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.