MRC invests $1 million annually in research that seeks to improve the recyclability of discarded mattresses. Even though mattress recycling is happening at a record pace in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the program is continually looking to increase efficiency and recyclability. “MRC’s research team is investing in projects that incubate creativity and develop new uses for recycled mattress components,” said Mike O’Donnell, Managing Director of the Mattress Recycling Council. “We are in this for the long haul with a focus on sustainability and circularity.”
The research MRC funds covers a wide range of initiatives including improving mattress collection, transportation, disassembly and finding new uses for steel, foam, wood and other mattress components. We share our findings with other mattress recycling organizations to benefit and promote global mattress recycling initiatives.
Improving Efficiency in the Mattress Recycling Process
Mattress recycling relies heavily on manual labor so MRC is looking to improve the efficiency of the process by introducing more technology and helping recyclers work more effectively.
One of the most time intensive tasks recyclers face is deconstruction of pocketed coils. These are metal springs encapsulated in sleeves or pockets that are assembled using welds, stitches, or adhesives. They are difficult to process with existing technology without damaging the fibers or contaminating the steel. An automated machine would reduce the time it takes to separate the individual coils from their pocketed sleeves. Through MRC’s research program, a contract was awarded to Knoble Design LLC to construct a low-cost, automated prototype machine that effectively separates the metal coils from the polypropylene pockets without destroying either material.
Another opportunity to increase efficiency is to help mattress recyclers improve their own processes and workflows. Using lean manufacturing methodologies, MRC conducted assessments with its California recyclers and found the potential to significantly improve productivity and reduce process risk. Addressing bottlenecks and incorporating more efficient facility layouts were recommended to improve recycler performance and throughput. In 2021, MRC followed up on the initial assessments by hosting lean Kaizen events at the same recyclers targeting inefficiencies in key areas such as process workflow, deconstructing box spring frames, preparing materials for shipment and inventory management.
Improving Recyclability and New Markets for Mattress Components
The recycling rate, measured by the weight of all used mattress materials that come through the program, is currently 75%. While this statistic is good, MRC is striving for a higher recovery rate. One study examines the 25% of materials that are not recycled and categorizes the materials to uncover the why. Discovering that why, which in some cases may be that some materials are too contaminated or too difficult to separate, can lead to greater conversations about manufacturing, materials, or recycling processes.
“In this case, the research will help uncover the root cause of why some materials are not being recycled and lead us down a path of creating solutions. This doesn’t happen overnight, but even small changes, bit by bit, make a huge difference overall,” said Mike Gallagher, MRC research consultant.
Improving recyclability is also affected by the availability of end markets for mattress components. In some cases, no profitable end market exists, but through research, MRC is exploring and developing potential new markets to solve these challenges. UCLA researchers are currently studying a potential new application for chemically recycled urethane foam as a component in formulations with properties similar to concrete, a potentially lower carbon footprint building material. If successful, chemically recycled urethane foam could be used in applications such as building facades.
Another promising project includes a research contract with Pittsburg State University to evaluate if chemically converted mattress materials including polyurethane foam, cotton and coconut fiber can be used as battery components.
Improving Collection Site Infrastructure
If recyclers receive better quality mattresses, their recycling rate increases by creating higher quality materials for end markets while also improving profits. This is why MRC also invests in its collection network.
California collection sites can apply for funds to help improve their collection area, which can lower overall collection costs, improve safety and increase the recyclability of discarded mattresses. This past fall, MRC awarded funds to 11 mattress collection sites throughout the state for these types of improvements.
Apply to Be an Innovator
Do you have innovative ideas for improving mattress recycling or exploring new applications for used mattress components? Check out our open RFPs and apply today! Or, if you’re simply interested in MRC’s current projects, all research announcements can be found here.
The goal of MRC’s research program is to develop best practices for mattress collection, transportation and recycling that increase our recycling rate while also investing in long-term projects that promote sustainability and circularity for the mattress industry.
When it comes to mattress recycling, research is just one example of how we #LeadTheWay.