TIC Mattress Recycling putting waste to bed
By Patrick Lau, Wednesday 18 October 2017
More than a million mattresses go to landfill in Australia each year. Pile them on top of one another, according to TIC Mattress Recycling, and you could climb to the International Space Station. With those volumes, you'd expect serious efforts towards tackling the problem. But recycling mattress is no easy matter. It's traditionally been done manually, a procedure that's labour-intensive and can expose workers to toxic dust and cutting hazards.
So it's no surprise that their plant featuring state-of-the-art, automated processing machinery has garnered TIC Mattress Recycling a nomination for the Victorian Premier's Sustainability Awards. The TIC Group has
been providing inventory, supply chain and logistics solutions for more than two decades, but a mattress recycling initiative is fresh territory for them - and it's pretty groundbreaking stuff for Australia, too. For Michael Warren, it's also meant a career change.
Warren, a former commercial lawyer and now MD of TIC Mattress Recycling, came into the industry through an appropriately roundabout route. After working on a case that involved a giant shredder, a bankruptcy, and 40,000 unclaimed mattresses sitting in a warehouse, Warren was drawn into resource recovery. The mattresses were the backlog of a company that had gone broke by processing them by hand. "Their methods of operation were unstable", says Warren, "because the labour costs were so high, coupled with OHS issues". Clearing the stack "10 or 12 metres high... it was going to cost a million dollars... to have the mattresses removed and placed into landfill".
When his client began looking into more efficient recycling alternatives, the project ballooned into something much larger. But, with a dearth of Australian infrastructure and know-how, their initiative could have stalled at that early stage. The team connected with TIC Group, whose similar experiences in handling supply chains of garment hangers for retailers were critical. They also travelled to the Netherlands during the R&D stage, investigating the machinery at RetourMatras. The technology then had to be adapted to suit the Australian market, a process that took six months.
"60% of all mattresses sold in Holland are foam, and are very easy to deconstruct", says Warren. "The plant processes them like a hot knife through butter. They just go one after the other; every 30 to 40 seconds you're deconstructing a mattress... you just place them on a conveyor, they come out the other end and the foam is baled, and the textile is baled."
"The challenges we have are that only less than 10% of the mattresses sold in Australia are foam, and 90% are made with either inner springs or bell-top springs or pocket springs; much harder to deconstruct." But with modifications to machinery, TIC is now able to process Australian mattresses at a decent clip. A team of four can process up to 500 in a day; a forklift will load a stack of eight mattresses into the machine, and two handlers will remove foam by hand. But between delivery and finished product, all other handling is done by conveyor belt.
In current conditions, their plant can return around 80% of a mattress to usable product. Steel from springs is then sent to aggregators; the foam is is mixed with virgin material and used to manufacture carpet underlay, as is the textile in Victoria. Polyesters and a multitude of small-volume materials are currently unable to be recovered in Australia, although Warren has high hopes that a waste-to-energy industry in the country will soon be in place to receive those materials.
Collecting the feedstock is another story. Only a third of Australian mattresses are recycled, and council hard waste collections still form a major part of TIC's feedstock. Transfer stations, where residents deposit their mattresses and pay a gate fee, are another source. A third collection method is currently getting underway, in the form of a national product stewardship
The scheme, launched in conjunction with social enterprise Soft Landing as well as leading manufacturers and retailers, should drastically improve collection rates and efficiency. It should also help cut
down on wet or compacted mattresses, which are near-impossible to process. "The area we believe there's significant growth", says Warren, "is retailers. The idea is that mattress retailers will offer a take-back arrangement to a customer when they buy a new mattress". "They'll be brought back to the DC [distribution centre] or the mattress retailer and we'll collect them and recycle them. The idea ultimately is to avoid mattresses going onto the kerbside which will help the councils, the ratepayers".
It's obvious that the TIC plant represents a new attitude to mattress recycling in Australia; one that's pragmatic as well as environmentally conscious. "We're all very passionate about it, but it is a commercial enterprise. We're expecting to make a significant return on investment," says Warren. "In Victoria and Melbourne we've reached a critical mass. In terms of volumes we're recycling... at the moment around 10,000 mattresses a month. So we're collecting and processing over 2000 mattresses a week."
Although it's early days, TIC Mattress Recycling's position as an innovator and as a technological leader is already firmly established.The nomination for the Victorian Premier's Sustainability Awards is a recognition of the enormous progress that their plant represents, but there's still plenty of room to grow in the sector.
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