More Than Bottles and Cans: The Argument for Mattress Recycling

Mattress recycling is not without its challenges: The cost of tearing down the mattress and preparing the recyclable materials usually exceeds the value of the recycled material, and there are logistical challenges involved in transporting used mattresses.
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Each day, millions of Americans empty their soda cans, rinse them out, and place them in recycling bins. Ten years ago, this may not have been the case. But in this country, we have come to recognize not just the value, but even the need for recycling. What once seemed a burden has become a regular part of our lives, and the environment has benefited.

Unfortunately, our drive to recycle has not yet expanded much beyond the kitchen. Across the United States, millions of used mattresses are discarded each year.

About 30 companies nationally dismantle discarded mattresses and recycle the used materials, but these facilities are just not accessible to most Americans. Instead, too many used mattresses wind up in landfills, where they can take up to 23 cubic feet of space. Many others find their way to the bedrooms of unsuspecting consumers who, instead of a new mattress, were deceived into purchasing a filthy used mattress on which an unscrupulous company has sewn a new fabric cover without properly sterilizing the bed or meeting national fire safety standards.

Mattress recycling is not without its challenges: The cost of tearing down the mattress and preparing the recyclable materials usually exceeds the value of the recycled material, and there are logistical challenges involved in transporting used mattresses.

Incredibly, as those economic and logistical barriers have stalled some efforts to increase mattress recycling, a team of college students from Tennessee have struck the right balance -- and, I believe, are setting an example for us to follow on a national level.

The students, from Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., created a program called Spring Back Recycling, which provides formerly incarcerated workers with the skills, facilities, tools and knowledge needed to recycle used mattresses, breaking the mattresses down into component parts that can be recycled for other purposes, like new steel, carpet pads, mulch, or even biomass fuel.

As a long-time advocate of a national mattress recycling program, the mattress industry was glad to provide the student team at Belmont with information about retailers that could supply them with discarded mattresses collected from consumers that bought new beds; other recyclers; and possible markets for the used steel, foam and other recycled mattress materials.

Their entrepreneurship and hard work prove that mattress recycling can both be a sustainable business that provides new skills and jobs to workers who might otherwise be hard to employ and benefit the environment by recycling usable materials that would otherwise have been buried in a landfill.

The students from Belmont University also designed their program so that it can work in other states. They have just expanded the Spring Back program to Colorado.

Now, their success has been recognized at an international level. This week, the Belmont team claimed victory in the Enactus World Cup (formerly SIFE, or Students in Free Enterprise) in Washington, D.C., where they battled teams from 38 other countries that, similarly, have developed sustainable businesses that provide a social benefit.

However, as dedicated and inspiring as these students are, we cannot, as a nation, leave the burden of this issue in their hands alone.

Some states have pursued legislation that would create costly and inefficient mattress recycling programs that are not sustainable. Those efforts will not succeed and would be bad for the consumer, mattress retailers and the mattress industry. A piecemeal, state-based approach could lead to consumer and retailer confusion and take years to implement.

As an alternative to this patchwork of different state laws, the mattress industry is advocating for federal legislation to support a national used mattress recycling program. A national program would apply uniform rules and benefits from coast to coast to take advantage of economies of scale and make mattress recycling more efficient and cost-effective.

There is precedent for federal action to encourage national consistency in used product recycling. For example, in 1996, Congress enacted the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act, which set labeling requirements for rechargeable batteries and facilitated their recycling. Before that, 13 states had their own battery recycling programs, which stipulated varying requirements. The federal law established consistency in the process, leading to improved consumer compliance with battery recycling.

The mattress industry supports the efficient recycling of used mattress materials to make new products. The national mattress recycling program that we advocate would both achieve these goals and help recyclers of these products become and remain sustainable businesses - and that can help all of us sleep better.

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