Hidden Cost of a Good Night’s Sleep: Mattresses & Waste Management

Posted on March 21, 2017

This blog post is by ELGL member Andy Kuhn. Connect with Andy on LinkedIn and Twitter.

In June the Freakonomics Podcast explored the recent phenomenon of mattress stores popping up all over the country. Surely you’ve seen a Mattress-Firm, Sleepy’s, or Sleep Number store pop up in your town, maybe even right across the street from another?

Stephen Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics and voice of the Freakonomics Podcast, articulated in the fact that the mattress market has become a high-profit exercise because of reduced manufacturing costs, consumer anchoring, low franchise fees for store owners, and pent-up demand from post-recession behaviors. You may be one of the many people who has purchased a new mattress in the last two years, is considering a new one, or is contemplating having your next one delivered to your front door rolled up like a burrito via Casper or Tuft & Needle.

Despite the benefit of booming business and more restful sleep for Americans, there are however unforeseen problems with this consumer behavior.

“If you visited one of our landfills you would be shocked to see that the top layer of the landfill cover is nearly all old mattresses”, said Wake County Solid Waste Management Director John Roberson.

“The nature of landfills is to compact trash and cover over it with more. Unfortunately, because of spring recoil, compaction occurs by less than 50% making the job of disposal even more difficult.”

For those in the solid waste world, compaction is the key to achieving useful life of landfills. Citizens may be unaware but landfills have a relatively short life span. Wake County landfill lifespans range from 30-45 years depending on available acreage. In high growth areas where acreage is at a premium maximization of existing landfill properties is essential. Compaction is the key to meeting that landfill life targets.

Unfortunately mattresses are rarely thought about when considering landfills. For many bagged trash is the only item they picture reaching a landfill heap.  This mentality shapes how landfills are managed and as a result non-bagged items like mattresses present problems for designers.

According to Roberson, bagged trash consists primarily of household waste and air. When bagged trash hits the landfill the primary job of landfill operators is to sort and compact that waste. Unfortunately mattresses reduce the effectiveness of compaction.  “Because of the compaction problem no matter where you put mattresses in the landfill they end up pushing their way to the top and the sides.”

For solid waste directors like Roberson, mattress disposal is creating unforeseen difficulties for landfill operators. “While the wood, fabric, and steel are all elements that can be recycled, the construction of mattresses demand that they be taken apart by hand in order to be recycled.”

According to Roberson because the mattresses are stitched and sometimes hand wound, the time allocated to deconstructing a mattress for the sake of proper disposal is significantly higher than other waste items. The process requires a manual cutting away the mattress cover and supporting fabric sides to initiate the recycling process. This is true for even the smallest of twin beds.

This has prompted conversations within waste management departments about specific mattress programming, possibilities of funding surcharges, and commercial handling requirements. What this means for depositors is the potential for added charges for disposal. As if disposal weren’t issue enough Roberson said mattresses present even more of an issue when coupled with storm water runoff.

“We have to put the mattresses in specific areas within the landfills because if a mattress ends up on a landfill slope, as the compactor moves over it, the springs recoil, pushing the mattress to the top of the pile or out past the edge. If the slope isn’t compacted, rain water that moves over landfill liners moves through the waste, turning that storm water runoff into waste water.”

Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a lifelong advocate for environmental protection, said, “We are working with waste management on creating recycling programs that address this problem. Mattress disposal presents an issue with volume of waste water mitigation and is prompting next generation approaches to efficiency maximization within our waste facilities. We are committed to doing this right.”

Where does that leave citizens and local governments in this process? Mr. Roberson had a simple request to citizens. “Don’t fall for the sales pitch about only getting 5-7 years of life out of a mattress.”  Industry standards for mattress lifespan is between 7 and 10 years, and experts suggest additional life can be added by shifting the direction of your mattress regularly to create even wear and flipping the mattress upside down when not in use.

These practices can extend use of life past the 10 year mark by allowing the foam and springs within the mattress to recondition and reduce compaction. For local governments strides can be made in consumer awareness and education on best practices for mattress length of life. In California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, statewide mattress programs have reported a savings of 25,000 lbs. of waste through their recycling efforts and diversionary programming.

In counties like Wake, where population growth exceeds 63 persons per day, the number of mattresses being purchased and discarded exceeds landfill life targets established at creation of the landfill.

What is left is a compounding problem that threatens the effectiveness of waste management, landfill contracting and staffing costs, landfill life estimates, and water runoff.

It’s obvious when ripe markets for profit exist there clear winners and often clear losers in the exchange. In the case of the mattress wars the clear losers are the states, counties, and municipalities who manage waste and landfills. “It’s never easy dealing with waste, and like it or not, it is our problem to solve”, said Hutchinson.

For those of us in local government seeking to reduce fees for services like waste, proactive approaches are necessary. 

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