How to transform mattress design for a sustainable future


Mattress design

Nick Oettinger, founder and CEO of The Furniture Recycling Group (TFRG), explains the current problems with mattress design and how the product can become more sustainable.

Bulky waste is a huge problem in the UK, clogging limited space in landfill and having a detrimental impact on our planet. Currently, 7.5 million mattresses are sent to landfill each year – a staggering 167,000 tonnes of bulky waste, enough to fill Wembley Stadium five times over, yet mattress sales continue to soar and fill the nation’s refuse centres.

In recent years, “bed in a box” online mattress retailers have grown significantly and so have online mattress sales, with many offering 100 to 360-night comfort guarantees.

While this might seem like a positive change helping to support a booming industry, the number of barely used mattresses being returned and sent to landfill has become a significant problem for manufacturers, retailers and the environment.

The current problem with mattress design


Traditionally, there has been a linear approach to designing and creating mattresses, using a range of materials including metal coils and springs, foam and textiles, with little thought on how to recycle or reuse the product in the future.

Pocket sprung or open coil mattresses cannot be rejuvenated or reused and are more complex to recycle due to the components within the product.

Mattresses’ bulky design and mixture of component products pose a challenge for recyclers. Not only are mattresses filled with a range of difficult-to-recycle products, but they are designed in such a way that doesn’t consider end-of-life use.

Mattresses can be made up of a range of different products including cotton, polyester and foam, which can all be classified as recyclable; however, once blended together these products can be extremely difficult and expensive to separate and recycle. 

In some cases, manufacturers are using products that are technically recyclable, but these products are not always commercially viable for recyclers to strip apart and recycle in the UK.

Mattresses’ bulky design and mixture of component products pose a challenge for recyclers.

Using technically recyclable products in mattress manufacturing can lead to consumer misconception. Many manufacturers or retailers commonly use phrases such as vegan, organic or natural which can help to sell mattresses, especially to eco-conscious consumers looking to make more sustainable purchases.

However, just because these labels have been attached to a product doesn’t mean that these items can be easily recycled in the UK or that they are better for the environment. 

In fact, the more complex the mix of products is in a mattress, the more difficult it is to separate and recycle. In these cases, furniture recyclers won’t find it commercially viable to recycle, leaving manufacturers, retailers and consumers with no option to recycle.

Another significant challenge for the industry is the fact that mattresses aren’t built with a circular economy in mind at the design stage.

To create a truly sustainable mattress using circular economy principles a manufacturer needs to design and build a product and then dismantle it to ensure each component part can be properly reused or is commercially viable for recycling – without this step being taken, manufacturers will never achieve a truly sustainable product.

International case studies


In Belgium, a country which produces significantly less mattress waste than the UK, a sustainable model has been introduced to tackle the mattress recycling problem.

Since 2021, the recycling of all mattresses across Belgium has been made compulsory, which has led to the introduction of an innovative new sustainable solution – all mattress components are extracted and used as raw materials across a range of industries including insulating materials, gym mats, and padding for car seats.

Anything that can’t be recycled, such as textiles, is recovered for energy production. Since April 2022, this approach has enabled 500,000 mattresses per year to be recycled, which is 50% of the mattress waste produced annually.

Looking to Europe, several initiatives could help to support the industry further in the UK. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) plays a key role in the circular economy model. This is where businesses that manufacture, import and sell products are held accountable for the waste their products generate. 

There are several EPR schemes in existence in the UK. These include areas such as packaging, electricals, and cars. EPR legislation was first implemented in the European Union and is not yet mandatory in the UK for the mattress industry.

But with the government’s environmental targets, including net zero emissions by 2050, it could be legislation that is introduced across Europe and the UK within a matter of years.

Creating a circular economy for mattresses

Mattress Recycling in progress

Mattress manufacturers need to look at the circular economy in two parts – the circular principles in which to follow and the economic viability of recycling. Only by looking at both areas can they truly create a mattress that truly adheres to circular economy principles.

When looking at manufacturers’ responsibilities to support sustainable mattress design, they need to build in the material value which will enable furniture recyclers the opportunity to separate the raw materials and reuse them for other products across a range of industries, with a cost-effective strategy to support them. 

Manufacturers also need to design and develop products with a clear end-of-life strategy, rather than focusing on what messaging and USPs eco-conscious consumers will buy into.

Advocating for change 

mattress recycling

There’s no doubt that the mattress industry needs to change to make a significant and positive impact on the environment by reducing the amount of products entering landfill. Some initiatives are being introduced which propose positive change including the use and implementation of Digital product passports (DPPs).

Introduced across the EU to improve sustainability, they capture data about the environmental impact of products, their composition, their production and history. Industrial and electric vehicle batteries will be the first products to have mandatory DPPs, from 2027, while other product categories, including textiles, are expected to follow by 2030.

While this will make the industry far more transparent and provide all parties with a raft of information, the legislation could go further, by also featuring links and information about specific recyclers to help guide retailers and consumers to the right organisations.

There is also a key opportunity for organisations and industry bodies from the waste management sector to educate and create more awareness of good and bad practices along with new initiatives and incentives for change.

Currently, manufacturers are creating what they believe are sellable mattresses that can eventually be recycled or potentially rejuvenated for resale.

However, there’s no collaboration between these companies and the waste management firms which may not even have the technology or infrastructure to recycle these products viably at the moment. Without collaboration and education between all stakeholders, it will take longer to drive change.

What The Furniture Recycling Group are doing?

mattress recycling
Oettinger spoke to Circular Online last year about how TFRG is working to close the loop on mattresses.

TFRG is a circular economy specialist that provides sustainability solutions; recycling and rejuvenating mattresses, diverting 100% of mattresses away from landfill.

Most recently, the company pioneered a rejuvenation process that is popular with mattress retailers throughout the UK. This process gives a second life to nearly new mattresses returned under comfort guarantees, providing both environmental and economic benefits.

While the mattress industry has become more sustainable through recycling, rejuvenation and changes in product development, it still has a long way to go before it can be truly circular economy based.

At TFRG, we work with major brands and retailers, such as Silent Night and John Lewis, to support their design process and make sure components and materials that go into producing a mattress can be dismantled and properly recycled or reused at the end of its life.

This should be the standard practice by all manufacturers to make a conscious shift to become truly sustainable and transform mattress design for the better.

Sustainability is becoming more and more prominent across a variety of industries, which is driving exciting innovation and practical new solutions to help solve the climate crisis. 

While there is no perfect solution implemented within the mattress industry at the moment, this hasn’t stopped mattress manufacturers from persevering with change.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of mattress manufacturers and retailers offering take-back schemes, while many have dedicated teams looking at how they can imbed sustainability within their organisations and be more mindful of the products they use and how they are reused and recycled.

This trend offers a positive and proactive snapshot into the future of the mattress industry and lays the foundation for change.

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