Reducing Plastic Waste in Beds & Related Packaging - Avoiding the Soft Option

Posted on Posted on 29 Jan 2021

Read a blog from KTN's Richard Cooper on our recent event with the National Bed Federation.

On 3rd December 2020 the UK Circular Plastics Network co-hosted the National Bed Federation’s (NBF) first Green Forum.

 

UKCPN would like to thank the NBF for providing the opportunity to interact with its members and understand some of the challenges in reducing plastic waste within their operations.

 

Following presentations on a variety of sustainability topics in the morning, small break out groups formed in the afternoon to discuss 4 different topics, one of which was about plastic waste and discussions were very interesting and informative from both breakout groups. It was particularly encouraging that many of the participants had already tried out a number of potential solutions within their businesses to reduce plastics waste so there is clearly a desire to be more sustainable. So, what had been tried, what were the challenges and where next?

 

From the discussion, it appears that plastic waste within the manufacturing process has been largely solved. Offcuts from foam mattresses are being ground up and used again, and by working with packaging machine suppliers the amount of plastic wrapping used has been reduced by up to two thirds. Of course, these solutions benefit from having a clean waste stream with little prospect of cross contamination.

 

Once the bedding product has been manufactured there are two further areas to address:

  • The plastic wrapping involved in protecting mattresses during transport, both across the manufacturing supply chain and delivery to the customer.
  • What to do with a mattress at the end of its life.

It was clear, from the relative amounts of time spent discussing each of these, that the more immediate concern is around the plastic wrapping.

 

The amount of plastic used in packaging bedding products is huge and consumers are wanting change. In some cases, this can involve an inner plastic bag, an outer bag and then a cardboard box. This ensures  that customers who are buying mattresses, duvets etc. receive them in the required pristine condition. This also applies to international customers, where the product can be handled more than 8 times before arriving at the end of its journey. And because all products come through a single manufacturing process, the default is to package for the worst-case multiple handling scenario.

 

There are lots of things to take into account when trying to reduce plastic without increasing the amount of faulty/damaged goods and there are several possible solutions:

  • Minimise the thickness of the plastic wrapping used. Many companies have done this where possible, however some retailers specify overpackaging to enable a 1-man delivery to homes. This also needs balancing against the fact that rolled mattresses reduce the carbon footprint for delivery and boxes can help with courier logistics. The correct balance is needed.
  • Companies have changed the polymer mix to include recycled plastics, with 50% recycled reported by the attendees without detriment to the packaging. It was suggested that this solution may be easier to enable further recycling rather than an initial fully recycled wrapping.
  • Compostable plastics have also been used, however there is concern over the integrity of this type of packaging. It was reported that the environment in warehouses can lead to issues before it is delivered to customers, especially after a few months of storage. However, new plastics for wrapping are coming on to the market, which the NBF is highlighting to its members.
  • The final solution discussed was reusable bags which have been trialled by a number of participants without a lot of success. The combination of complicated reverse logistics and lack of reuse of the bags did not make it financially justifiable, as well also potentially increasing the carbon footprint. Indeed, the bags have to be much thicker and usually have handles etc. but then may only be used 3 times due to getting wet, damaged etc. However, removal companies do reuse bags, so what can be learned from them?
  • There is a need to educate customers that the wrapping can be recycled and should be disposed of appropriately. This is dependent on having easy access to collection facilities.

 

Moving on to the mattress itself, some recycling centres do accept them if there is a mattress recycling facility nearby and it was commented that recycling centres need to collaborate across industry to provide clear guidance. In France, there is a country wide scheme, so it is not left to local authorities. Of course, this also requires uses for the reclaimed components to make them have value and it was suggested that this is worth further investigation – “we need to think more broadly”,  for example carpet underlay can be recycled for use under sports pitches.

 

A further issue is around avoiding cross contamination e.g. polyester mixing with cotton causes a problem. Therefore, companies could (and do) try to pick a single material for each part of a multicomponent to enable recycling. In addition, novel adhesives can be used to help at recycling centres to separate out the various components more easily.

 

Recycled polyurethane foams can be used in new products, although the additives can be an issue e.g. fire retardants as they can get into the environment, including the water course. An alternative is to use recycled polyester as no fire retardant is needed and therefore companies are taking used plastic bottles to make bedding products.

 

And so, it is clear from the discussion between the participants that there are many options to reduce plastics that have been tried by NBF members, but in a fragmented way.

 

Is it now time for a more coherent approach, both within the NBF and the wider supply chain? Hopefully this discussion was the start.

 

— Richard Cooper, KTN

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