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States seek to keep landfills mattress free

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A worn-out mattress can ruin a night’s sleep and, when it’s disposed of in a landfill, takes up 28 cubic feet of space. Mattresses are also far less easy to compact than most waste materials, making them a recurring headache in landfills, where they tend to float to the top over time. Yet 94 percent of the steel, wood, foam and other materials in a typical mattress can be recycled.

These factors are driving an emerging trend toward legislating the diversion of mattresses from solid waste streams headed to landfills. Connecticut passed the nation’s first such law in May and was followed a month later by Rhode Island. California is possibly next, with many other states potentially to follow.

The initiatives, according to Christopher Hudgins, vice president for government relations and policy at the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), were prompted by moves to pass mattress recycling legislation in some states beginning about three years ago. Those bills, in ISPA’s view, placed burdensome requirements on mattress makers and retailers. To forestall the passage of these laws, the Alexandria, Virginia-based mattress manufacturers’ trade group worked with policymakers and stakeholders to craft legislation that can serve as a model for other states.

So far the efforts have paid off in the two Eastern states, where legislation was passed and signed into law. California’s Senate has approved a similar law that now must be presented through the House. Hudgins said all the laws are similar in that they set up a non-profit, non-governmental organization that will be supported by fees charged to mattress-buyers at the point of purchase. The mattress recycling group will use the fee revenue to contract with haulers and recyclers to gather and recycle old mattresses.


Mattresses contain wood, which can be processed into compost or burned for waste-to-energy projects. The springs are steel, which can be recycled into a variety of steel items. The rest, consisting of fabric and plastic foam, can be used for carpet underlayment and insulation.

Although they contain virtually all recyclable materials, mattresses are problematic for disposal. They tend to tangle up waste management machinery, and are bulky and difficult to transport. They are also tricky to disassemble, with much of it being done by hand. The combination makes mattresses unappealing for recycling, as costs tend to outweigh the value of recoverable materials.

Unfortunately, mattresses are not easily processed by many common recycling machines and methods. Therefore, much of the tear down and separation of recyclable components must be done by hand.

ISPA hopes to change that by applying the point of purchase fee to help defray the costs of gathering, transporting and recycling mattresses. The amount of the fees hasn’t been set yet. That will be one of the first objectives of the organizations that will be set up in Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as, assuming the legislation passes in its current form, California.

He said the organizations in Connecticut and Rhode Island will be holding meetings and otherwise gathering input from recyclers and others in the coming months about the amount of the fee and other matters.

The basic idea is similar to recycling schemes for tires, batteries, paint and carpeting. One difference with some of these programs as set up in many states and the ISPA-developed approach is that with mattresses, the organization that collects and distributes money will be a private non-profit entity as opposed to a governmental agency.

In order to participate in the mattress recycling systems that will be set up, Hudgins said recyclers and haulers and others should keep an eye out for bid requests from the mattress recycling organizations. Businesses that respond to these with winning bids will be compensated for gathering, transporting and recycling mattresses.

In addition to the added revenue from the fee, Hudgins said that recyclers will benefit from having a better-organized system for gathering old mattresses. “From an existing recycler’s perspective, one of their biggest challenges is having a guaranteed volume of mattresses coming in the door,” he said. “We believe building incoming volume will help sustain a lot more recyclers and encourage them to get into the market.” That may be happening already. According to Hudgins, the prospect of the law’s enactment in Connecticut has encouraged two new mattress recyclers to enter the state.

There are plenty of old mattresses to go around. The problem is getting them from their end-user consumers to the recycling facilities. Hudgins said about 38 to 40 million mattresses and box springs are sold in the U.S. each year, and the association believes about half that many are discarded. However, there are no reliable figures on how many of these mattresses are recycled, end up in landfills or are dumped on roadsides. One of the statewide mattress recycling organizations’ requirements will be to gather data on how many mattresses are recycled, to help give an idea of the scope of the challenge and see how the new laws are doing in addressing it.

The legislation’s passage in California is still up in the air. However, a spokesperson for Californians for Mattress Recycling, the organization ISPA set up to push its legislative aims in the state, said that no significant opposition has appeared to the bill on its passage through the state Senate. One key indicator is that ISPA, which organized to block passage of previous attempts to pass legislation it felt was undesirable, is behind this one.

Given California’s size and position as a bellwether for policies in other states, it seems likely that more legislatures will be looking at mattress recycling laws if California enacts one. So will mattress recycling laws come to all states?

Hudgins said ISPA has already heard from people in other states besides the three frontrunners on this issue, inquiring about bringing similar laws to the table in their states. “I definitely believe other states are going to look at this,” he said. “We certainly expect it to spread to others.”