End-of-life mattresses are a growing problem not only in Australia but globally
End-of-life (EOL) mattresses are a growing problem not only in Australia but globally, with approximately 1.8 million mattresses discarded requiring recycling each year in Australia alone. Placed end-to-end, they would stretch from Darwin to the tip of Tasmania.
Many of them end up in landfill, and some even on our streets or dumped in our bushlands. Illegal dumping by the community is a persistent problem because mattresses are bulky, heavy items that are difficult to dispose of. Mattresses also cause signiﬁcant issues in landﬁll – taking up valuable space, creating risk of subsidence, and damaging landfill vehicles. Due to the nature of the components within mattresses, they break down very slowly, (information varies on the actual timeline but is likely to be in excess of 100 years). When landfilled, non-renewable resources are being buried. All this leads to excessive use of landfill space, unsafe landﬁlls, unsightly kerbsides and loss of valuable resources.
The Australian Bedding Stewardship Council (ABSC) is striving for a circular approach for the bedding industry. This means designing and building products from recycled and recyclable materials that can be easily dismantled. The most pressing issue is to reduce the number of full mattresses, mattress shred, and tonnages of their components going to landfill. Of the 1.8 million EOL mattresses disposed of every year in Australia, pleasingly, almost 60% of those are collected by a recycling function. However, current recycling practices only recover roughly 44-64% of the materials (or less) which is predominantly steel and polyurethane foam, with the balance going to landfill or to waste to energy (a topic for another time).
Mattresses, as the foremost item of ABSC focus, are highly diverse products in terms of size/profile, design options, materials composition, quality and pricepoint. This diversity of materials used and construction methods create complexity at EOL for recyclers. Lack of consideration at the product development stage for recyclability at the end of the useful life of a mattress, makes circularity virtually impossible. Mattress recyclers experience significant challenges to maintain a commercial operation due to the inherent issues faced with handling and safety to recover the resources used within mattresses, and the difficulties in finding uses and willing receivers of these downstream resources – shred, quilted layers, textiles, fibres and timber which invariably are highly contaminated (a grizzly subject for a future blog). There is a widespread misconception that mattress recycling is a lucrative business. As landfill levies rise and mattresses or parts thereof continue to be sent to landfill, profit for recyclers is on the decline. We must find solutions to –
- Find markets for resources retrieved from mattresses that provide landfill cost reductions and preferably an income stream for those resources to be reprocessed and reused.
- Implement a rebate to contribute to responsible recycling through the Recycle My Mattress scheme
- Improve productivity in a safe manner for workers on the recycling floor
Lifecycle innovation and implementation for a more circular approach, require some key steps for success:
- Clearly articulate the problem/s to be solved
- Be transparent about the difficulties faced economically and technologically
- Prioritise problem solving with a commercial lens – ensure projects undertaken have a reasonable chance to deliver a commercially viable outcome
- Collaborate/engage with relevant stakeholders that can contribute to projects in terms of investment, research capability, knowledge sharing and who may provide a potential channel to market for innovation identified
- Continue to project manage and evaluate project success, ensuring go-no go milestones to avoid wasting resources.
- Research and development is not always successful
Successful implementation could include:
- Processes improving product longevity, or ability to dismantle for recycling
- Increased use of recycled materials
- Use of materials that are recyclable multiple times
- Product development using those recovered resources for an equal or upcycled outcome
The ABSC is in the driver’s seat to execute on those steps, through research and development, opportunities for group consultation, collaborative efforts and investment in positive outcomes for the bedding industry, specifically for mattresses in the short term, and other bedding products longer term.
To that end, a Lifecycle Innovation (LCI) working group (pictured) made up of members across the supply chain has been formed to drive activity in the research and development space. Participants hail from retail, manufacturing, recycling, and supply chain – textiles, foams and chemicals.
Make no mistake that profitability must be considered when searching for solutions. While people and organisations like to be seen to ‘do the right thing’, without a positive commercial outcome, it is very difficult to implement in reality. The key is to find viable solutions that provide attraction for investment, partners to collaborate in development and that can take a product to market, and that consumers or other businesses want to buy.
Follow our journey as we explore ways to extract value and reuse resources from end-of-life mattresses in useful and innovative ways. We will post a series of blogs that aim to raise awareness with consumers and educate industry participants about the challenges EOL mattress pose and what can be done to improve product development as we aim for a circular economy.