Mattress Recycling Gets a Good Bounce (Guest Post)

By David Goldstein:

If you search the web for an image of “mattress dump,” you are likely to see many examples of illegal disposal. One humorous picture shows a mattress seemingly  discarded on a junk pile in an alley, bearing the ironic spray-painted graffito, “Nothing really mattress.” Another shows a mattress sticking out of a garbage container, making collection of the bin impossible. Spray painted on the mattress, along with a sad face, is the phrase, “I don’t fit in anywhere.”

Those words summarize the problems with management of discarded mattresses. Although over 90% of a typical mattress is recyclable, the cost of transportation and handling makes them difficult to manage. The springs of a typical mattress are made of recyclable metal, but they are a type of metal (tempered steel) with low value. The foam is made of polyurethane, which can be recycled into carpet padding, but it is hard to assemble into usable bales. The wood of a bed frame can be turned into mulch, but the cost to gather and grind wood is higher than the value of the resulting mulch. The remainder, mostly textiles, is hard to recycle at any price.

To overcome these barriers, mattress recycling received agood bounce in July with a new State mandate requiring retailers to take responsibility for discarding their customers’ old mattresses. Retailers must now accept old mattresses at no additional charge when dropping off a new mattress at a customer’s home.

In most of the state, this exchange of new-for-old will not immediately result in recycling. It will just transfer a difficult-to-handle liability from the consumer to the retailer. However, the transfer of responsibility for management of old mattresses is just the first step in a series of actions mandated by Senate Bill 254 (2013), and the end result will eventually be increased mattress recycling.

Beginning in 2015, the next step will be a massive registration of every manufacturer, retailer, and renovator of mattresses in the state. The registration will be conducted by a non-profit organization, not a State bureaucracy. This organization, which formed just months ago, is run by a mattress industry coalition. Their advisory board (on which I am a member) includes public sector recyclers, and their plans require approval by a State agency (the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery). The organization will devise a system, including fees and payments, to greatly boost mattress recycling rates.

Principally, the organization will determine the amount of charge to be added to the purchase price of mattresses at the point of sale, and will budget anticipated revenues in ways they determine will best boost recycling. If the organization’s plan does not meet targeted recycling rates, the State agency may step in and change the plan.

Placing the burden of recycling a product on the industry profiting from the sale of the product is part of a movement called “extended producer responsibility.” Without such an approach, the public sector often shoulders the burden of disposal.   

In Ventura County, illegally dumped mattresses are collected either at a cost, or, periodically, as a goodwill gesture by contracted waste haulers in 8 cities and the County, by city crews in the two cities with municipal service, or by the County’s Transportation Department within unincorporated areas of the county. Typically, the party on whose land the material is dumped pays the cost, and when waste is dumped on public land, the responsible party is the public agency managing the land.

Countywide, to prevent illegal dumping, all haulers offer at least two free bulky item collections per year from residents, funded by refuse rates. Additionally, most cities and most unincorporated communities hold periodic (at least once per year) events for free bulky item drop-off, funded either directly by refuse rates or at the sole expense of the hauling company. Instead of relying on bin/box-based drop-off events, three cities contract with Waste Management for free dropoff events at the Simi Valley landfill, and nearby unincorporated area residents are invited to participate. On a daily basis, residents needing to discard an old mattress (for example, if they buy one from a retailer who does not include delivery service, and therefore does not pick up their old one), may drop-off old mattresses for a fee at facilities such as Gold Coast Reycling in Ventura, Del Norte Recycling in Oxnard, and the Simi Valley Landfill. The new legislation is expected to eventually result in collection of enough fees to fund the elimination of these drop-off charges.

California is now one of three states keeping an “eye on the environment” by applying “extended producer responsibility” to mattresses.

David Goldstein started his career in resource conservation with Californians Against  Waste when he was a student at U.C. Davis. Now he administers the Ventura County Recycling Market Development Zone, helping companies make products from discarded material. He also writes the Eye on the Environment column, published in four Ventura County newspapers.