PICTURED: What not to do with an old mattress

by David Goldstein

“Keep it clean in bed,” urges an advertising campaign by a major retail chain of mattress stores, trying to coax consumers into buying a new mattress at least every eight years. The television ad features a comically scowling actor dressed in a dust mite costume and another actor feigning disgust at the prospect of sharing a bed with an insect who feeds on dead skin cells and then “poops” all over the mattress. The ad claims mattresses over eight years old host too many dust mites and should be replaced.

The website of the American Lung Association points to more practical methods of dust mite control for people with allergies and asthma, who are sensitive to dust mites: reduce humidity in bedrooms, use hard flooring instead of carpets, clean hard floors with a damp cloth to capture dust, avoid upholstered furniture, dust regularly and “reduce places where dust mites can live.” 

On this final point, in my home, where I have a child with allergies, we cover mattresses and pillows he sleeps on, using allergen encasements. Allerease, one maker of these covers available at home improvement and furnishing stores, claims on its website, “advanced, tightly woven fabric prevents household allergens from passing through and collecting” in mattresses.

The Sleep Foundation, at Sleepfoundation.org, in an article by Lauren Fountain, who is referred to as a “Certified Sleep Science Coach,” provides additional tips. To “extend the lifespan of your bed” and reduce allergic reactions to dust mites, she suggests people wash bedding “around once per week,” vacuum mattresses using a vacuum’s upholstery attachment, and follow a process every six months to clean the mattress more thoroughly. The thorough cleaning process includes applying “a thin layer of baking soda over the entire surface of the mattress,” leaving it on “for at least a few hours,” vacuuming up the baking soda, and repeating the process for the underside of the mattress. She also recommends a waterproof mattress protector, “or at the very least a quality mattress pad.” 

A mattress topper is a step up from a mattress pad, and those concerned about the potential for dust mites on a mattress, but who are unwilling or unable to follow protocols for dust mite control, can periodically replace a mattress topper much more easily and inexpensively than an entire mattress, according to Spencer Simcik, owner of Spencer’s Ventura Mattress. “Our mattresses are made to last much longer than that; it would be a shame for someone to recycle a perfectly good eight-year-old mattress just because someone trying to sell them a new mattress is making them scared of dust mites,” he said.

Dust mites are not parasites, do not bite or burrow into our bodies, and they meet a need — they eat dead skin cells we shed, and they also eat mold, according to the website of the American Lung Association. “People who are allergic to dust or dust mites are reacting to inhaling proteins in dust that comes from” the mites, the site reports. 

Mike O’Donnell, managing director of the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC), which coordinates statewide recycling programs for California and other states, provided a more realistic gauge for how long people keep mattresses. In 2019, an MRC study indicated that the average age of a discarded mattress was about 11 years. However, “the data set had limitations because so many units had no tags,” according to O’Donnell. If older units were less likely to have readable tags, the average age could be higher.

As an example, O’Donnell revealed, “The mattress I slept on as a kid remained in Mom and Dad’s house for 40 years and was then resold at the estate sale.”

Used mattresses are generally hard to sell or donate, but recycling is free. Retailers are required to pick up a mattress after delivering one, trash collectors provide annual bulky item collection to houses, and Ventura County has five drop-off sites listed at byebyemattress.com. Nevertheless, illegal dumping of mattresses is still a problem. 

On Tuesday, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors will consider approval of a funding agreement between the Public Works Agency and the MRC. The MRC is offering the county up to $61,600 for installation and monitoring of cameras in select spots along rural roadways to catch illegal dumpers. The agency will also install anti-dumping signs and conduct an associated public education campaign. In 2023, the agency will provide a final report analyzing the effectiveness of these measures for reducing illegal dumping of mattresses and other items.

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David Goldstein, an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be contacted at 805-658-4312 or david.goldstein@ventura.org. He did not write this column in his role as a member of the California Mattress Recycling Advisory Committee.