The Urethane Blog

Mattress Recycling Down Under

Better bedfellows: how mattress manufacturers are stopping the waste

Social enterprise Soft Landing is joining forces with bed manufacturers in a push to recycle mattress parts and divert it from landfill

Salvaging metal, foam and timber from mattresses diverts thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill annually.
Salvaging metal, foam and timber from mattresses diverts thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill annually. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

It doesn’t matter how deep you bury an old mattress, eventually it will rise to the surface to snag soccer players with its rusty coils or bog vehicles as they sink into its bloated mess.

The air pockets in the structure mean you can’t keep an interred mattress down.

“It is almost like creating an air mattress,” says Kathy Jack, general manager of sales and marketing for manufacturer Joyce Foam Products.

“They take a very, very long time to break down,” she says. “It’s not really a product that you would ever want to see in landfill and the majority of the components can be recycled and rescued – there really is no reason why it should go into landfill.”

While 1.6m mattresses are sent to landfill each year in Australia, a small but growing number (around 400,000) are being recycled by commercial operators and the social enterprise Soft Landing.

The mattress manufacturers, suppliers and retailers are coming together in a “stewardship scheme”, where they agree to take responsibility for recycling their goods when no one wants them anymore.

“Mattresses are big, bulky and [bed] buggy, so it is logistically challenging and costly [to get rid of them]”, explains Janelle Wallace, manager of the Soft Landing mattress product stewardship scheme.

The scheme members held a briefing in Melbourne this month to encourage small businesses and retailers to take part in the voluntary scheme.

When businesses sign up to “stewardship” they will have access to the Soft Landing recycling service at a discounted rate. Soft Landing may pick up the mattresses, if required, and break them down into their parts.

The scheme’s members will either absorb the costs or recoup them from customers. Customers may be prepared to pay more for bedding if their old one is recycled for them – bearing in mind that garbage tip fees are as much as $80 per mattress and customers usually have to pay someone to take it away.

Founding members of the stewardship scheme include Harvey Norman, Domayne, AH Beard, Joyce Foam Products, Sealy, Tempur, SleepMaker, Thermotec, Covestro and the TIC Group.

Soft Landing is one of Australia’s biggest mattress recyclers and won Social Traders’ Social Enterprise of the Year award last year.

Based in Bellambi, near Wollongong in New South Waes, Soft Landing employs people who face barriers in the open jobs market. It is expected to expand its operations beyond its current facilities so that the stewardship scheme can be offered nationally. It also has operations in Smithfield in Sydney, Newcastle, Perth, Hume in the Australian Capital Territory and Melbourne.

Jack, who chairs the stewardship scheme, says when mattresses are broken up the springs go back to steel manufacturers, which use old steel as part of the chemical process to create new steel.

The foam can often be cleaned and used in carpet underlay. “The thing about foam is that it lasts so long, you can keep reusing it and reusing it,” she says.

Soft Landing also recycles the felt pads and fabric to be made into boxing bags; timber is made into kindling, mulch and animal bedding; and husk becomes weed matting and mulch.

Each mattress is pulled apart by hand, with the help of a Stanley knife.

Jack says it is more cost-effective for manufacturers to recycle mattresses than send it to landfill, however Soft Landing’s initiative is an environmental choice rather than a profit-driven one.

According to Soft Landing, salvaging metal, foam and timber from mattresses diverts thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill annually. Every 10 tonne of materials is equivalent to taking four cars off the road permanently, or providing enough electricity to power 14.5 households annually, or saving enough water to fill 3.5 average backyard pools.

Soft Landing was started as a social enterprise in 2009 by Mission Australia, which was looking for a solution for the mattresses that were “donated” to the charity each year. It was later sold to not-for-profit Resource Recovery Australia.

Soft Landing currently employs more than 70 people, although Andrew Douglas, the company’s co-founder, says around 400 people have worked there since its inception. Many are people who have been disadvantaged in the job market due to long-term unemployment, mental health issues or a criminal record. Seventy-five per cent of employees have Aboriginal heritage.

“We call it a pathway to employment. We work, initially, on building work muscles [so] it is physically-demanding work, there is the ethic of turning up to work [and] wearing their uniforms,” he says.

There are mentors who help the employees progress to tasks of increasing difficulty and responsibility, with positive reinforcement as they gain skills and confidence.

Some of the success stories include people who have gone on to study at university or attained good jobs elsewhere.