SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: February 12, 2020
SNIP: Mike Scollick and Richard Allsopp are talking about the worst things they ever found in a mattress. “We had one where I think a dog had been lying on it, and the whole thing was just jumping with fleas,” Allsopp says, shuddering. No one would touch it, so they had to use a cherry picker to move it. But that’s not the worst of it, Scollick says: “I stripped the cover off one once and it looked like somebody …” “Died,” interjects Allsopp.
It’s fair to say you need a strong stomach to be in the mattress recycling game. Which Scollick and Allsopp have, along with several million pounds’ worth of equipment in their Coventry warehouse. I have come to see Circom, their mattress recycling firm, at work. It’s a dirty but noble enterprise: Circom is one of only a handful of recyclers tackling the UK’s ever-growing mattress problem.
The UK threw away more than 7m mattresses in 2017, the vast majority of which went straight to landfill. Zero Waste Scotland has estimated that if the 600,000 mattresses Scotland throws away every year were stacked on top of each other, the pile would be more than 100 times taller than Ben Nevis. Flytipping is another huge area of concern: English councils spend £58m a year on clear-up, with mattresses among the most commonly illegally dumped items. According to the National Bed Fedderation (NBF), only about 19% of mattresses are recycled. The reason? They are a nightmare to recycle – it’s the springs. “They’re a machine killer,” says Scollick.
And it’s not just a British problem. Mattresses are a global environmental nightmare. The US throws away 18.2m mattresses a year, but there are only 56 facilities available to recycle them.
Changing consumer behaviour is behind this ever-growing mattress mountain. Time was, you would change your mattress every eight to 10 years. But with online retailers offering more choice than ever, we have learned to expect better mattresses, and to replace them more frequently.
The development of roll-down technology – which allows mattresses to be packed into small, easily shippable boxes – has led to a plethora of start-ups targeting a $30bn international market. There are now at least 175 companies that will ship roll-down mattresses to your front door; one of the first movers in this space, the US firm Casper, was valued at $1.1bn in 2019.
Some online providers have arrangements with care homes or hospitals to collect lightly used mattresses, re-cover them, and put them back into use. Others send them for recycling. But many will, inevitably, end up in landfill. “We’ve introduced a disposable mattress business model at a time when we probably should be moving in the exact opposite direction,” says Alexander.
It is difficult to recycle the materials in a mattress because they aren’t worth much on the secondary market. “A lot of people would feel that there’s value in the materials in a mattress,” says David Fitzsimons, of the circular-economy experts Oakdene Hollins. “But, generally, that’s not true.” You may be able to get a few pounds for the metal springs in a mattress, but it’s hard to find takers for the foam and fibre.
Our ever-growing used mattress problem is also being exported. In July 2019, 100 containers of British waste were found in the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka. They had been illegally sent there, under the guise of metal recycling. Allsopp pulls up a photograph of the containers on his computer. “If you look at what’s in there, those are baled mattresses,” he says, pointing to the screen. Many of the mattresses appear to be wrapped in distinctive green packaging. “Those are the green bags that national retailers use to take mattresses back under their return scheme,” Allsopp says. Which means that mattresses that were sent for recycling by major retailers have been illegally dumped in a foreign country.
The authorities are aware of the criminality in the industry, but don’t have the resources or political wherewithal to deal with it. “It’s the wild west at the moment,” says Alexander. “Yes, there are a number of good mattress-recycling facilities out there, but they’re limited.” The Local Government Association would like to see tougher criminal penalties on flytipping, as well as more manufacturers offering take-back services for old mattresses.