How the Well-Designed Mattress Avoids Death at the Landfill

A comfortable night’s sleep is priceless. Considering we spend about a third of our life sleeping, this time should be comfortable and well spent. A good mattress can make or break a night of rest. Once we do find a good mattress, the mattress is usually usable for about 10-15 years, if we are lucky. When it is time to discard your old mattress, where does it go?If you are like most people, it goes into the county landfill. In light of our recent study and development of green and sustainable practices, this disposal process could be greatly improved. Currently, mattresses are comprised of various (some harmful) materials and various processes that are not easily recycled or broken down in our landfills. If landfills are not the ideal destination, then what should we do with our mattresses after they are no longer sleep-able (or we do not want them)? For this study, I propose redesigning the basic mattress (to avoid death at the landfill) by creating a mattress that is:

1.    More streamlined in production process and material than the current general mattress,

2.    Made of more sustainable and healthful materials than the current synthetic and sometimes harmful chemically-made mattress,

3.    Extremely simple and easy for the average owner to assemble and disassemble,

4.    Made of material that does not compromise comfort and body support, and

5.    Is affordable for people all over the world, especially to the middle and lower class people groups (avoid specialty luxury-style design)

Why re-design a mattress?

Sure, with our busy lives, who has time to think about where trash goes? Especially trash so big and bulky as a mattress? There are a few reasons why we should be concerned about mattress disposal. The first issue is landfill space. Currently, the most common way of disposing of a mattress involves dumping it at the local landfill. Eventually, this could cause landfills to become closer and closer to our neighborhoods, maybe even in our own backyard!  Bigger landfills are harder to control--the smells, the water sanitation, the ground soil contamination, the biological gases released, etc—and so the smaller the trash heap, the better. Sometimes, when we run out of room at our local landfills, the common procedure is to ship the trash to another location. Two weeks ago, I visited our local Cold Canyon Landfill in my town of San Luis Obispo, CA.  I discovered some of our trash from SanFrancisco is shipped to Nevada and Texas. Some larger cities ship farther to overseas garbage heaps. Though something as far away as a landfill seems not to be our responsibility, it eventually will affect us, or our children in terms of food growing soil and clean water. For the time, an attainable goal is to remove as many items as possible from our waste stream, recycle and reuse as much as possible, and rethink what we create in the first place. Mattresses thrown in landfills are especially problematic because a mattress is not easily compressed like other trash, and therefore takes up a considerable amount of room in our already overflowing landfills. In addition to that, most mattresses are produced with a combination of multiple materials, and treated with flame-retardants and adhesive materials--which can end up leaching into our soil while the mattress is decomposing. Also, trash compactors roll over the trash to pack it down, and some trash compactors have trouble flattening the spring-filled mattress.   

What are some existing solutions to this problem?
Most waste sites have started to charger higher fees in order to discourage people from dropping off their mattress. Often the easiest thing to do is to pay the higher fee, and drop the mattress at the landfill anyway. This response leads me to understand that mattress disposal must be very simple and straightforward; otherwise people will not participate in the process.

An alternative to landfill disposal is to recycle the mattress by deconstructing it and repurposing the raw materials. This is the most useful option, although definitely not the easiest. Though they are not very popular yet, there are mattress specific recycling facilities cropping up.There is one well-respected plant in Canada, and two in California. These sites use large machines that literally chop the mattress apart, separate the materials and sell the raw material back to manufactures (Guilfoil ). There is also one such recycling plant in Eugene, OR and this one processes over350,000 mattresses per month ("Mattress-Recycling Program ReducesWaste.”).

This is a to-be-celebrated step forward, but most of these companies charge the owner a fee to receive the old mattress, (which discourages people from making this decision). Also, although places like this are growing, the process is simply not that popular yet.

Another option to recycle an old mattress is to donate it to a charity or sell it second-hand on craigslist or a similar site. This is generally not advised, as many charities do not accept used mattresses for sanitary reasons. This is understandable; a used mattress may have bed bugs, unsanitary stains, a chance of mold and mildew, and who knows what else. Many stores likeGoodwill or Salvation Army refuse to accept a used mattress (J. Belli). In the last few years, some mattress manufactures have had a policy of taking back old mattresses and“refurbishing” them to sell at a lower rate. This was helpful for people who cannot afford a mattress new, yes. But a new mattress must be treated to be flame retardant, while a used mattress does not undergo this sort of treatment.This causes the used mattress to be an unsafe fire hazard. There is also aFederal Prison in Alexandria, VA that specializes in returning mattress components to other industries for making new products (Bednarek ). Lastly, a small handful of artists and do-it-yourselfers have experimented with repurposing used mattresses into pieces of furniture or artwork installations. While these areall intelligent and useful techniques for recycling used mattresses, I do not think any of these methods are accessible for the everyday mattress owner.Without a simple and easy to understand alternative, to the landfill the mattress goes!

What is my solution?

Considering the disposable issues surrounding current mattress designs, I propose a new sort of mattress: one I am calling the Terra Nova Mattress Mattress (Translated as “New Earth” inLatin). See the attached diagram on the last page that outlines the structural details of this design. Though this bed design is theoretical at this point, I believe this design could be refined into a more practical product, with more time and experimentation. Obviously there are quite a few factors that make up a comfortable bed, and beyond that, there are personal preferences and then beyond that is a “green” understanding of materials and design. For this discussion, I will limit mattress problems to the following list of areas I think could be improved.

1. Less material.  See below typical mattress with springs, box spring layer, and various foams. I think these materials are could be streamlined. The various materials used here each require a different recycling process and are adhered together with various adhesives, and metal parts. 

The Terra Nova Mattress design removes the box mattress and springs and replaces the lower spring based support system with an inflated air mattress made of recycled bike tubes. The air mattress could be easily inflated or deflated with a household bike pump. Also, the material would operate similar to a bike tire, in that it would have a rigid outer layer and inner inflatable layer. This would cut down the risk of the bed being punctured but still allow for adjustable inflation.

2. Better materials.
I found some major mattress manufactures use harsh chemicals in their mattresses such as chemical latex and harmful flame retardants (Guilfoil). Not all mattresses are made with terrible materials, but there are definitely issues with people breathing in harmful chemicals while they sleep. In my search for a better mattress design, I came across a number of “eco-friendly”mattress options, with some improvements. These range from mattress made with green tea to lessen odors, to mattresses without polybrominated diphenylethers, a chemical fire retardant that scientists have linked to health and environmental problems. These mattresses were quite expensive ($1500 and up)and some of the material seemed difficult to understand what it was and why it was special. I suppose this would be another way to sleep on a “green”mattress, but I just see them as mostly being too expensive for the average Joe to purchase.

The materials used in the making of a mattress should be comfortable and safe for the sleeper, yet still strong and durable enough to last about 10 years. In addition, the materials should be simple to put back into the waste disposal stream and be re-used. Balancing these factors is difficult and some mattress manufactures focus on one more than the other. Seethe mattress diagram for detail. Atop the air mattress is a layer of rubberized plant fibers (made from the fibers of a coconut). This material is a particular coconut fiber material I found at a few sites listed as an emerging sustainable option in furniture filler choices. It is officially called Cocolok RubberizedCoconut Fibers. It is currently used in car seats and some mattresses, is spongy and flexible, but firm and durable. ( Following that layer is a layer of natural latex. The natural latex option I found is called Supatex Latex Sheets, available from, the Materials Information Society. The material is biodegradable, recyclable, and renewable (derived from tree sap).  This material is moderately expensive, available mostly in Europe and is currently used for some clothing, upholstery and medical equipment.

Lastly, the mattress is topped with a wool hypoallergenic textured mattress topper. The water-resistant material is very similar to the material used on the Nook Sleep System Pebble Bed ( This material is excellent with its combination of breathability and water resistance. Overall, by cutting down the amount of foam and metal used, there is savings in production cost and in mattress disposal,  all without compromising the comfort of the mattress. Beyond a mattress, I imagine a bamboo wood frame as well (not part of my design project here, but could be another direction to pursue).

3. Easy assembly and disassembly.

If we are to ask people to recycle their mattress, it must be as simple as throwing your bottle in the recycle bin. Experience in recycling programs has shown us that participation in recycling must be easy to understand and do in order for people to be involved.

The Terra Nova Mattress is comprised of layers that attach to one another via a simple button-flap design. The entire mattress is encased in a mattress cover than tucks underneath each corner of the bed. This sort of design allows for easy shipping and assembly. Also, users can adjust the density of the rubberized fiber layer by ordering a thicker or thinner layer here. The entire structure is made stable by buttoning down eachconsecutive layer and topping it with the mattress topper. When the bed is no longer in use, these layers can be separated easily.  My thought was to make each layer detachablein a way that is secure and tight, but also removable when the time comes.

4. Simple disposal system

The bottom layer goes to a bicycle shop where thematerial is reused as bicycle tires.  Iam assuming there are bicyclists in most towns or at least access to someonewho works with bicycle design.  There isa model bicycle reclamation program at Bicycle Trade Association ofCanada. Their website, ( the products that recycled tires are turned into: athletic tracks andsynthetic turf fields; non-slip pavers for patios, walkways and playgrounds;colourful, resilient flooring in recreational facilities; flooring and mats foragricultural and industrial use (eg, for mattresses) ; and asphalt rubber.  A number of fabric reclamation factories existfor the mattress topper, but I am thinking the mattress manufacturer would takecare of those further steps of dividing the product, and the average consumerwould just be responsible in returning the bottom layer to the bike industry.

5. Is easy to clean

One of the big problems with used mattress are thestains. If there were a way to keep mattress more sanitary for a longer time,this would be an improvement. The Terra Nova Mattress features a water-resistantmaterial that is very similar to the material used on the Nook Sleep SystemPebble Bed. The Pebble Bed features a mattress topper that is water resistantyet breathable at the same time. This sort of material sounds ideal to me. Thismaterial is soft and comfortable to be near your face, is hypoallergenic, microberesistant, antifungal, and machine washable if needed (

6. Does not cause allergy attacks

Another common problem with mattresses are theallergies people have in response to the chemical materials used. The mostharmful chemicals are the flame retardant sprays and adhesives used to stickall the mattress parts together. Some problems arise when certain latexes areused as well. With the Terra Nova Mattress, the design is centered aroundnatural materials that do not cause health problems. The materials are close toraw; so little processing has been used. Also, the material closest to yourface is a wool blend, rather than any synthetic material.

7. Is just ascomfortable as a regular mattress

With all this talk of better materials and moresustainable practices, there is a question if this sort of design would becomfortable; a very important factor in a bed! My understanding is that thismattress would be very comfortable and comparable in support and softness toregular mattress. The air mattress design would give solid firm support, andcould be inflated more for a firmer mattress, or deflated for a softer feel.The natural fibers give buoyancy and elasticity, but are also firm and givewith your body weight. The natural latex and wool mattress topper would beextremely soft, giving the bed that “sink into” feeling. The wool materialnaturally wicks away moisture, is cool in the summer and warm in the winter.Also, wool heats to your body temperature and holds heat well.

8. Is customizable

Many beds now feature custom adjustors for each sideof the bed, so bedmates can be independently comfortable according to theirpreferences. My solution to this in the Terra Nova Mattress would be theinternal chambers of the lower air mattress. The mattress could be divided intotwo halves, and each side of the bed would feature an inflation opening. Usingthe household bicycle pump, the mattress could be inflated more or less on eachside. The level of adjustment is locked at a certain level, so the bed does notdeflate entirely on one side, leaving a lopsided bed! Also, the natural fiberlayer is available in various densities, depending on how firm you prefer yourmattress.

9. Is affordable

Of course, price is an important consideration. Mygoal was to make this bed available for middle to lower class families all overthe globe. The naturalized fiber is more available in Europe, depending onwhich plant fibers you use. The Cocolok fiber is from coconut husks, andcoconuts are grown in many tropical areas, so I believe this would be a goodmaterials option on the global scale. Bicycle inner tubes are availableuniversally, and certainly recycling of those materials is available as well.

10. Is available worldwide.

This is a tough standard to reach as materialavailability varies around the world. Of course where one material isprevalent, another material is scarce and vice versa. The materials used here(bicycle rubber, naturalized fiber, natural latex and wool) are pretty readilyavailable and can be used from the raw state. The manufacturing of a productlike this would take machinery that is applicable with various materials, ofcourse.

In conclusion, there ispossibility of avoiding sending a mattress to the landfill! I realize this sortof new mattress design solution still needs quite a bit more work to flesh outif it was brought to reality. But, I think this is a good starting point inconsidering how to lessen our waste disposal stream, and to think differentlyabout what we throw away.

Works Cited

Bednarek, David I. "Mattress Maker Never Rests VerlosRecycling Center Opens New Market." Milwaukee Journal Mar 26 1995:d.3. ProQuest Research Library. 11 Dec. 2011 .

Dear EarthTalk: How can I Recycle My Old Mattress if thePlace I Buy a New One from Doesnt Take it? what do Mattress Companies do withOld Mattresses when they do Take them? do they Recycle any of the Material? --J. Belli, Bridgeport, CT. United States, Westport: Earth Action Network,Inc, 2009. ProQuest Research Library. 11 Dec. 2011 .

Guilfoil, John M. "The Big, Bulky Truth about Beds:Recycling Mattresses and Going

Organic." E : the Environmental Magazine 2008:44-5. ProQuest Research Library. 11 Dec. 2011 .

"Mattress-Recycling Program Reduces Waste." Professional safety 52.12 (2007): 22-. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 7 Dec.2011.

The Materials Information Society, Mtrl: Material aboutMaterial, 2011, ASM International, Accessed Dec 10, 2011

Copyright Nook Sleep Systems™ 2010,  Accessed Dec 11, 2011

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