How to be eco-friendly when buying a new mattress.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 5 2009 6:43 AM

To Sleep, Perchance More Green

How to be eco-friendly when buying a new mattress.

What's the greenest mattress? Click image to expand.
What's the greenest mattress?

I'm in the market for a new mattress. Last time I bought one, it seemed as if my only options were soft, medium, and firm. But now that my Sleepy's is full of soy foam and organic cotton and green tea-infused pillows, I'm concerned that my bed has a bigger footprint than I thought. How can I be a more responsible mattress shopper?

It's unsurprising, if a little odd, that green marketing has come to the world of mattresses. A mattress may be a big-ticket consumer item—in 2006, the median price for a queen-size mattress was $650—but unlike refrigerators or cars, its carbon footprint is negligible. Still, eco-sales pitches are prevalent in the mattress market, with just about every major manufacturer having rolled out some kind of "green" product in the last few years. That may result from the relative weakness of brand identity—the Lantern adores her current bed but can barely remember where she bought it, let alone who made it. In that kind of environment, manufacturers have a particular interest in trumpeting anything that makes their products unique. (Witness the $60,000 handcrafted Swedish horsehair bed or the aloe vera mattress cover that promises to turn "back the clock on the effects of aging on the skin.")

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One way mattress makers are trying to reduce their footprints—and attract environmentally conscious shoppers like you—is by reducing their reliance on nonrenewable resources. Most mattresses contain petroleum-based foam made from either polyurethane or synthetic latex, which is used either as cushioning shell around a traditional metal innerspring or as a stand-alone mattress filler. Polyurethane manufacturers are experimenting with vegetable oils—primarily soy but also castor bean—though a 100 percent replacement isn't possible yet. Latex foam makers, in turn, are swapping some or all of their synthetic content for natural, tree-tapped latex.

Some companies forgo foam completely, instead filling their mattress cores with cotton and wool. Wool gets a thumbs-up from many environmentally minded folks, because it's naturally fire-resistant, which can eliminate the need for chemical flame retardants. (An endless debate rages among green consumers about the safety of various mattress components, although, as the New York Times reported in January, there's wide dissension about whether, and to what extent, these chemicals and textiles pose a danger to consumers.)

Even though lessening our dependence on petroleum is a laudable goal, however, agriculturally based products can still translate into plenty of fossil fuels used to manufacture fertilizer and run farm equipment. And there may be other, hidden impacts to your fresh-from-the-farm mattress: The booming global market for soy, for example, has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon, and similar trends are being seen in Asia with regards to natural latex. And as the Lantern discussed in a previous column, both wool and cotton have their own environmental downsides—in the form of methane emissions and heavy nitrogen fertilizer use, respectively. (Going organic helps avoid the fertilizer issue.)

So if you're serious about choosing a sustainable mattress, you're going to have to do your homework to find out where its constituent parts come from. This can be difficult, given how complex the supply chain can be, but a company that's truly committed to being eco-friendly should be as transparent as possible. Bedding industry groups are beginning to establish green standards and certification programs, but it's probably going to be a few years before those really hit the market—so until then, caveat dormitor.

When all is said and done, though, the greenest thing you can do ends up being pretty simple: Choose a mattress that you're going to keep for a long time. Because one thing is clear—mattresses do not go gentle into that good night.

A life cycle analysis (PowerPoint) conducted in the late 1990s for the European Union's Ecolabel program looked at four kinds of mattresses: a traditional innerspring with polyurethane padding; a half-natural, half-synthetic latex foam mattress; an all-polyurethane foam mattress; and a "Scandinavian-style" bed, consisting of a wooden base with an innerspring mattress and a mattress pad. Though no single type emerged as the clear environmental winner, the biggest impacts for each were seen in the final waste phase.

Here in the United States, some 20 million to 30 million mattresses and boxsprings end up in the trash every year. * Not only do they take up a lot of space in our landfills; the metal springs are hard to compress and often jam up compacting equipment. From an end-of-life perspective, then, foam mattresses seem better than the innerspring variety. They're also said to last longer than their innerspring cousins, further boosting their eco-cred. But not everyone likes the sensation of sleeping on a foam bed—some people find that they get uncomfortably warm, particularly the denser ones—so, again, choose the one that feels most comfortable to you.

As you're fretting about the purchase of your new mattress, spare a thought for the fate of your old one. First, unless it's broken or bug-infested, try to find a new home for it. Otherwise, look for a mattress recycler in your area—try the search engine at Earth911.com—or ask your retailer whether it has a take-back program. (Be sure that they plan on recycling it, though, and not just shipping it to a landfill.) Theoretically, at least, mattresses are almost entirely recyclable. Steel springs can be melted down and reused; polyurethane and latex foam can be chipped up and turned into carpet insulation. Wood in the foundation can be remade into particleboard or used as a fuel source. One recycling firm estimates that recycling a single mattress saves 23 cubic feet of landfill space and recovers up to 65 pounds of material. But since the cost of collecting, disassembling, and then processing mattresses can often outstrip the resale value of the constituent parts, you should be prepared to shell out some coin in order to offset the costs and send your bed to a better place.

You could even go a step further and think about getting a secondhand bed yourself, especially if you don't think you'll keep a new one for the full 10 to 20 years it might otherwise last. Obviously you should be cautious when buying used furniture—particularly when it comes to funky critters like bedbugs—but what could make for a sweeter rest than knowing you're sleeping in a 100 percent recycled bed?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Correction, May 6, 2009: The original sentence stated that 40 million mattresses end up in the trash every year. Roughly 40 million mattresses and boxsprings are sold every year, but only an estimated 50 percent to 70 percent of these units—i.e., 20 million to 30 million—replace old ones. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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