A circular mattress, anyone? IKEA may have it for you
We spend about a third of our lives sleeping or trying to sleep. It's no wonder that finding the right mattress for your bed is a vital task. But most mattresses need to be discarded at some point. Where do they go? Primarily to landfills or gets incinerated, and that's pretty obvious. What's not apparent is that we waste foam produced from fossil fuels. IKEA wants to use the foam found in discarded mattresses and reduce waste. A pilot is currently going on doing precisely this, helping create a circular mattress.
It happened almost 22 years ago, but Caroline McGarvey remembers it like it was yesterday. It was her first job at IKEA, and she was working as a business developer in the UK, looking after the sofa and mattress business. A few days later, she visited a mattress producer, and the visit left her with a memory that's fresh in her mind even today.
"Really?! Wow," she still remembers her reaction. On that day, Caroline saw foam being produced right in front of her eyes for the first time.
"Foam is a physical form of chemicals, and these chemicals are baked, just like a bread is," shares Caroline McGarvey, Material & Innovation Area Manager at IKEA.
Foam is a physical form of chemicals, and these chemicals are baked, just like bread is.
Caroline keeps the memory with her because most people react pretty much the same way whenever she tells them what foam is. Even though most of us are quite familiar with it, foam is a bit of a mystery.
Caroline's decades of knowledge and experience with foam came in handy about four years ago. It was then that IKEA decided to start a project in the Netherlands to recycle foam from discarded mattresses as part of its journey towards developing circular mattresses and reducing foam ending up in landfills.
Finding comfortable solutions in discarded mattresses
Last year, IKEA sold about 12.4 million mattresses and cares for them – while creating new ones as well as when they turn old with use.
IKEA is committed to creating a better every day through the products and solutions offered. Mattresses are a big part of our everyday life because a good night's sleep is vital for our physical and emotional well-being.
But the higher the usage, the bigger the waste. Millions of mattresses are discarded every year the world over and go to landfills or be incinerated, releasing toxic fumes in the air.
Picture this - over 40 million mattresses are discarded every year in the European Union alone, according to industry estimates. Pile them up, and you will create the tallest mountain!
These numbers are not lost on IKEA.
But it's not just about discarded mattresses. Almost half of the material used in many of the mattresses is foam, which is conventionally made from virgin fossil fuel, a non-renewable and depleting resource on Mother Earth. Most foams are not biodegradable and contain chemicals that can seep into the soil.
"Synthetic foams are fossil-based and don't meet our IKEA long-term objective to use renewable or recycled materials," says Caroline.
IKEA has committed to phasing out less sustainable products and materials and introducing alternatives. The brand wants to transform into a circular business only using recycled or renewable raw materials by 2030. Hence, IKEA is replacing virgin raw materials made from fossil fuels, such as foam in mattresses.
"Since 2015, we have been producing foam mattresses with recycled content, which means that the foam waste from the production is chemically recycled into polyol to produce new foam. We take care of the foam leftovers from production by reusing them as filling material after cutting them into smaller pieces. Recycling and recovering foam prevent foam from going into landfills or being incinerated, possibly leading to air pollution," says Caroline.
Taking steps towards creating a circular mattress
Over the last four years, IKEA has been on a journey to decrease virgin fossil-based materials in its foam for mattresses and develop foam solutions centred around recycled materials.
The focus now is on having a solution for using foam from post-consumer mattresses. Hence, IKEA is running a pilot that uses foam from post-consumer or discarded mattresses to create polyol, a key ingredient for making foam, to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels.
Polyurethane foam, a form of flexible foam used for mattresses, typically has two main components - polyols (about 60 - 65 per cent, depending on the target foam density) and isocyanates (about 30 - 35 per cent), besides water, blowing agents, catalysts, and others. The components react with each other and form a foam block. The composition varies from company to company and is almost like a secret recipe for creating foams.
Today, some parts of the polyols can be replaced by natural oil polyols from renewable sources such as soy, castor oil, and rapeseed. The percentage, however, is limited to around 13 per cent of the final material for now, and the remaining polyol continues to be generated from fossil fuels.
In the project currently underway in the Netherlands, foam from discarded mattresses is used to make recycled polyols to create new foam for mattress production while meeting the same product requirements as virgin fossil-based foam.
The target for 2025 is a minimum of 20 per cent recycled and/or renewable content in the polyols used in foam production, which would make about 13-15 per cent renewable or recycled content in the total foam. The preliminary results of the pilot indicate that this target range is achievable.
"The goal is to increase the percentage of recycled polyol. In fact, with the technology we are using now, we can go as high as replacing 50 per cent of the virgin polyol with recycled for PU foams with loading applications and even much higher replacement for non-loading foam applications," says Jose Naraval, Material & Technology Engineer at IKEA.
IKEA has decided to fix it at 20 parts as using too much recycled polyol in the foam leads to the loss of its recovery properties. However, recycled polyol technology is quickly evolving, and we may soon find better solutions to this challenge, says Jose.
The project is in the final stages now, where the testing of the product is going on to ensure it meets all IKEA requirements.
Once implemented, it can open the way for a circular business model for mattresses at IKEA. The foam created through recycled polyol is no different from the one created using virgin fossil-based polyol for durability and comfort.
Caroline, Jose and the team are hopeful that it will not be long before the first mattress with post-consumer recycled foam filling meets customers in the IKEA store.
"The disassembly process where everything comes apart is quite automated, but not 100 per cent. And this is a general challenge that we and the industry have faced with recycling – how to sort between different colours, material qualities, blends and erstwhile chemicals," says Caroline.
According to estimates, mattresses should be replaced every six to eight years under normal conditions. This means people will discard mattresses.
Hence, IKEA has also innovated with the new range of mattresses by focusing on reducing foam consumption whilst also increasing quality and comfort. The new VESTERÖY, for example, is constructed with more springs, with nearly 50 per cent less foam compared with its forerunner HÖVÅG, while keeping the high level of quality for comfortable sleep.
All this for a good night's sleep – on a mattress that's good for you and the environment.
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