Experts debate role of EPR in improving circularity of mattresses

Industry experts debate the need for extended producer responsibility (EPR) and ways to improve the circularity in mattress production. There is a need for the whole supply chain to work together for the circular economy to work, experts have agreed. Swaliha Shanavas reports.

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April 5 2021
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As businesses and society continue to realise the crucial need to integrate eco-friendly practices and priorities such as CSR initiatives and more effective waste disposal, there remains a question of who should be responsible for the product once it reaches its end of life. Often, the answer for many businesses is that the responsibility of the proper disposal lies with the consumer, with very little accountability for the producers regarding the product lifecycle. However, in recent years, there has been a change in approach with the introduction of EPR in many parts of the world and the accountability falling back on the manufacturers and distributors at least in certain segments. At the recently held panel discussion organised by Sleep Expo Middle East, experts examined the need for EPR and ways to improve the circularity of mattresses.

Regarding the EPR schemes and acceptance in specific regions, Frederik Lauwaert, Managing Director, European Bedding Industries Association (EBIA) said it was a central topic at present in the European Union. “There is the Green Deal, circular economy action plans and more recently the sustainable products initiatives that will lead to some legislative proposals before the end of the year on sustainability of products,” he said.

The European Commission (EC) has also in the past stated that EPR schemes are efficient for waste management. The sustainable products initiatives launched by the EC aims at making products more sustainable and increasing recycled content. “And here furniture including mattresses are considered as a priority product, so there is a lot of pressure in the market related to EPR schemes. It is in this regard we had published a state-of-play study on where we are in different countries on EPR schemes. This is an important topic, and we see an increase in pressure from EU authorities, both national and regional.”

In India, certain EPR schemes are slowly being introduced and the government has laid certain guidelines, but there is no law, said Sundaresan Srinivasan, Secretary, Indian Sleep Products Federation (ISPF). ISPF has proactively taken many steps over the last few months, he said, adding that they have conducted several seminars and workshops considering two important factors. “First, we need to take care of the planet. Secondly, about 20 million units of mattresses are being produced annually and we want to see at least half the amount reprocessed or reused in due course. Keeping in view the material usage, various valuable materials should be recaptured and reused.” These are two major objectives and they are also raising awareness on these issues, with all stakeholders showing keen interest and commitment to this initiative, he added.

With specific reference to Middle East and Africa, Lucie Porcelli, Dow Chemical Business Sustainability Leader EMEAI argued that it might be a bit early to debate EPR schemes. “But we already see a great effort from the foam producers in the region who are constantly looking to improve and are making mechanical recycling of polyurethanes more acceptable on a large scale. Mechanical recycling has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is important that we encourage more and more of such recycling to take place, because it generates value for the mattress manufacturers and helps avoid sending the material to the landfill,” she commented.

“That said, I think there will be a need and an appetite in the region for the introduction of EPR schemes. We believe EPR can become a viable and transparent way to ensure sufficient and focused funding to develop the waste management systems in the future,” Porcelli stated. Discussing their study carried out by an independent consultant on EPR schemes in various EU countries to learn about the market conditions, state of play of EPR schemes and risks and opportunities related to such schemes, Lauwaert said they were aware of two EPR schemes that are at present mandatory on the EU market, and that many countries are deliberating on implementing one as well.

“We know that France has quite an extensive experience with EPR scheme. Eco-Mobilier has been active already for seven or eight years. From the experience in France, we see that one advantage of mandatory EPR scheme is that it has led to the expansion of dismantling sites. It is quite an important thing and there are 7 dismantling sites in the country. In France it is claimed that 70-75 percent of mattresses are recycled, and half of this is recovered as material while the rest goes to energy recovery,” noted Lauwaert. Based on the figures, he said 85 percent of all household mattresses are being collected, while in the past a vast majority went to landfill. So, it has had an impact at least on collecting old mattresses, he added.

In India, ISPF is conducting a pilot study, said Srinivasan. They plan to have a trial in five cities where specific companies will collect the materials and send it to appropriate recycling centres “with all hygiene and protective measures in place so that there is no contamination,” he stated. More importantly, he said, they were trying to raise awareness among consumers on various aspects including the right disposal methods.

Highlighting the importance of collaboration, Porcelli said Renuva mattress recycling programme was a good example of collaboration across the whole value chain. Renuva is looking to chemically recycle polyurethanes foam from post-consumer mattresses in collaboration with the value chain. “The EPR schemes in France is one of the reasons why Renuva is happening today in that country, because it normally takes a long time to identify the sources of waste material.”

She also touched upon the challenges facing the programme: It is a time consuming process as is not just about the technology or recycling, but also about bringing together the whole value chain. Secondly, the value chain competency matters a great deal as such an operation requires collaboration across the whole value chain. Further, they need to create new markets for the new materials and there was a technological challenge as the company was for the first time looking at post-consumer recycling of polyurethanes.

“I think it’s important that we move ahead, and hopefully we will all move ahead in the same direction so that the EPR schemes will be synchronised across Europe and across countries. We want to put together the solutions for circular economy of mattresses and we need to have access to feedstock. We must ensure that first the waste is collected, sorted, dismantled in the right manner, etc., so that the backend process is happening steadily to help us implement the right technologies to do something with the waste,” she underlined.

Is EPR driving companies to look at better product design, thereby reducing the cost of recovery, reuse or recycling?

Eco-Mobilier has done a good job of establishing a specific logistical process of collecting mattresses, said Lauwaert. For example, in Europe alone 45 million mattresses are sold annually and 40 million are being disposed of each year. That’s a huge pile of mattresses that reaches the end of its life. “I think the next step that has to be taken is the idea of eco-design, which many players in the supply chain are already working on. How can an eco-design fit in an EPR scheme and what needs to be done? That’s a crucial question many players in the supply chain are focusing on and we see a growing trend of ecodesign of mattresses,” he remarked.

Porcelli expressed a similar view. She said it is important to tackle all the problems including the ecodesign aspect so it would be easier to recycle mattresses in future. “In Eco-Mobilier’s report you will see it is not only about collecting money through EPR scheme, but also that they are looking for ways and new markets to use the materials they recover.”

She stressed the need to focus on building waste collection systems, etc. to ensure the material remains in the chain and ensure that every new product purchased is disposed of responsibly. “Waste infrastructure is key. Other suitable materials do not exist, so we must work with what we have in our portfolio. PU has a place in the mattress industry because the comfort properties they can deliver are significant and they can be circular. That is what we are trying to demonstrate through Renuva. What is needed is for the value chain to work together and see how we can close the loop.”

Covid-19 effect, changes in the market and approach to EPR

In the EU there is an increasing uptake of EPR, and the EC is putting pressure on member states to think about the issue, said Lauwaert. “What is important for us representing the EU industry is that many of our companies are active on about two to five or more markets, so at least the system that is being adopted in different markets needs to be similar. We are very pleased with the experiences that Eco-Mobilier is showing us, and we want to learn from the lessons and mistakes they made.”

So, within EBIA they have been discussing a blueprint for an EPR scheme that could be developed, a project they will undertake in the coming months, he said. “We would like to develop the EPR scheme with the flexibility to adopt to different local circumstances. We need a harmonised EPR scheme that will offer certain flexibility depending on the local markets and that’s something quite important for us.” In Porcelli’s view, two mega trends are evolving. Digitalisation has accelerated rapidly, and sustainability has also picked up, she said. “Overall, we see acceleration in sustainability from companies, governments, our customers and so on. At Dow the pandemic led to further digitalisation addressing the massive need to reinvent and come up with new tools and new ways to do business.”

In terms of sustainability, it was during the pandemic where Dow stepped up and announced new targets about many key areas like sustainable materials, circular economy and climate protection, she observed. “The Renuva programme was also announced and started during the pandemic under difficult conditions. But we are on track and I think it’s a demonstration that when we truly collaborate across the value chain and companies find new ways to make things happen, we can make progress.”

Is there a need for manufacturers to investigate a new business ecosystem to aid the push toward a circular economy?

“Absolutely,” said Lauwaert. “The pressure comes from all sides for the industry. As I said it’s not only due to the consumers and authorities, but the companies themselves are keen on ecodesign. At different exhibitions around Europe all companies were highlighting circular mattresses. Eco-design is a trend that is here to stay and will even increase.” Porcelli also expressed that it was critical for foam and mattress manufacturers to look for ways to build a new business eco-system. “We all like to talk about circular economy, but I believe that we can implement it by having new ways of doing business and collaborating with all the stakeholders.”

In Europe there is also a growing trend of green public procurements, Lauwaert noted. When there is a public tender, national and regional authorities are increasing their efforts to see that products comply with certain requirements, he commented. “It is a huge market and work is in progress. EC will be revising its green public procurement requirements over the next couple of months and will also work on revising the existing eco-label for bed mattresses as it is not having the kind of success the commission was aiming for.”

Talking about trade from a circular economy perspective, Porcelli said, “We all like to close the loop, but I do think that the future of the cross markets in a circular economy will be about keeping the materials in use as long as possible and completely designing out waste. This means it shouldn’t be a problem in the industry or among consumers to be using products that are not completely mattress to mattress.” Whether it is mattress to rigid foam or mattress to carpets underlayer, it contributes to the same principle of avoiding resources going to landfill, she explained, adding that it is important to come up with smart ideas and innovations to keep materials within the circular economy to make a meaningful impact.

“There is a need for the whole supply chain to work together for the circular economy to work and I am pleased to see that there is increasing awareness among all players in the supply chain,” Lauwaert concluded.


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