Putting Our Beds to Bed

On a quiet back street of Sydney I come across an old queen-sized mattress slumping forlornly against a street art-covered wall. It’s clearly been dumped by someone. It’s not a totally unfamiliar sight, but I pull over on my bike anyway to consider it. What will happen to it? Where do old mattresses go to die?

A week earlier I had the chance to find out as I pedalled my way through the Illawarra region south of Sydney.

It was blowing a gale when I pulled up on my bike outside the building. The stormy grey sky created a sombre backdrop for the rough-looking warehouse, but it offered a welcome refuge from the wind and the rain. Taking my wet weather gear off inside the entrance, I found myself in an op shop, filled with secondhand books, clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac.

Soon Stan came out to welcome me and took me into his office, where he provided me with a high vis vest. ‘It won’t take long’ he said as we set off on the tour, chuckling to himself. At first I wondered if he was laughing at me, but I later came to realise he was being modest about the important work he does.

Passing through the op shop and down a corridor, we entered into a large expansive space, filled with piles and piles of mattresses. It was like a child’s dream —once you would have had to restrain me from climbing and jumping on them; now I was more inclined to curl up on one and take a nap. There was also a stack of wooden frames, the skeletons of former mattresses.

Further away I could see a number of workers moving about. Stan asked me not to take any photos of them, saying that some have criminal records, were here for a fresh start, and would prefer to remain anonymous.

An older man of average height, Stan comes across as hardworking and stoical. As we wandered through the space, he told me his story and the story of this place.

Stan used to work in retail, but in 2006 he was hired by the organisation Mission Australia to manage and improve their chain of op shops, including the one at the front of this building. They had a lot of mattresses donated to them, many of which were too old and worn out to be re-sold. Even if they tried to refuse them, they still had old mattresses dumped on their doorsteps and beside their collection bins.

They didn’t know what to do with them all. In the early days they would take them to the landfill, which they had special permission to use for free. But mattresses are terrible to put in the ground, Stan said, as they’re mostly air and cause collapses in the landfill as they deteriorate. Eventually the landfill said: no more mattresses.

They started stripping the mattresses down and taking all the parts to the landfill separately. This worked for a while, but eventually the landfill people wizened up and stopped them doing this as well.

In 2009 they were approached by the local council who were keen to find a way for these mattresses to be recycled and asked if they would take it on as a project. So they launched ‘Soft Landing Mattress Recycling’, starting in this warehouse.

Stan and I reached the entrance of a workshop space where several men were taking mattresses apart, each working separately at their own bench. We watched as they deftly stripped them of their fabric, foam, wadding and felt, leaving only the wooden frame with the mesh of springs attached. I’m told that each worker can dismantle about 45 mattresses a day.

Across from the entrance to the workshop sat a large machine which Stan showed me, saying that they custom built it to remove the springs from the mattress frames. The frames are loaded on, a button is pressed, and a large metal plate slides over and plows into the springs, literally scraping them off. As he was showing me, one of the workers came over and started wrenching the springs off a mattress frame by hand, which looked like a laborious task.

Nearby was a compacting machine, into which the bed springs are put and crushed into blocks, to make them more easily transportable. The resulting blocks of twisted wire sat in a large pile adjacent, bits of fabric still clinging to the metal. ‘This is good quality steel’, Stan said, explaining that it gets sent off to the company Bluescope Steel to be re-furnaced.

Further on were large bales of foam and latex from inside the mattresses, which Stan said are sent to the company Dunlop to be turned into carpet underlay. There were only three bales left, as they’d just had a truck take a load away. Around the corner we watch as workers stuff the material into machines that compact them and turn them into the tied-up bales.

Then there’s the stack of wooden frames I’d seen, which he told me are chipped down to be used as soil mulch. In total, 80% of the materials are recycled. The remaining 20% — the fabric, wadding and felt — goes to landfill, and Stan showed me a large stack of bales of this waste material.

For a while they were sending the felt off to be used in punching bags, but they soon saturated the market — there are only so many punching bags that people will buy. They’ve now partnered with the University of Wollongong who are looking at other ways this waste can be re-used.

In the beginning Soft Landing was doing only 40 mattresses a day, with just this one factory in the Illawarra. They’ve now grown to doing 260,000 mattresses a year, with factories in Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Perth and Canberra. So far they have recycled 942,899 mattresses, diverting from landfill 14,289 tonnes of steel springs, 4,680 tonnes of foam, and 6,565 tonnes of timber. Eventually they’d also like to recycle old sofas in the same way.

They’ve done all this while carrying out one of their core purposes, which is to provide jobs to local people who face barriers to finding work. Stan told me that many of their workers are men who have spent time in prison or identify as indigenous, sometimes both, as well as people with a disability. Most of them have experienced long-term unemployment, but now are paid commercial wages and are provided with opportunities for further education and training.

I asked Stan how they make their money, and he explained that they break even on the foam and latex, but they make a little bit of profit on the steel. It can be unpredictable though, as the price of steel can fluctuate from $200 to $40 a tonne in just a couple of months.

‘You don’t come into this to make money’, he said. With the costs of labour and logistics, things are tight; but they’re a social enterprise so they just need to break even. There used to be other mattress recycling companies, but Soft Landing is the only one to survive.

They’ve also recently got bed suppliers to the table agreeing upon a ‘product stewardship’ scheme, where they’ll each pay a levy to support Soft Landing. The idea is that manufacturers and suppliers should take responsibility for the end-of-life of their products, ensuring they’re able to be recycled. The cost of the levy ends up being passed on to consumers, but Stan believes consumers need to be educated that the price of a mattress should include the cost of recycling it properly.

Stan and I return to his office and I hand him my high vis vest. ‘Ten years ago nobody wanted to know about us’, he said. There seems to be more interest now, and he believes it’s important for people to see what happens to their old mattresses. We said farewell and headed back out into the wind and rain with my bike.

A week later I come across the old mattress leaning against a wall in a back street of Sydney. I give Stan a call and ask him what will happen to it. He says that the owner has likely put it there for the council to collect, having arranged a pickup. When I tell him that it very much looked like it had been dumped, he says that it will eventually be picked up by the local waste management crew, and will still make its way to a Soft Landing factory in the end.

It strikes me as an amazing system that I’ve taken for granted. I find it reassuring to know that our beds will get put to rest properly, with most of their parts given a second life.

A huge thank you to Stan for taking the time to show me around and answer my questions.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?