Mattress recycling – should we shred our bed?

The scale of the UK’s mattress ‘waste’ problem cannot be disputed, with the National Bed Federation claiming that 6.4 million of these bulky products are thrown away each year. 

An interesting study by North London Waste Authority delved deeper into the topic in 2022, stating that a number of bad bed habits – including smoking, eating and sleeping with pets –compound the problem. Their data suggested that one in four people will get rid of their mattress before it is even four years old – staggering when you consider the guarantees commonly now associated with modern products. The research also discovered a worrying lack of awareness among the general public, with a third of people said to not even know that mattresses can be recycled. 

In truth there are many reasons why mattresses reach their perceived ‘end of life’, unfortunately much sooner than they should. But one thing is for sure – in a world seemingly evermore passionate about sustainability, there is still a long way to go when it comes to this tricky waste stream.

The reduction of mattress ‘waste’ at source is definitely a major issue. But what happens next – when it comes to the treatment of mattresses – is also a worry. 

These bulky items are difficult to store and handle, which means that far too many are fly-tipped. And even those which do successfully reach a landfill site, shouldn’t in truth end up there. After all, disposal is costly – in both financial and environmental terms. 

So yes, the oversized nature of mattresses makes them cumbersome to manoeuvre and break down. And they may be made up of multiple composite materials that are considered hard to segregate. There is also a long-standing perception in the eyes of many, that they are economically unshreddable. However, with greater awareness and understanding of exactly what is possible when it comes to mattress recycling, the resource value of this notorious ‘problem’ actually becomes very exciting.  

Some recyclers – including both mainstream firms and more specialist operators – already acknowledge the valuable recyclable materials that are ‘locked’ inside a mattress. However, they often opt to break down an end-of-life mattress by hand, despite the labour intensive, time consuming nature of this approach. In fact, UNTHA continually consults peers on a global basis and many either haven’t yet acknowledged the benefits of mechanical mattress processing, or they perceive the use of a shredder to be cost prohibitive. 

But with ongoing technological advancements comes innovation and consequently, completely new opportunities. 

Mechanical mattress processing

Did you know, for example, that while the manual breakdown of a mattress might typically take around seven minutes, a single step shredding line can now mechanically dismantle a mattress in as little as 30 seconds. Importantly, the shredding process also liberates or ‘unlocks’ the multifaceted materials inside. 

The secret of success lies in achieving a homogenous shred – a high quality output fraction – which optimises the efficiency and effectiveness of downstream separation technology. This means that clean steel can be extracted for resale and recycling, with relative ease, foam can be processed for use as carpet underlay or animal bedding, wood can be shredded for landscaping mulch or biomass, and the remaining flock material – a 30mm fraction – can be mixed to create a high calorific value Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF). For alternative fuel manufacturers with a strong environmental agenda, it is even possible to re-shred any residual contaminated material to achieve a 100% recovery rate.

Consequently, a notorious waste problem becomes a closed loop project rich in revenue and environmental potential. 

Of course sophisticated equipment is required for such a project to come to life, but shredding technology – which continues to evolve at pace – has completely transformed what recyclers can now do. 

Some machines are engineered to now comfortably handle even the most complex input materials, with slower speed, high torque drives drastically reducing the wear and maintenance intensity, and thus the whole life running costs of the asset. If the shredder is electric, the operation is ‘greener’ too when compared to competitors’ diesel driven equivalents. In fact, one pioneering UNTHA customer (outside of the mattress recycling sector) is running a shredder using the solar power they generate on site – it will be interesting to see if other organisations follow their lead. 

Mattress recycling excellence

Shropshire-based Textek is an outstanding example of mattress recycling in action. This organisation runs two UNTHA XR3000C shredders within its advanced bulky waste processing facility, with an intelligent combination of downstream magnets achieving an impressively clean ferrous extraction. Three grades of metals are pulled off the system for resale to different scrap markets, and the high-calorific flock is used for waste to energy, as a fossil fuel substitute. 

Processing over 300 mattresses every hour, this organisation has its sights set on transforming more than 1 million mattresses into valuable resources, per annum. This project required tremendous foresight and vision, but the result is exemplary – both from a sustainability and revenue generation point of view.

Industry data points to only 24% of UK mattresses being recycled at present – with some reports suggesting the ‘real’ figure is closer to only 14%. The scale of the opportunity for change, is therefore vast. But alongside forward-thinking innovators like Textek, who are working hard to achieve environmental progress, we also need to unite as an industry to increase conversation about exactly what is possible. 

‘Lack of awareness’ remains an ongoing challenge – a problem within the waste industry itself, let alone the local authority infrastructure and general public. And all too often things sound difficult. Or expensive. But there is a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from hard working people who have already ‘been there and done that’. And yes, a shredder represents a capital investment, but the possible return on that investment is huge. And that’s before we consider how much the planet will benefit from smarter thinking. 

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