We need a research and innovation fund for bulky waste

Written by: Nick Oettinger | Published:
Nick Oettinger of The Furniture Recycling Group

In June, the government announced plans for a £20 million fund aimed at developing a more sustainable end of life process for plastics.

The Plastics Research and Innovation Fund will focus on reducing the environmental impact of plastics manufacturing processes by finding new innovations to put in place instead, moving the UK towards a circular economy.

The news comes following the announcement of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan at the start of this year, which placed its focus firmly on plastic waste and explored the idea of injecting funding into plastic innovation.

In recent months, government has banned microplastics, confirmed plans for plastic bottle deposit schemes and proposed a ban on plastic straws and stirrers. A new waste and recycling strategy is expected to be announced this year, as well as a plan to change the tax system to incentivise more resource efficient business models. The focus of these are still under wraps, however it’s likely plastics will loom large in the plans.

While this is all undoubtedly great news, and both consumers and producers are definitely taking a step in the right direction, there still hasn’t been any movement towards tackling the bigger, bulkier waste, such as mattresses.

The disposal of mattresses has become a huge problem, and mattress recycling in this country is woefully insufficient. Over seven million mattresses go to landfill each year in the UK, which is enough to fill Wembley Stadium five times over. While landfill tax is increased every year as a deterrent to stop people from sending so much bulky waste to landfill, landfill is still currently a cheaper option than recycling.

Landfill crisis

The government need to grasp the fact that landfill capacity in the UK is reaching crisis point, and the only way to deal with this is to expand their focus on recycling to include all types of waste.

For example, it was estimated in 2010 that the UK would run out of landfill sites by 2018, and while that hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves in a situation where we’re left with hundreds, possibly thousands, of mattress mountains.

However, it’s not just a case of government enforcing legislation that dictates that the ever growing pile of mattresses are directed towards recyclers, as this will only shift the problem to become recycler’s responsibility, and cause a larger crisis as many recyclers already struggle to find space and time to deal with mattresses effectively.

Pocket-spring-based mattresses are the most problematic for recyclers as they consist of between 1,000 and 10,000 single springs each wrapped inside a polypropylene pocket. The only way of recycling pocket springs is to manually separate each spring from the pocket with a knife, which is incredibly time-intensive and commercially unviable.

Many recyclers can become overwhelmed by the task at hand when it comes to mattresses, with the end result being huge stacks of mattresses being dumped in landfill or left in warehouses across the UK. It’s also a lot cheaper and easier for recyclers themselves to send these types of mattresses to landfill. So, we need a solution.

New solutions

I believe the solution is innovation. With a commitment to research and development we can create more efficient solutions that allow us to deal with these bulky waste streams.

In a bid to tackle the landfill crisis, here at The Furniture Recycling Group (TRG), we’ve prioritised our focus towards research and development and are continually investing our time and resources into developing groundbreaking systems to make the recycling of mattresses more viable and much more efficient.

In 2016, we launched a world-first, patented automated pocket spring mattress recycling machine. Usually, a single mattress can take over half a day to deconstruct by hand.

With our machine, the pocket springs of a mattress can be dismantled and separated in just 2.5 minutes. But even with the pocket spring machine reducing the time it takes to recycle mattresses, there are still a number of lengthy steps involved in the mattress recycling process.

Another barrier for mattress recyclers is the cost of transportation to a mattress recycling facility. There are two issues currently. Firstly, the cost of using the large trucks or trailers required to transport mattresses is very high when high volumes of mattresses need to be transported, which puts many organisations off the idea of sending their mattresses to us for recycling.

The second issue is the cost to the environment. With the UK’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by 34 per cent by 2021, we couldn’t allow our own processes to have such a deep carbon footprint.

We have designed and prototyped what we believe to be a revolutionary system that will allow a standard 40ft trailer, which ordinarily carries 90 mattresses, to carry 600 mattresses, meaning a significant reduction in transportation costs and vastly increasing the viability of mattress recycling throughout the country.

We’re making good progress, but as one recycler we can only do so much. Investment in a government led Research and Innovation Fund for bulky waste like mattresses would not only help us to get to the end result quicker, but could also allow us to explore alternative options further.

Additionally, while we are in a position where we are able to invest our time, resources and money into focusing on research and development, not every mattress recycler can afford to. Giving support to other organisations can only help to speed up the process of dealing with this increasingly pressing problem.

No one is denying the current focus on recycling plastic is good, and it shows that we are making progress. But with the government focus appearing to lie solely on plastic, little attention is being paid to the mounting crisis of bulkier waste.

The longer this issue is ignored, the higher those piles of mattresses are going to become. To ensure we don’t end up in a mattress mountain situation, we desperately need a Research and Innovation Fund that covers all types of waste, including bulky waste.

Nick Oettinger is managing director of The Furniture Recycling Group

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