Week of 6/7/09

Dear EarthTalk: How can I recycle my old mattress if the place I buy a new one from doesn’t take it? What do mattress companies do with old mattresses when they do take them? Do they recycle any of the material?

—J. Belli, Bridgeport, CT

A typical mattress is a 23 cubic foot assembly of steel, wood, cotton and polyurethane foam. Given this wide range of materials, mattresses have typically been difficult to recycle—and still most municipal recycling facilities won’t offer to do it for you. But along with increasing public concerns about the environment—and a greater desire to recycle everything we can—has come a handful of private companies and nonprofit groups that want to make sure your old bed doesn’t end up in a landfill.

The Lane County, Oregon chapter of the charity St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example, has spearheaded one of the nation’s most successful mattress recycling initiatives via its DR3 ("Divert, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle") program. "Keeping [mattresses] out of landfills is a matter of efficiently recycling them so their core materials can be reincarnated into any number of new products," reports the group, which opened a large mattress recycling center in Oakland, California in 2001. (Why hundreds of miles away in Oakland? To "go where the mattresses are," says Chance Fitzpatrick of the group.) The facility has been processing upwards of 300 mattresses and box springs per week ever since.

During the recycling process, each mattress or box spring is pushed onto a conveyor belt, where specially designed saws cut away soft materials on the top and bottom, separating the polyurethane foam and cotton fiber from the framework. The metal pieces are magnetically removed, and the remaining fiber materials are then shredded and baled. The whole process takes one worker just three to four minutes per mattress.

Don't toss that old mattress out onto the street! A number of companies and nonprofit agencies now accept mattresses, break them down and recycle their component parts for new uses. To see if there's one near you, go to earth911.org and locate by zipcode.© Mark Nockleby, courtesy Flickr

On a slow day, the DR3 facility recycles some 1,500 pounds of polyurethane foam, which totals a half million or more pounds over the course of a year. "A well-oiled recycling factory can reuse 90 percent of the mattress," reports Josh Peterson of Discovery’s Planet Green website. "The cotton and cloth get turned into clothes. The springs and the foam get recycled, and the wood gets turned into chips."

While the DR3 facility only takes mattresses from a small group of waste haulers and individuals around the San Francisco Bay Area, other mattress recyclers are popping up around the U.S. and beyond. Some examples include Nine Lives Mattress Recycling in Pamplico, South Carolina; Conigliaro Industries in Framingham, Massachusetts; MattCanada in Montreal, Québec; and Dreamsafe in Moorabbin, Australia. To find a mattress recycler near you, consult the free online database at Earth911.org.

Those who aren’t near a recycling facility might consider giving their old mattress away. But many health departments prohibit donating mattresses to charities like the Salvation Army or Goodwill. So what’s an upgraded sleeper with a perfectly good old mattress to do? The web-based Freecycle Network allows people to post stuff to give away to anyone willing to come pick it up; likewise, chances are your local version of Craigslist also has a "free" section where you can post that it as available.

CONTACTS: DR3 Mattress Recycling; Nine Lives Mattress Recycling; Conigliaro Industries; MattCanada; Dreamsafe; Freecycle Network.

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any truth to the rumor about high levels of birth control chemicals being found in some cities" drinking water? If so can these be filtered out?

—Elizabeth Yerkes, via email

In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey tested water in nine states across the country and found that 85 man-made chemicals — including birth control medications — were commonly slipping through municipal treatment systems and ending up in our tap water.© Getty Images

It is true that trace amounts of birth control and other medications—as well as household and industrial chemicals of every stripe—are present in many urban and suburban water supplies around the country, but there is considerable debate about whether their levels are high enough to warrant concern.

In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tested water in nine states across the country and found that 85 man-made chemicals, including some medications, were commonly slipping through municipal treatment systems and ending up in our tap water. Another report by the Associated Press found trace amounts of dozens of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of some 46 million Americans.

But according to USGS, such chemicals and medications are so diluted—at levels equal to a thimble full of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool—that they do not pose a health threat. But others aren’t so sure. Researchers have found evidence that even extremely diluted concentrations of drug residues harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species, and have been shown to labs to impair human cell function.

One of the common culprits is estrogen, much of which is inadvertently released into sewers through the urine of women taking birth control. Studies have shown that estrogen can wreak reproductive havoc on some fish, which spawn infertile offspring sporting a mixture of male and female parts. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that human breast cancer cells grew twice as fast when exposed to estrogen taken from catfish caught near untreated sewage overflows. "There is the potential for an increased risk for those people who are prone to estrogenic cancer," said Conrad Volz, lead researcher on the study.

What may be more troubling is the mixture of contaminants and how they might interact to cause health problems. "The biggest concern is the stew effect," says Scott Dye of the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program. "Trace amounts of this mixed with trace amounts of that can equal what? We don’t know."

With such contaminants proving elusive to municipal filtration systems, the burden of protection often lies with the end user. But getting traces of birth control and other drugs out of your tap water isn’t so easy. Of the many different kinds of in-home water filtration systems available today, only those employing reverse osmosis have been shown to filter out some drugs. Some makers of activated carbon water filters claim their products catch pharmaceuticals, but independent research has not verified such claims.

"The best choice," says Cathy Sherman of the natural health website Natural News, "would probably be a combination of a reverse osmosis filter augmented by pre- and post-activated carbon filters." Installing such a system just for drinking water is sufficient, she says, given that water used for cleaning and plumbing doesn’t typically get ingested. As to prevention, the non-profit public health and safety agency, NSF International, urges individuals to not use their toilets or sinks to dispose of unused medications and to opt for the garbage instead; most modern landfills are lined to keep such contaminants inside.

CONTACTS: USGS Water Resources; Sierra Club; NSF International; Natural News.

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