Putting mattress recycling to bed
Mattress recycling has been a nightmare for many years, but we can all now sleep a bit easier as new approaches will be putting the problem to bed.
TIC Mattress Recycling has built Australia’s first automated mattress deconstruction facility, located in Melbourne’s western suburbs, and is on track to have another plant up and running in Sydney before the end of 2016.
The technology breaks down the problems that have plagued local government and consumers – namely that mattress recycling in Australia has to date been dogged by unsustainable operators, boom and bust cycles, and poor environmental and safety outcomes.
Indeed, TIC’s technological development has renewed government interest and support in mattress recycling, and the sector is poised to increase the recovery and recycling of mattresses nationally.
In January 2016 the New South Wales Government through the NSW Environmental Trust announced a $794,000 grant to TIC to enable fast-tracking of automated and advanced end-of-life mattress recycling for NSW.
TIC Mattress Recycling managing director, Michael Warren, says his company’s approach automates mattress deconstruction to provide greater economies of scale, improved environmental outcomes, and reduced health and safety risks.
“The TIC system automatically deconstructs up to 60 mattresses per hour with almost no manual handling and produces clean streams of steel, foam and textiles,” says Warren. “Our system is contained and includes dust extraction, so there is not only protection of human health, but [it] also minimises the risks that materials or pollutants may escape from the process.”
Estimates are that between 1.2 and 1.5 million mattresses are disposed of in Australia each year and, according to a November 2012 study, 85 percent of end-of-life mattresses could be ending up in landfill. The study, ‘Options for a Pilot Project to Increase Recycling of Mattresses’, was done for the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Environment and found significant resources were being lost due to lack of recycling.
“Australian governments – national and state – have so far declined to support a product stewardship scheme for mattresses.
Another issue for policy-makers, local government, mattress manufacturers and retailers is that even the mattresses being recovered for recycling are often poorly managed, resulting in very low levels of resource recovery.
TIC says local government in particular should be aware of the price it pays for ‘recycling’. Warren says he has seen councils choose providers because they offer a marginally cheaper service.
“A council may save 50 cents or a dollar per mattress but, in reality, it is not paying for a recycling service,” he says. “A lot of mattresses are going to shredding operations or similar processes and they recover about 35 percent of the mattress by weight. It should be called what it really is, size reduction.”
Having said that, Warren says TIC is not against shredding and size reduction of mattresses in limited circumstances. “Soiled, wet and damaged mattresses may be best shredded where handling and processing will cause safety risks or are deemed impractical,” he says.
“It may also be appropriate in some remote locations, as the movement of mattresses is expensive, and rural and regional centres can’t always access high quality recycling.”
Mattresses are readily recyclable. On average, Australian mattresses weigh 30 kilograms and the steel, foam and textiles that are readily recyclable account for between 24 and 26 kilograms of material.
A 2015 study for the Victorian Government’s Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) by Mobius Environmental found that the problem is growing. In Melbourne alone in 2015 the report found there were 427,000 new mattresses sold, and retailers report they are selling more mattresses every year as the population increases and mattress life decreases.
The report, ‘Mattress Recycling in Melbourne and Greater Geelong’, found that, of the mattresses being collected for recycling, almost half were being shredded. This resulted in the situation that from all of the mattresses being ‘recycled’, 45 percent of the materials were actually still going to landfill.
The report also identified high levels of illegal dumping and that local government continues to carry the bulk of the costs for collection and recycling.
In a recent statement, chief executive of MWRRG, Rob Millard, says the report supports councils moving to new procurement models in order to drive good environmental and financial outcomes.
“Using these findings we will work with councils to develop best practice approaches, seek processing options from the market and create new collective procurement contracts to recycle mattresses from council hard waste collections and transfer stations,” says Millard in the statement.
TIC’s Michael Warren says current recovery practices rely on manual dismantling or shredding of whole mattresses and, while effective to an extent, these approaches have limitations and cannot meet government and community expectations.
“Manual practices cannot process significant volume without a lot of labour,” he says. “Manual processing also has inherent occupational health and safety risks related to the handling activity, as well as the potential exposure of workers to dust and pollutants. While some operators have been able to maintain manual operations over a reasonable period of time, manual mattress processing has generally proved to not be financially sustainable.”
Many parts of the world have now enacted more stringent regulations and product stewardship schemes, and are rapidly implementing more sophisticated programs and driving more mattress recycling. The US, the UK, Canada and many countries in Europe are pursuing high resource recovery processes and growing mattress recycling.
In the US, a strong independent product stewardship scheme for mattresses has been established and California, among other states, now requires a levy of US$11 for each mattress sold. The money goes into a mattress recycling scheme where consumers can dispose of end-of-life mattresses for free and recycling is carried out by authorised recyclers to an audited standard.
“If a scheme is to work and recover significant volumes of mattresses for recycling then there must be strong standards and specifications that ensure participants are achieving good environmental and social results.
The explosion of regulation and product stewardship overseas has fuelled interest in TIC’s technology. While Warren won’t detail specific enquiries, he says TIC is in advanced discussion with six other countries that want to purchase the technology.
Australian governments – national and state – have so far declined to support a product stewardship scheme for mattresses. A select group of Australia’s mattress manufacturers and retailers have commenced discussions to establish a take-back scheme; however, proposals to date still require consumers and local government to pay the cost of mattress collection and recycling.
Warren says he supported product stewardship and any such scheme must be open, transparent and accountable. “The key objectives of product stewardship are to respect the waste hierarchy and share waste management costs,” he says.
“If a scheme is to work and recover significant volumes of mattresses for recycling, then there must be strong standards and specifications that ensure participants are achieving good environmental and social results. And, of course, any scheme must have independence, strong governance and not be controlled by self-interest.
“A well-designed scheme that gives the whole supply chain – manufacturers, retailers, consumers, collectors and recyclers – the ability to participate and encourages competition will ensure a sustainable approach to increased mattress recycling.”
TIC Mattress Recycling commenced operations in 2013 with a combination of manual and automated processes and, with the new facility now being commissioned, is transitioning to fully automated operations. TIC’s technology is based on the RetourMatras system from the Netherlands that has been further developed over the last two years and tailored for Australian conditions.
The author, Nick Harford, is managing director of Equilibrium, the clients of which include TIC Group. This article also appears in Issue 2 of Corporate Waste Solutions.