Does anyone ever question the basic assumptions of recycling? How do we know the 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?
Two weeks ago, the Mattress Recycling Council hosted a webinar, attended virtually by over 100 people, presenting a detailed analysis of the environmental impacts and benefits of recycling their multi-material product. The council, referred to by their “MRC” acronym, is a non-profit organization created by the International Sleep Products Association, an industry trade group, to implement California’s Used Mattress Recovery and Recycling Act, mandated by the State legislature in 2013. Since 2016, the MRC 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, Scope 3 Consulting (https://www.scope3consulting.com/ ), based in Santa Barbara, started by assuming nothing, proceed by questioning anything, and concluded by measuring everything related to mattress recycling. The study (see download) concluded in November of last year, measured every possible impact of collection, transportation, processing and re-manufacturing with recycled material, down to the boots and gloves of workers cutting apart the mattresses to send the separated 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.” This would mean, if a pound of foam padding from an old mattress is recycled into foam padding for a new carpet, this recycling displaces one pound of polyurethane otherwise needed to make the new 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, and in some cases, the products made from raw materials can be more durable than recycled material. Also deducting from the value of recycling, 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 of mulch to gardens and farms retains soil moisture without watering, reduces erosion without tarping, and suppresses weed growth without the use of weed-killing 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.
The study also examined a controversial area of mattress recovery. Around 4 percent of material collected for mattress recycling was burned for energy in 2021, the most recent year for which complete records were available. Wood comprised 96 percent of this fraction, producing positive energy impacts and negative air emission and ash disposal impacts.
Almost another 4 percent of material was reused rather than recycled, bypassing many impacts of recycling.
Landfill was the destination for the remaining 23 percent 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, was also counted against recycling. Landfilled material was mostly textiles, and the MRC 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 in the MRC webinar presentation (video hereunder) two weeks ago quantified California’s yearly savings from mattress recycling in terms familiar to average readers. 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 California residents. The 174 megawatt hours of energy saved would power the homes of 40,000 average California residents.
There are five, free drop-off locations for mattress recycling in Ventura County, and you can find the nearest one at www.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 on-line retailers are required by law to do so without an 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.
Play the video
David Goldstein, Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, did not write this article in his capacity as a member of the California Mattress Recycling Advisory Committee. He can be reached at (805) 658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed here by Michael Stephen and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com
All Articles by David Goldstein