We’re in the camp that the world would be a little more peaceful if everyone slept better and that the right mattress can play a major role in your quality of life. A good night’s sleep on the right mattress can help reset your mind and realign your back after hours of Zoom meetings, not to mention your bed’s role as a comfy place to snuggle up and watch hours of Friends.
But besides picking a mattress with the right size and level of firmness, what if we also chose mattresses based on their environmental and social footprints?
I mean, yeah, that foam mattress-in-a-box seems convenient, but would you really want to sleep on it if you knew all of the chemicals that it contains? Would you want to sleep on it if you heard that the people who made it weren’t paid a living wage? We sleep well at night knowing that when we must make a purchase, we do so armed with the knowledge to make the best decision for ourselves, the planet, and society.
The mattress industry has been totally disrupted in the past ten years and we’re here for all of the new choices and price-points that disruption has brought with it. New mattress companies have also brought with them new norms — it’s now standard across the industry to offer return windows spanning from 100-days to one year and, in many cases, free door-to-door delivery and/or pick-up is also provided. This makes it more convenient to not only get a new mattress, but also makes it extremely convenient and cheap for people to get rid of mattresses.
To give you an idea of the scale of our mattress-disposal habits, it is estimated that over 20 million mattresses and box springs are disposed of every year in the U.S. alone, with the majority ending up in a landfill. That equates to about 450 million pounds of waste annually (the weight of about 1,000 Statues of Liberty) and 100 million cubic feet of landfill space (the volume of over 240,300 Toyota Prius cars). If you lined up all the discarded mattresses and box springs each year end-to-end, then you could circle the earth at least once.
There are some organizations, like the Mattress Recycling Council, that are trying to prevent this type of waste from happening — they have recycled 6 million mattresses, diverting 214 million pounds of material from landfills, since 2015. But, while the MRC is doing great work, we could prevent a lot more waste if we closed the loop on mattress production. In the meantime, we could all try to get mattresses that last a long time and that we’re proud to sleep on.
HERE ARE A FEW THINGS TO HELP YOU FIND THE BEST MATTRESS FOR YOU:
Your mattress’s material components are super important and can tell you a lot about its environmental impact. Below is a breakdown of the most common materials.
Good news: not all latex is bad! Natural latex is made from the sap of rubber trees, which is whipped into a froth, poured into molds, and baked into layers. Rubber trees can produce sap for more than 20 years and don’t need to be cut down during sap collection. This is great news for the health of the trees and the soil, since the longer a tree remains in the ground, the more nutrients the tree can absorb and the soil can retain. We are huge proponents of natural latex for its supportive, durable, and naturally antimicrobial properties.
On top of that, the rubber tree sequesters, or removes, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere throughout its life, so it has a positive impact on our environment. This all makes natural latex a pretty great option compared to its most common alternative, polyurethane foam, which is made of petroleum and requires a ton of energy to produce. While natural latex itself is a low-impact material, it sometimes is mixed with synthetic foam or harsh chemicals.
The most common chemicals found in mattresses are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can come from polyurethane foam and flame retardants. VOCs can be emitted from your mattress in gas form and cause headaches and respiratory irritation, which sounds pretty gross and uncomfortable. To avoid these nasty additives, look for latex mattresses with a Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) certification. GOLS certifies social and environmental standards across the entire supply chain so you can rest assured that everyone who worked on your mattress did so in safe conditions free of harmful chemicals, and that your mattress contains at least 95% organic raw material.
What do all memory foam mattresses have in common? The answer is polyurethane foam, a nasty chemical-based foam that, as mentioned above, can contain VOCs and flame retardants. That’s right, memory foam mattresses of all price-points, from Tempur-Pedic, to Casper, to AmazonBasics, all share the same main component…and it’s not something you want to sleep on.
While people who sleep on memory foam mattresses have reported experiencing irritation and even allergic reactions from VOCs, the factory workers who make the mattresses suffer far more from the nastiness of these chemicals. There’s a particularly harmful chemical found in foam furniture adhesives called n-propyl bromide, or nPB, which is known to cause severe nerve damage when inhaled at low levels over long periods.
Workers in factories that use nPB have suffered for years of symptoms ranging from mild brain fog to crippling nerve damage. If you’re going to buy a memory foam mattress, it’s super important to look for certifications that test for and guarantee these harmful chemicals aren’t present.
At the very least, a polyurethane foam mattress should have a CertiPUR-US certification, which guarantees that the foam used in the mattress does not contain harmful chemicals and VOCs.
Unfortunately, because CertiPUR-US only tests the foam component of mattresses (rather than the entire mattress), it doesn’t guarantee that every part of the mattress is free of harmful chemicals.
The most rigorous certifications to look for are STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX and GREENGUARD Gold. These certs require every component of the mattress to be tested before it can carry the certification labels.
According to MADE SAFE, organic wool is among the healthiest mattress components. Wool is known for its natural temperature regulation, absorption, and durability. It is also naturally hypoallergenic and doesn’t require additional flame retardants.
The wool industry, however, is not free from scandal and horror stories of animal cruelty. Industrial operations used by large-scale wool producers are also known to overgraze their sheep, leading to land degradation and soil erosion. If you’re going to choose a wool mattress, it’s important to look for certifications like the Responsible Wool Standard or Wool Integrity NZ that ensure ethical treatment of sheep and responsible grazing practices.
When it comes to mattress’s fabric components, organic cotton is our favorite. If you’re looking at mattresses made with organic cotton, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most rigorous certification, ensuring compliance with strict social and environmental standards across the entire supply chain.
For conventional cotton, OEKO-TEX certifications ensure that the product does not contain chemicals detrimental to human health. Overall, you can rest easier on a mattress made with a plant-based material such as cotton compared to a petroleum-based alternative such as polyester.
We love mattresses made out of plant-based materials like natural latex, wool, and cotton. Bonus points if the mattress stacks up against the rigorous certification programs we’ve talked about.
According to the EWG, the healthiest mattresses contain no less than 95% organic content, have a low-VOC certification and are free of polyurethane foam, chemical flame retardants, fragrances, antimicrobials, PVC, and vinyl.
The GOTS and GOLS certifications are the most rigorous when it comes to ensuring that your mattress adheres to the above recommendations. If you’re not going for a GOTS or GOLS certified mattress, we encourage you to look for STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX, GREENGUARD Gold, or CertiPUR-US. Note: no mattress has all of these certifications (at least not yet!), so one or two should help you rest a bit easier.
Most mattresses last at least 10-15 years. You can help keep them out of the landfill by hanging on to the one you’ve already got for as long as possible. If you have a foam-based mattress and are worried about the chemicals it may contain, check in with the company you bought it from to see if it has any certifications to put your mind at ease. If you have’t experienced side effects of VOC off-gassing from foam such as morning headaches and respiratory irritation, the best thing you can do is stick with your current foam mattress and replace it when necessary.
The best way to keep your mattress out of the landfill is by taking good care of it. Using a mattress protector is a great insurance policy for when accidents and spills happen, and it will reduce the build-up of dust, debris, and allergens.
We also recommend washing your sheets every one to two weeks to keep your bed clean and free of bacteria. Rotating your mattress is super annoying, but we promise an evenly-broken-in mattress is worth the hassle. If you’re lucky enough to have a source of sunlight in your bedroom (not all New Yorkers are), remove your sheets every few months and let the sun shine on your mattress to air it out.
Once it’s time to get rid of your mattress, look into mattress recycling or donation programs to ensure your mattress is properly recycled, disposed of, or re-used. We recommend Donation Town and Furniture Bank for donations.
For recycling in California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, the Mattress Recycling Council will take care of you. For all other states, check out local recycling options through Bye Bye Mattress and Earth 911.
We’ll keep dreaming of the day when a functioning widespread recycling solution for mattresses becomes a reality.