According to the non-profit Mattress Recycling Council, every year Americans dispose of more than 1.5 million mattresses. Some of the components in a mattress can be recycled, yet few states actually have laws in place.
Take a look back at mattresses over the centuries. People used to sleep on piles of straw, leaves, wool, or hay that was covered with fabric. That shifted to feather mattresses, which were fabric shells filled with goose down. With all of these mattresses, the natural materials could decompose.
In the late-1800s, feathers and other forms of stuffing gave way for mattresses that contained the coiled springs for support. By the 1930s, these mattresses were mass-produced making them part of almost every household. The metal springs were surrounded by layers of foam padding and covered in a durable fabric. To recycle the materials, the fabric was cut away, foam padding removed, and the metal springs can be recycled while the rest tends to head to the landfill.
Memory foam was invented by NASA in the 1970s, but it would still be decades before it found its way into foam mattresses. The first memory foam mattress came out in the 1990s. By the 2010s, it became common to order your mattress in a compact box that is easy to ship. Once at your house, you carry it to a bedroom where the mattress is rolled out and allowed to expand from its 2 or 3-inch thickness to the full 10 to 14-inch thickness over the next 24 hours.
The newer bed in a box mattresses are handy, but have you stopped to think about what happens when the memory foam’s support fades? You cannot flip them over and use the other side. They won’t last forever, and recycling is an issue.
How a Compressed Mattress is Made
If you look at the typical bed in a box memory foam mattress, it has a high-density polyurethane foam base followed by a thick layer of convoluted or egg crate-shaped foam. That’s covered by a couple of inches of bamboo, charcoal, or other memory foam, and a final layer of memory foam with small holes that allow for airflow or gel to help with temperature regulation. These layers of foam are covered in a durable fabric coating.
After the production of the mattress, it goes through rolling machines that compress/flatten and fold the mattress materials to fit in the box. The mattress is wrapped tightly in a heavy-duty plastic wrap to prevent it from expanding during shipping. At home, you remove the plastic wrap, set the mattress on the box spring, platform, or floor, and let it expand.
With the bed in the box compressed memory foam mattresses, it comes rolled up in a box that measures around 40 inches long, 22 inches wide, and 20 inches high, but the mattress has been compressed and rolled up. Once it’s out of the box and has the plastic packaging removed, the mattress expands to 80 inches long, 76 inches wide, and 14 inches high. You can buy a mattress at a store, drive it home, and never have to worry about needing to rent a truck/moving van or hire a delivery company.
When the first bed in the box mattresses came out 10 to 15 years ago, people loved the convenience. Who wouldn’t? They made it easy to purchase the mattress, put it in the backseat or trunk of our car, and head home.
The lifespan of these mattresses is often warrantied for 10 years, but some people find them less supportive after just two or three years and replace them at that time. People didn’t stop to think about what happens years down the road.
That leads to a new problem that people are just now experiencing. The composition of these mattresses is different from older mattresses, which can make them harder to recycle. Recycling facilities, especially during COVID-19, may not be willing to accept them.
If you’re having the mattress shipped to your home, which is the preferred way, you probably have an old mattress to dispose of. When possible, buy it from a store that will haul away your old mattress. When you’re buying from an online retailer, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to have the UPS or FedEx driver haul away your old mattress. So, how do you recycle these mattresses?
Recycling a Bed in the Box Mattress Can Be Difficult
Going back to the old-style mattress that had foam, metal springs, and fabric, while you can’t always recycle the foam or fabric, the metal springs are recycled as scrap metal. In some districts, the foam is used to create carpet pads. You may be told your best bet is to break down the mattresses yourself by tearing off the cloth and foam and throwing it away and bringing the metal coils to a metal recycler.
Many of today’s mattresses no longer have the coils, however. They’re all foam because the bed in the box mattresses are so convenient. The bed in the box mattress has very little that can be recycled. It’s also very heavy with many of these mattresses weighing 100 pounds or so. Polyurethane foam can’t be melted down and reused. Polyurethane is already broken down from plastic polymers. You can’t undo that process. The only way to reuse memory foam is by shredding it for use in something else.
If your old mattress still has some life and isn’t stained or damaged, ask local homeless shelters or non-profit organizations if they know of anyone in need of a gently-used mattress. While it may not be the most comfortable mattress to you, a person who is sleeping on a pad on the floor may love having a little extra padding to sleep on.
To break down a bed in the box mattress, the fabric has to be removed. The foam then has to be separated and fed into shredders if it can be reused. As it’s a tricky process, only three states to date (California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) have laws and programs to make it easy to recycle these mattresses with three options in each state. Maine has a bill in the works.
- California: See if the mattress retailer will take it back, bring it to a recycling facility near you, or arrange bulky item curbside pick-up by seeing if your district has a program.
- Connecticut: Drop it off at a local transfer station, see if your mattress retailer will haul away your old mattress when you buy one from them, or arrange bulky-item pick up if it’s available in your town.
- Rhode Island: Bring your mattress to Johnston’s Central Landfill or Ace Mattress Recycling in West Warwick (pick-up may be available for a fee), get the mattress retailer to haul away your old mattress when you purchase a new one, or arrange curbside bulky-item pick-up.
States all have their own recycling processes, but only those three states mandate mattress recycling. If your state doesn’t have a law in place, you should still look for ways to recycle your mattress.
Do your research and see what’s available. You might be surprised by what you find. In Vermont, a mattress-recycling company called Sleep Well Recycling opened up after seeing there were limited options for mattress recycling, which lead to illegal dumping. If you reside in another state, check Recycle Nation’s directory of recycling to see where you can recycle old mattresses.