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How to recycle a mattress and its components

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Knowledge and creating a world without waste

Garbologie is all about creating a world without waste. We do that one step at a time, one lesson at a time. And each lesson could, if shared and grown upon, create more opportunities for learning. A virtuous cycle through which we get progressively better at what we do.

Of course, sharing knowledge doesn’t really make sense in a world of secrets, of competitive advantage based on what you know. In that world, to share is to doom yourself to death by petty imitators, undercut until there is no business remaining.

However, that world is a pretty wasteful one. And it’s pretty hopeless at developing the sorts of connections and knowledge that are needed to advance the play. So Garbologie is about sharing our knowledge where we can, hopefully building on it, but at least enabling others to learn from it.

One of the things we’ve learned a fair bit about in the past few months is how to recycle a mattress.

So how do you recycle a mattress?

There are two ways to dismantle a mattress.

One is by shredding it, and using a magnet to recover some of the steel. Shredding is less guided by recycling, and more an attempt to reduce the volume of the mattress for disposal.

The second approach is by separating each component, generally a manual task. Separating out a mattress relies on the belief that the extra dismantling cost is worth it for the value of the components.

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Manually separating a mattress

At Garbologie we separate a mattress into its components, and believe that the value recovered is worth the extra effort. The approach relies on being able to sell, or dispose of at a reduced price, the components extracted.

Key components, working from the the outside in and described in terms of the function, are:

  • Top cover. This is the outer skin of the mattress.
  • Cushioning layer, often comprised of polyurethane foam, but also loose cotton
  • Cushion protection layer, often made of a wadding material, but also plastic netting or coir.
  • Springs.

Mattress manufacturers have a whole heap of trade names for these layers, but it seems to all boil down to these four components. So let’s call it as we see it.

Top cover

Usually a polyester blend, but can also be made of cotton.

Some will have the top cover stitched together with a thin layer of polyurethane foam to give it a plush feel.

We don’t yet have a recycling home for the top cover. It’s not a straightforward material, because this is where the stains and the bugs live. It’s also comprised of a mix of synthetic and natural materials.

We currently bale and landfill this material, and it’s unlikely that alternatives for the top cover will be developed until after we’ve resolved all other materials.

Some of the non landfill uses that can or could be made of this material are:

  • Stuffing punching bags. Soft Landing in Sydney shreds clean top cover fabric and uses it to stuff heavy body punching bags.
  • Forming wadding out of fabric that has been cleaned and rag torn. This needs some expensive equipment, and thus a solid business case before investing.
  • Energy recovery via an incinerator.

Cushioning

This is the layer that makes the mattress soft to lie on.

Polyurethane foam (“PU foam”)

PU foam has ready markets. It is quite expensive to buy new, and there are buyers around the world who are prepared to import separated and baled foam. To get a good price, bales should be as dense as possible. This is the “easy money” part of mattress recycling.

Polyurethane bale

Polyurethane bale

Cotton

Cotton, on the other hand, is not straightforward to sell. We’ve been trying to sell it as cotton linter for some time, but it’s obviously quite a low value product. We baled and sent this product to landfill for many months, but have now started sending the bales to a local composter. On first glance, they are happy with the material.

Cushion protection layer

The cushion protection layer prevents the springs from pushing up into the cushioning layer.

Wadding

The most common material in new(ish) mattresses.

Wadding

Loose wadding

Wadding is made of torn up fabric that has been formed into a new fabric. Variously known as shoddy or non-woven textile, it can be loose or dense. We currently bale and landfill this material.

We think that there should be markets in:

  • Protective materials for people such as removalists or cabinet makers
  • Packing for stereo speakers.
  • Making it into new wadding.

More oblique markets may be in landscaping as a weed mat (I need to be comfortable about the fate of the synthetic fabrics before trying that) or blast packing (as in blasting for hard rock mining or quarrying).

Plastic netting

Cheap mattresses will have a plastic netting, and while we haven’t spent the time to identify the plastic, it’s probably polyester (PET). We don’t get large quantities of this, and so it generally gets incorporated into bales of top cover and sent to landfill.

The obvious recycling option for the plastic is to bale it and send it on to a recycler.

There may also be “stiffener” plastic netting. This is heavier duty, and made of polyethylene. We are storing this material to sell as mesh for plants to climb up. An identical new product is available at Bunnings for about $20.00 for a 6 metre length. We should be able to sell it for a few dollars each 1.5m length.

Plastic mattress "stiffener"

Plastic mattress “stiffener”

Coir matting

Older mattresses have a lot of coir, or coconut fibre, in them.

Coir matting

Coir matting

We don’t have a market for this product at the moment, but we are storing it because I am convinced it has a market.

The most obvious market (to me) is in restoration and rehabilitation projects. Coir matting such as this from Maccaferri is currently used to stabilise soils while plants get established. The idea is that the plants provide the final erosion stabilisation, but the matting is there to give the plants time to establish. Over time, the matting rots away.

Other applications that I think possible are weed control when establishing new gardens, especially organic gardens, and perhaps in the manufacture of coir logs for heavier duty erosion control. Failing all of these options, we can always compost the coir. It won’t go to landfill.

Finding a market for the coir is number one priority for Garbologie right now.

Springs

Mattress springs are easy to get rid of if there is a local scrap metal dealer with a steel baler. They simply take the springs and press it into blocks of metal (not strapped, but permanently deformed). The blocks are then sold to smelters for use in making new steel.

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The difficulty is making this cost effective. We fill a 30 cubic metre bin with springs, and it weighs one tonne. The money earned from the metal is not enough to cover the cost of freight to the scrap metal yard. This is obviously better than landfilling where we have to pay for disposal, but not ideal.

To make the springs pay for themselves, you need to increase the density of loads. This can be done by either baling or shredding the springs at the dismantling factory.

At Garbologie we’ve decided to bale the springs (spring steel shredders are expensive to buy and run), and have placed an order for a baler a bit like this one (http://www.hhyyjx.com/pro1-6.php).

The beauty of the baler is that spring mats are laid in the press box at the time they are separated from the mattress, and before the springs get entangled. This means that more steel goes into the bale. It also makes for easy handling. The resulting bale both attracts a higher sale price, and more tonnes can be moved in a single bin. These combine to make springs a lucrative part of the operation.

We’re hoping to see our machine commissioned by March 2014.

Other stuff

There are other key materials found in mattresses. In particular, pocket springs, latex and wood are found in mattresses and ensemble bases.

Pocket springs

Pocket springs are so named because the spring mat is a set of 1,000 or more individual springs each contained within its own pocket (typically of synthetic fabric, but also cotton in older mattresses).

To recycle the steel, each pocket needs to be opened. That’s obviously not a sensible thing to do manually, and so the challenge is to open each pocket in an automated way.

As I see it, there are three ways to open each pocket:

  • Heat
  • Chemicals
  • Abrasion or cutting.

Heat is appealing, as the plastic does melt readily, Similarly, some sort of machine that tears or cuts the pockets open seems relatively straightforward.

Alternatively, we can find a buyer prepared to accept steel bales with some pocket springs in them.

Dealing with pocket springs needs us to do some developmental work, and in the meantime the springs go to landfill.

Latex

Latex can be found as large blocks (the whole mattress is covered latex) or thinner sheets used as a cushioning layer.

Latex

Latex

We don’t have a home for the latex, as it’s not UV stabilised and so breaks down super fast in the sun. We’d like to use that to our advantage, perhaps making a sand/latex blend for use in dressage arenas.

Latex might also be something where we apply a bit of chemistry to make something new, or perhaps just sell blocks to use in mattress type applications.

At the moment, latex goes to landfill.

Wood

We get quite a bit of wood, usually with springs stapled to it. It is hard work to pull the springs off manually, but the wood is unusable unless the springs are removed.

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Timber trellis from mattress

At the moment we use a jemmy bar to prise the springs off, and store the wood for sale. Some wood has gone to a manufacturer of bed bases, some has been sold as garden trellis, but a lot remains. There is always the option of chipping the wood and selling the chip for landscaping materials and animal bedding.

We have placed an order in a box spring dismantler to make the process of separating timber from steel much, much faster. That will hopefully also be commissioned by March 2014.

Note: Future posts will explore each of the currently hard to recycle materials in more detail. I’d love your ideas and connections to help grow the knowledge around recycling of the hard to recycle materials. You never know where the critical insight will come from! 

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  • nasser

    The development of commercial and state economy
      Recycling

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