Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
We need a new mattress for our second bedroom, and my boyfriend wants to buy a used one off Craigslist. Is this icky or eco?
Or so I would have said, before I actually began researching what happens to old mattresses when they die; what I uncovered, however, is way ickier:
Twenty million mattresses, heaved into the trash every year. That's in the United States alone. Here, all those springs and stuffing amount to over 450 million cubic feet of landfill space. Lay out those mattresses end to end though, and they would stretch out over 25,000 miles -- enough to circumnavigate the globe.
If picturing a ring of Posturepedics around the planet isn't enough to make you shudder, then maybe carcinogenic contamination will: Conventional mattresses contain toxic chemicals like flame retardants, formaldehyde, and phthalates, which can leach from the landfill into our drinking water.
Then there's the possibility of polluting our air with even more of these chemicals, since difficult-to-compress mattresses create flammable air pockets that can increase the risk of landfill fires. And let's not forget about the sheer danger, too, for sanitation workers who regularly have to remove these bulky items manually from heavy machinery when the springs and coils get caught.
So maybe your boyfriend's impulse to save a mattress from a landfill death isn't so loathsome, after all? As a friend who works in the hospitality industry recently pointed out, anyone who's ever stayed a night in a hotel (whether it's a Holiday Inn or the Four Seasons) has shared a bed with thousands of others before him. What's the big deal about sleeping on a mattress that had one previous owner?
Simply put: bed bugs. The age-old childhood bedtime caution, "Don't let the bed bugs bite!" has now become a nationwide epidemic; infestations of the blood-sucking pests have become so widespread that the Environmental Protection Agency has gotten involved. (It hosted its Second National Bed Bug Summit this past February.)
While bed bugs aren't known to spread disease, they can plague those afflicted with intensely itchy bites and the bloodstained fecal mess they leave in their wake. Because they're so insidious -- surviving up to 18 months in the tiny cracks of wood furniture without so much as a morsel -- many eradication experts recommend steering clear of secondhand furniture like upholstered chairs and wood dressers altogether, let alone used mattresses and box springs.
If you have a high squeamish factor and still wish to buy pre-owned, examine the mattress carefully for the telltale signs of infestation, and place it in a protective encasement before you bring it into your home.
(Beware, by the way, those "new" mattresses that are advertised on Craigslist. According to green living expert Danny Seo, those may be old curbside mattresses masquerading as new, thanks to the addition of a fresh fabric cover and a layer of shrink wrap.)
But I say the risk of buying a used mattress isn't worth it. If you do wind up with bed bugs and they spread to your other belongings, you'll be sending more stuff to the landfill than just your mattress.
Then, too, there are the chemicals that may have to be used in your home by a professional pest management company to eradicate the insects. (DIY pest control isn't recommended, since it can make bed bugs spread.) Is there a trusted friend or family member who could hand down a mattress instead?
Your best option: Invest in a high-quality mattress made from natural and biodegradable materials. One company, Essentia, makes its petroleum- and VOC-free memory foam mattresses from natural latex, a renewable resource that comes from the rubber tree plant. Shepherd's Dream wool mattresses are designed to last decades, and can even be sent back to the company for refurbishing.
Not surprisingly, these come with a higher-than-average price tag. But when you consider that a conventional spring mattress needs to be replaced every five to seven years, you may decide that the long-term investment (for you and the planet) is worth it.
Of course, we can't close a conversation about buying a new (or new-used) mattress without discussing what to do with your old one. You wouldn't know it, based on how many of them are kicked to the curb, but old mattresses can, in fact, be recycled.
If, on Earth911.com or this list here you can't find a recycling facility near you, donate the mattress to someone who really needs it, via The Salvation Army or Freecycle. Just make sure your offering is free of bed bugs; no one wants to reuse a batch of those.