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What Happens to Your Old Mattress?

What Happens to Your Old Mattress?

And why you should be concerned about it.

Unfortunately, most people don’t think too often about what happens to all the worn-out or returned mattresses in the world until it’s time for a new bed. If it’s time for you to get a new mattress, you’re probably wondering what to do with your old one. What does everyone else do with their old mattresses? Sometimes the company that sells you your new mattress will haul off your old one, but what happens after that? The truth is, it’s a problem, a massive problem, and we should all be paying attention. 

Where do trash mattresses come from?

Trash mattresses are coming at us from all sides. All of those “try it free for 30 days… 90 days… 365 days…” offers have people using and returning mattresses like hotcakes, if hotcakes were something you rented, slept on, and sent back dirty. And just like hotcakes, mattresses can’t be simply passed on to the next buyer when they’re returned. As we continue to develop more convenient ways to test and buy mattresses, we’re building up vast stores of used and discarded beds.

Trash mattresses also come from owners who are ready to upgrade. Because mattresses today are so much cheaper and more shippable than they were in the past, they also break down more quickly. Instead of swapping out mattresses every eight years as our parents did, we’re ordering a new one online every two or three years. Whether you handle the old one yourself or let the seller take care of it, it’s not going to disappear, and you’re not going to like what happens to it. 

Returning your mattress to the store.

Say you return your mattress to the store. Maybe you’re still in the “try it” window, or maybe you’ve had it for several years, and your back can’t take it anymore. The store will take your used mattress and either send it to a landfill, recycle it, donate it, or resell it. Don’t get your hopes up for recycling or donating. They’re not as simple as they sound. 

Sidenote: most retailers expect return rates of about 5%. Because people are particular about their mattresses (and because you can sleep on free mattresses for up to eight years by taking advantage of “try it” options), the return rate for mattresses is more than 20% for some retailers.

Throwing your mattress away.

If you choose to throw your mattress away or have no other choice, it’s either going to the landfill or the side of the road. Not saying you would dump your junk, but some people won’t think twice. That’s why every road trip includes the compulsory roadside mattress just outside of almost every town. Eventually, roadside mattresses will also find their way to the landfill unless they’re picked up by someone who participates in fraudulent reselling. 

If you decide to recycle your old mattress, a helpful resource you can use is Bye Bye Mattress. This company lists mattress collection sites, recycling facilities or collection events near you. They provide convenient ways to properly dispose of your mattress that are friendly to your community and the environment. 

What’s wrong with the landfill?

Estimates vary, but according to Minnesota’s state government, 40 million mattresses and box springs are discarded every year in the United States. They’re huge, they take up space, and they’re a problem. We have many initiatives to reduce paper, plastic, metal, glass, and food waste, but we’re ignoring the mattress issue. We continue to pump our landfills full of old foam, cloth, and spring beds. Why? Because it’s convenient to the consumer, and the government doesn’t have the resources or the incentive to handle it.

What’s wrong with reselling?

In some states, selling a used mattress is legal if the seller meets two conditions. First, they have to properly clean and sanitize the entire mattress, including the inside. That step is essential because – ask any mattress recycling employee – the insides of mattresses are nasty. Second, they have to let you know that the bed is used. The problem with many resellers is that they’re not doing either of those things. 

Used mattresses cost less. So what do they do? They pull the outer cover off the bed, put a clean cover on, and sell it as new. Not all of them, but enough that it’s a well-known scam in the US and the UK. Even individuals who aren’t affiliated with any legitimate mattress retailer will do this with old mattresses while posing as representatives of a well-known company.

To make matters worse, illegitimate resellers often include fake fire-resistance labeling along with phony brand labeling. That means unsuspecting consumers could be buying death traps from scam artists. Mattress materials are highly flammable – we’re talking a potentially life-threatening level of flammability – which is why the fire safety rating is necessary in the first place.

Some of the other issues with fake recyclers and unlawful resellers include criminal employment practices and creative dumping. Scammers have been known to rent storage units, fill them with unsellable mattresses, and abandon them, leaving the owner to discard the contents (probably to a landfill). They have also fraudulently filled shipping containers with baled mattress materials and exported them as “scrap metal” or “recycled metal,” leaving foreign entities and customs to deal with their mess. Goodbye, tax dollars. 

What happens to the mattresses that aren’t resold?

When fraudsters and mattress retailers can’t sell a bad mattress, they choose the same methods of disposal that consumers often choose. They dump them on the side of the road, drop them off at landfills, leave them next to a dumpster, sell them online as used, recycle them, or donate them to care homes and other nonprofits. That last one sounds good, but it’s not common apart from retailers that have an established relationship with a facility like that. Without an established relationship, the facilities usually won’t take them for fear of infestations and other health hazards. 

Why not just recycle it?

The million-dollar question. You might be wondering how to recycle your old bed, or maybe your retailer told you they would recycle it. This is an option for some, but if you or your retailer have access to one of the 56 legitimate recycling facilities for mattresses in the United States, count yourselves lucky. To put that in perspective, remember that 40 million mattresses are discarded every year. That would be 714,285.7142 mattresses per facility.

Recycling mattresses isn’t profitable enough to attract more business, and most local governments don’t have incentive programs in place. The facilities that do recycle have to overcome substantial hurdles to get the job done. For one, as we mentioned before, mattresses are dirty. Nasty dirty. They gunk up the machines and contaminate the recycled material so it can’t be used.

How does recycling work?

Facilities try to keep their processes confidential for a variety of reasons, but one method might go something like this:

A machine feeds mattresses into a crusher, which spits pieces into chutes that separate the garbage from the recyclables. Powerful magnets (strong enough to break your phone) help remove metal springs and hardware. Components of the recycling machinery, like the steel blades in the crusher, have to be replaced and welded every few weeks because the materials are so hard on them.

Only about 60% of the materials can be recycled. Of the ~19% of mattresses sent to properly equipped recycling facilities, almost half the material goes to landfills anyway or is processed as fuel (where allowed). Apart from the difficulty of the recycling process, the problem is that mattress materials aren’t worth much on the secondary market.

What can you do about it?

So, what’s the solution to this growing crisis? Well, let’s start with what created it. Unfortunately, it was consumer behavior. We wanted more convenient, shippable, affordable, and comfortable mattresses, so we pressured retailers to make compressible and practically disposable beds. But there is hope. With awareness, most consumers would hesitate to buy problematic mattresses, and there are options out there that are more comfortable and cost-effective.

To fix the problem, we as consumers have to make better choices. We have to opt for beds that will last and reduce the burden on our landfills and the rest of the environment. By choosing retailers more carefully, we can also eliminate the risk of buying a bed that hasn’t been properly cleaned, covered, and rated for fire safety. 

Sterling Latex and Memory Foam mattresses are upgradable, completely cleanable, and all the components can be replaced. You never have to send a Sterling bed to the landfill or that empty lot on the edge of town. If you return a bed to Sterling, the interchangeable components make it easy to remake it (legally) without creating waste. Cleaning is easy, and we’ll send you whatever you need to keep your mattress in perfect shape for years to come.

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