Dear Recyclebank: How eco-friendly are these new foam mattresses? –E. Mijares
Dear E.: Foam mattresses are largely petroleum-based; so right out of the gate, they are not the most sustainable option. Most mattresses by their nature aren’t very ecological. Buying a mattress that will last as long as possible is one way to reduce the negative impact of their production and disposal because you’ll be buying and throwing away fewer of them throughout your lifetime. This would mean less waste and fewer greenhouse gases over time.
Are foam mattresses recyclable? To an extent.
The memory foam mattresses you see for sale are typically made from polyurethane, which is considered a type of plastic. However, unlike other plastics, it’s not necessarily straightforward to recycle. Polyurethane foam mattresses are often down-cycled, meaning the resulting product is of lesser quality and value than the original. That’s better than nothing if you can find a facility near you that will accept them.
It’s important to note that not all foam mattresses are polyurethane. Some are made from latex, which would be handled very differently by a recycler.
Even setting aside the question of dealing with disposing of a bulky mattress, polyurethane falls under that nebulous “other” category of plastics that isn’t a shoo-in at every recycling facility.
There are also some concerns over the flame retardants used to treat polyurethane foam mattresses, as well as the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that they may release into the indoor environment over time.
What about traditional mattresses?
Traditional mattresses generally also contain some amount of foam. However, they also have all sorts of other components such as metal springs, wood frames, and fabric exteriors. These added materials make them a mixed-material challenge in need of separation and sorting, but also make them more valuable to many recyclers.
That said, with the increasing popularity of memory foam mattresses, many recyclers are finding ways to give that polyurethane a second life.
Both chemical and mechanical processes can be used to either produce new foam or to reclaim the material for use in things such as carpet padding. Converting a foam mattress into carpet padding is an example of down-cycling, but it’s better than letting the material go to the landfill.
If you want to recycle your foam mattress, you can’t just put it on the curb and hope it takes care of itself.
Look for specialty recyclers in your city, or search on 1-800-GOT-JUNK? to learn about their mattress-recycling options, which include foam mattresses. The Mattress Recycling Council also has a facility locator through their Bye Bye Mattress program, which operates in California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
No matter what type of mattress you choose, keep its end of life in mind. According to Consumer Reports, 20 million mattresses are thrown away in the US every year. Doing your research to find a mattress that will keep you comfortable and healthy the longest will ultimately leave you with a smaller environmental footprint.