The Furniture Recycling Group CEO Nick Oettinger speaks to Circular Online about how his innovative business model is working to close the loop on mattresses, recycle more and transition to a circular economy.
The idea for The Furniture Recycling Group (TFRG) quickly assembled in Nick’s mind when he spotted a mattress spring tangled around a piece of equipment in landfill. Despite moving job roles, the idea persisted. He couldn’t understand why a valuable resource was wasting away in landfill.
“I started investigating it,” he said, “and I pulled a business plan together for the company I was currently working for.
“The plan set out how we would recycle the mattresses that were being sent to us rather than getting sent straight to a hole in the ground. The business said ‘Well, you know it sounds good but it isn’t for us’.”
Following this meeting, Nick went away and thought to himself: “I’m going to give it a go.” And now, TFRG is recycling 16,000 mattresses a week and is diverting every single one from landfill in the UK.
Circular business models: diverting mattresses from landfill
14 years ago, TFRG started out in a small unit where Nick was doing everything himself – recycling each mattress on his own. The company proved so popular that it grew month by month until at one point he had to take mattresses home with him.
“I was the person taking them all apart and, fortunately, the business trundled on and is still growing on a month-by-month basis to this day.”
Nick says that although you go into a shop and see an expensive price tag next to mattresses, the materials in mattresses are very cheap. Unlike other products, which are difficult to disassemble, Nick says anybody can take apart a mattress but it’s what you do with the materials that’s important.
“The advantage we have as a business is that we’ve got really robust outlets for all these materials that allow us to maximise value, which is why we’re still here 14 years later.
We’re recycling somewhere in the region of 16,000 mattresses per week now.
“A lot of businesses have been here today and gone tomorrow because it’s not easy to make money out of something that was made from inexpensive materials at the start of its life, never mind after someone has slept on it for over ten years.”
Nick told Circular Online the outlets TFRG have for materials are ever-evolving. Some examples he gave us were new waddings for seating, carpet underlay, and automotive felt.
The challenge, Nick said, is making sure the materials are consistent, which is difficult when recycling mattresses.
To deliver consistent materials for manufacturers, TFRG has developed an innovative sanitisation process.
“Some of the materials in mattresses are horse hair, coconut fibre, cotton, polyester, foams, latexes, polymixes, different types of ticking, and shoddy fibres,” Nick told us.
“We’re recycling somewhere in the region of 16,000 mattresses per week now – that’s a lot of material to try and put on the market. But the good thing is, the materials are cheaper than other raw materials as long as our processes ensure they’re high-quality and consistent.
“What we’re finding now, is we need more outlets to recycle more mattresses. We don’t want to just export materials all over the world because we’d lose traceability for our customers – when currently we know exactly where everything is going.”
The main competitor for TFRG is landfill and the reason for this is simple: money.
“One of the main challenges is we have to charge for our service,” Nick said. “I’d love to recycle mattresses for free, but there’s not enough value in the materials that are in there for me to pay for the whole process.
“For many people, there’s a landfill down the road where they can just throw their mattress in a hole. It’s much cheaper and easier; it doesn’t matter that it’s someone else’s problem. This is why we need enough outlets for the materials, which is an ongoing challenge.”
With more and more landfills filling up, what if the decision was taken out of customers’ and producers’ hands? An extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme could incentivise manufacturers to create mattresses that are easier to recycle to reduce the costs involved with recycling the products.
Extended producer responsibility for mattresses
Nick says one of the biggest things that has changed over his time at TFRG is how the mattress industry is more receptive to discussions on sustainability and circularity.
“If we’re not part of this conversation (on EPR), it’s going to cost us a fortune,” according to Nick, this was what the industry was thinking. “Now, that’s not to say that they were all forced to do it. Some brilliant people in our industry were already working towards making mattresses more sustainable.”
“The industry is up for the challenge,” Nick emphasised. He explained that “household name” brands are more invested in circularity than ever before. Nick told us the drivers of change are no longer sustainability officers but main board members who have the power to make decisions. One of the reasons for this is the prospect of EPR.
Some brilliant people in our industry were already working towards making mattresses more sustainable.
In its end of life report for mattresses 2022, the National Bed Federation (NBF), the recognised trade association representing UK manufacturers of beds and their suppliers, supported a potential EPR scheme for mattresses to achieve the UK government target of diverting 75% of mattresses from landfill by 2028.
According to the report, the number of mattresses sent for recycling in 2022 doubled from 2016, from 10% to around 24%. The report also showed that industry take-back schemes had “more than tripled”.
However, it also highlighted that the “real” rate of recycling is estimated to be lower at 14% – the “real” rate of recycling is what happens to mattresses or their components and materials after sorting and processing.
Nick says eco-modulation fees must be part of any EPR scheme for mattresses. “Somebody who designs something to be linear has to pay more than somebody who designs something to be circular,” he told us.
At this year’s Festival of Circular Economy, Mark Shayler, Author and Circular Economy Expert, is speaking about how innovators are tackling the circularity of each step in the design process. Find out more on how to design for a better tomorrow by exploring the Festival’s programme and booking your place today.
How to make mattresses circular
Mattress design hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. A problem material has always been foam; however, Nick says they now have to deal with more foam than ever before. This is despite foldable mattresses now being designed with springs that can be rolled rather than foam.
“We’ve always had to deal with foam. Foam goes in a couple of different directions when it’s recycled but we’re at a very advanced stage of prototyping a machine in the Netherlands that enables us to chemically recycle the material.
“We’re a bit away from looking at that in the UK because we have a significant difference in the UK in terms of fire regulations and therefore we have chemicals that are put into mattresses, and other types of furniture, to ensure they won’t ignite.”
This demonstrates how a circular economy requires a combination of innovation from industry and legislative changes from government.
Everybody’s trying to do something different so that they can sell their mattress.
Closing the loop on mattresses isn’t simple but EPR would incentivise manufacturers to adapt their designs to be more recyclable; however, it isn’t a silver bullet. In an ideal world, Nick says there would be a single, universal mattress design.
“But, of course, everybody’s trying to do something different so that they can sell their mattress. This creates a huge amount of variety, which isn’t brilliant from a circular economy design point of view.”
A compromise could be an EPR scheme for mattresses, and potentially other pieces of furniture, that provides a design framework for manufacturers. A structure producers must comply with, they can innovate and design a unique product within the guidelines but must ensure every mattress is simple to recycle.