Recycling a Mattress and Box Spring

There is an interesting psychological element to throwing out giant items. It is one thing to throw away many small pieces of trash, but when you have a whole mattress or box spring, it just seems suddenly like there must be a better answer! I think that’s actually very interesting statement about how we feel about trash, and why it is so easy to not think about trash in a big picture way. I’ll talk about what I did in that blog in a minute, but first let’s paint a picture of how most mattress and box springs end up today in the US.

So at least 20 million mattress and box springs are thrown out every year in the United States or about 50,000 per day. That is a LOT of trash. And here’s the kicker about 85% of the contents of a mattress and its box springs the coils, foam, cotton, wood can be recycled.

The challenge is that mattresses and box springs need to be taken apart into their components to be recycled. That doesn’t happen in most places. Most of the time when you purchase a new mattress, the mattress company takes it away. Most of those companies pay to have the mattresses incinerated or they ship them to states with the least
expensive landfills.

Only three states are doing something more creative California, Connecticut and Rhode Island. In each place, the state charges a fee of about $10 to pay for recycling the old mattress and box spring. Contractors take apart the mattresses, saving a lot of landfill costs. It also provides employment. In January 2017, the program recycled its millionth mattress. Can you imagine how many more would be recycled if this type of legislation was passed in more than 3 states? There are mattress recycling facilities in about 20 states, but only incentive programs in three.

The mattress recycling program is called Bye Bye Mattress, which features a map where you can see places to bring mattresses and box springs in those states. It is managed by the Mattress Recycling Council, which is located less than an hour from my home, but ironically there is not a mattress and box spring recycling program in my state of Virginia.

Another benefit of having coordinated mattress and box spring recycling is that often these programs also help with picking up old mattress & box springs from people’s homes. This reduces the ugly sight of seeing those dumped alongside the road.


Taking apart a mattress to its component parts for recycling

In 2004, I was reading a book called Conscious Style Home by Danny Seo. He describes taking apart a mattress to its component parts for recycling. I found that idea so intriguing – especially the idea that you could fit that mattress into a single garbage bag, once you had recycled all the other components. I wanted to give it a try. My co-worker Erik was throwing out an old mattress and box spring, and he delivered it to my front porch.

It was August in Virginia, definitely not the ideal season to be working hard outside. My daughter was about to turn one, and so she was a handful. But I proceeded to take apart that mattress and box spring on my front lawn (because we don’t have a flat backyard). I had no idea how to do it, but I figured I would experiment.

Step 1: Remove the cord from the edge of the mattress I just pulled hard and it came off. It helps that it was an older mattress, so the fabric gave way easily. Removing the cord from the edge of the mattress
Step 2: Remove the sides from the mattress
Step 3: Pull back the mattress fabric and gather up the fluffy stuff underneath There are a few staples here and there that you will need to snip, and then you will see there is a layer of fluffy stuff just below the outer cover. At the time, I hoped it would compost, and I put some in my composter. But in fact, it did not compost (perhaps it would in an industrial compost instead of my home one) and in fact, a bunch of bees decided to build their home in that stuff, which resulted in lots of drama that I will not discuss here (but thank you to my patient husband for dealing with that). So I recommend not composting that stuff and I think it will go into a bag and be thrown out because it’s pretty nasty stuff.
Step 4: Remove the “coir” layer Under that gross fluffy stuff is a layer of brown stuff that I believe is called “coir” and comes from coconuts. This does break down, and I used it as a weed deterrent in my garden. I layed it in my garden and sprinkled mulch over it. Over time, it disappeared, and I believe it also reduced weeds that summer because it’s like a blanket that allows water through.
Step 5: Bring the metal spring insides to the metal recycling Finally, I was left with the metal springs and the mattress cover. I still have the cover folded up in a box. I have not figured out the perfect project for it. I tried dying it, but it was all synthetic fibers, so it did not take the dye well. It is incredibly sturdy, so I imagine using it as a base for something that needs to be strong. The metal springs would not fit into our car, so my husband and I took it apart by twisting certain connector wires with our pliers. Once it was in 3-4 pieces, we could fit it in the trunk of our car and we took it to metal recycling. I have a few springs I saved because I think they could be very cool candle holders, but the challenge is that the metal gives off some kind of grease when you touch it, so I would need to degrease those things first.
Step 6: Tackle the box spring by removing the staples and plastic corners
Step 7: Pull out as many staples as you can with pliers This was tricep-building work, and the more thorough you are, the more likely you can re-use the wood components.
Step 8: Lift off the wood and metal components Roll up that nasty fluffy stuff again (I think it’s going to the trash – sorry), and prep the metal for the metal recycling. The wood – we ended up using for various random projects around the garden.
Step 9: Take apart the metal components of the box spring Like the metal in the mattress, we needed to break up the box spring metal into smaller chunks for transport to the metal recycling. There were these metal fasteners that we needed to jimmy open with a screwdriver.
Step 10: Get a shower! I do not recommend August in Virginia as the best time or place for this project. But weirdly, I was very pleased to break down that mattress and box spring, so that only a single garbage bag would go to landfill.

Trashmagination, US


Carla Brown hosts Trashmagination, a podcast about reimagining trash and the creative reuse of recycled materials.

A lot of the content focuses on what artists have made from recycled materials. I share their stories so widen our perspectives on what is possible. But I also share ideas for smaller projects many people can do without having any background in art.

I came up with the term “trashmagination” when I heard the quote “Trash is the failure of imagination,” from Aaron Kramer from Urban Objects. It summarizes my belief that we can solve a lot of challenges with imagination.

Main Research Source
Other Reference Links
What have we learnt?
  • Carla found the bed springs or coils – typically the parts to be reused- were covered in grease that she found difficult to remove even with a degreaser.
  • Statistics may vary over the years, but you get the idea: