the time. There are, however, two additional challenges to conquering the mattress recycling issue. The first is that no recycling program can be successful if mattresses continue to be dumped in landfills or illegally. As one mattress retailer participant put it during King County, Washington’s 2012 mattress recycling summit, “Until there is a higher mattress disposal fee at transfer stations, mattresses will continue to be taken there instead of being recycled.” During the same event, one recycler commented: “It is important that solid waste agencies coordinate amongst themselves. Mattresses will go where it is cheapest.”

Mattress Recycling Put to Rest

In a perfect world, legislative intervention would not be necessary to keep all mattresses and foundations out of landfills. Without such measures, indeed several recyclers have emerged over the last few years that keep costs low enough to appeal to both consumers and large businesses and keep mattresses out of landfills. Charging a $5 fee, both the St. Vincent DePaul Society and Spring Back Recycling are turning mattress recycling into a way to change their communities.

St. Vincent DePaul , which operates mattress recycling facilities in California and Oregon, is not only the world’s largest mattress recycler, but also provides above-minimum wage jobs and health benefits to its employees. Spring Back Recycling , which operates mattress recycling facilities in Tennessee and Colorado, was originally conceived by students hoping to create a business model that creates jobs and benefits the environment. Today, Spring Back runs two successful consumer mattress recycling operations and has also contracted with Waste Management to recycle mattresses from healthcare, educational, government, and hospitality institutions from several states in the Southeast.

Ultimately, old mattresses tend to flow towards the most inexpensive and convenient options. In order to keep mattresses completely out of landfills, given the low value of recycled residuals, there will very likely be a need for public policy incorporating a combination of bans, consumer fees or other extended product stewardship initiatives that will work for both business and society.

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