An industry-changer for mattress recycling

Written by: Nick Oettinger | Published:
MD of The Furniture Recycling Group

Mattress mountains are becoming a familiar sight on the UK’s landscape, with around 167,000 tonnes being sent to landfill each year, according to WRAP.

Of an estimated 5.9 million end of life (EoL) mattresses disposed of in 2014, just 16% were recycled, the majority (73%) were sent to landfill and the remaining 11% were incinerated, creating an environmental headache for local authorities.

Despite the government increasing the cost of sending waste to landfill as a deterrent, this form of disposal remains a cheaper option than recycling – a problem that can be countered with co-operation from manufacturers and retailers, as well as increased innovation within the recycling industry.

Exacerbating the issue is the current trend of replacing mattresses more frequently; increasingly they are being treated as a throw- away item. On that basis, TFRG is working closely with its customers – manufacturers, retailers and housing associations – to tackle this issue.

This increase in replacement frequency will mean that more mattresses are disposed of each year as consumers heed the advice of major retailers and manufacturers to buy a new mattress after just eight years of use.

The recycling rate hasn’t been able to grow in line with this increase, meaning a great deal of pressure now falls on retailers to stop sending old mattresses to landfill as part of their replacement schemes, and on recyclers to attempt to deal with an increased number of mattresses.

A difficult problem

Pocket-spring-based mattresses in particular present specific challenges to recyclers, consisting of between 1,000 and 10,000 single springs each wrapped inside a textile-based polypropylene pocket. Traditionally, the only way of recycling pocket springs is to manually separate each spring from the pocket with a knife, which is incredibly time-intensive and commercially unviable. These mattresses are, therefore, usually sent to landfill as this is the cheapest and fastest way of disposing of the problem.

Then there is the issue of storing the mattresses to be recycled. With the increased frequency of mattresses being replaced, mattress recyclers can often struggle to store the ever-growing mountain of mattresses

The need for a mattress recycling association to provide a best practice framework to adhere to is now greater than ever coming their way. With the traditional recycling process taking such a long time, more mattresses are pouring in faster than they can be cleared.

Creating a solution

TFRG has designed, developed and produced the world’s first automated pocket spring recycling machine, created to streamline the mattress recycling process significantly and reduce the number of mattresses sent to landfill each year.

Designed internally by our own engineers, the machinery is already being used to dismantle and separate the components for pocket springs within mattresses, reducing the process from taking over half a day per full pocket spring to just 2.5 minutes.

The components of pocket spring mattresses are automatically separated into steel and polypropylene waste streams, leaving recyclable components that have a value and can be sold on, re-used as scrap or recycled.

Polypropylene is one of 19 different textile fibres we segregate from the mattresses, which can then be used to produce new end products, such as mattress pads, automotive felt and carpet underlay. As far as we know, we are the first company in the world to design and create a machine like this.

Over six years, TFRG has diverted more than one million mattresses and 3,500 tonnes of components from landfill. The introduction of the machine will help increase these volumes as time goes on. If more recycling plants across the UK had access to a machine like this then together we could put a significant dent in the 167,000 tonnes currently being sent to landfill each year.

What next?

This machine has already changed the way we work, and has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of bulky mattress waste we send to landfill in the UK and across
the world.

However, more still needs to be done by manufacturers and retailers to make the recycling process even more efficient and to reduce the negative environmental impacts of waste. The need for a mattress recycling association to provide a best practice framework for them to adhere to is, therefore, now greater than ever.

Part of this association’s remit should be to provide thorough insight into the industry and facilitate the availability of accurate and much-needed data.

For example, data on the environmental impact of different types of mattresses is not currently available, yet access to this data would allow manufacturers to build this knowledge into product design. Consumers would also then be in a position to make informed choices when selecting a new mattress, hopefully opting for the most sustainable products and thereby facilitating the circular economy.

Nick Oettinger is managing director of The Furniture Recycling Group


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