About 40 million mattresses are sold a year in the U.S, with half of them picked up by retailers at the end of their lives. That poses the question: what happens to these and other discarded mattresses?
Three states are working to keep them out of landfills through the Mattress Recycling Council’s (MRC) Bye Bye Mattress program. Having recycled the first discards just over a year ago, MRC recently recycled its millionth mattress and is on track for continued growth.
MRC President Ryan Trainer spoke with Waste360 about how the program works, who pays for it and what happens to the recovered materials.
Waste360: Can you explain how and why the Mattress Recycling Council came to be? And can you explain Bye Bye Mattress?
Ryan Trainer: The Mattress Recycling Council (MRC) is a nonprofit created in 2013 when California, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed mattress recycling laws. The intention was to support these states and others should they pass similar legislation. Connecticut was the first to go live, which is when we began developing processes tied to collections, determined our budget, and estimated a fee to fund the program.
Bye Bye Mattress is the name MRC gave its recycling program. Given our public education requirements and goals, we developed Bye Bye Mattress as the “brand” by which the general public would know MRC’s program.
Waste360: How does the program work and is it economically feasible?
Ryan Trainer: Each state program is funded by a small fee collected by retailers from consumers when mattresses are sold. If an institutional customer, such as a hotel, buys mattresses, the manufacturer collects the fee from the purchaser. MRC uses those monies to pay recyclers who collect, dismantle and sell recovered material to scrap markets. The fee also helps pay our operating and storage costs as well as for transportation to recycling facilities.
Revenues that recyclers generate from selling steel, foam and other materials seldom cover their costs to break down mattresses, shred and bale the material for sale. Since their scrap revenue is less than what they spend, the fee paid by mattress purchasers is there to cover the difference.
Waste360: How did you develop the model?
Ryan Trainer: We looked at similar recycling programs, including the PaintCare program, a nonprofit established by the paint industry to operate paint stewardship programs in states with paint stewardship laws.
Waste360: What have been challenges with collecting and recycling mattresses?
Ryan Trainer: They are bulky and not easily hauled or compacted. They are very durably sewn together so you can’t just take them apart by turning a few screws. The limited value of used mattress materials makes it challenging for mattress recycling to be a sustainable business. Finally, building and maintaining an efficient collection network is a challenge.
Waste360: How are these challenges being addressed?
Ryan Trainer: As far as dismantling mattresses, many recyclers we work with have a manual or semi manual process. Some are experimenting with mechanized approaches. It will be interesting to see how the market evolves to hopefully increase efficiency in dismantling and in building a sizable network of recyclers.
As the public becomes more aware of mattress recycling, more companies are interested in working with us. The next time we request proposals for recycling contracts, I think we will see healthy competition.
Waste360: How can you make it worthwhile to collect in sparsely populated areas?
Ryan Trainer: We are establishing regional collection points, positioning trailers in less-populated areas and picking up weekly or bimonthly, depending on demand. It’s more expensive per unit, but people in rural areas need to be served too.
Waste360: Do you see similar laws and programs taking off in other states?
Ryan Trainer: In the last several years the industry has focused on getting programs running in our three original states. During this time, no other states have enacted their own laws. But we are in contact with other states, and I do think similar laws may be adopted elsewhere. Maine introduced a mattress bill in February, and we are in discussions about how we may possibly work together.
Waste360: What is key to your long-term success?
Ryan Trainer: Finding innovative ways to collect, dismantle and use materials. We are interested in hearing ideas from the solid waste management industry and municipalities to improve what we are doing. We would love to work with them.