Lay the foundation for a good night’s rest
The most common type of mattress, the inner-spring, is made with a host of synthetic materials in addition to its metal springs. The outer fabric is polyester or cotton/poly “ticking.” Then there is polyester batting (sheets of stuffing), and layers of foam, including polyurethane foam, latex, or visco-elastic foam (commonly known as “memory foam”). All these materials are derived from nonrenewable petrochemicals. While sellers of natural-fiber mattresses may claim that synthetics are bad for you, there’s little evidence substantiating this, especially since most manufacturers have stopped using PBDE flame retardants (see below).
From an environmental and health perspective, there’s little to distinguish one synthetic mattress from another. Spend plenty of time testing mattresses at the store, and buy one that feels good to you and is priced right. Although Consumer Reports doesn’t rate mattresses, the magazine does report that paying more doesn’t necessarily get you a better mattress, and all but the cheapest mattresses can be fine.
If you are trying to minimize your use of petrochemicals, you may want to look for an all-natural mattress. There are a number of options to choose from, but they can be pricey and hard to find in stores.
- Extend the life of your mattress with a pad, cover, or mattress protector.
- Vacuum. To remove dust, vacuum your mattress periodically, or purchase zippered mattress protectors to contain the dust.
- Treat natural materials with TLC. Some special care is required for a natural mattress: Don’t put it on the floor or on a solid platform bed frame-use the box springs or bed frames designed for it. This will ensure the mattress can breathe. If possible, take the mattress outdoors for a day of airing and sunning at least twice a year.
- Take your time. From a health and environmental perspective, there’s nothing that makes one brand of conventional synthetic mattress stand out above another. Take plenty of time to shop around for a mattress that feels good, is well made, and fits your budget.
- Size matters. Regardless of whether you are buying a synthetic or natural-fiber mattress, the larger it is, the bigger its impact on the environment because it requires more material to make (and more fabric for the sheets and other bedding that will cover it). If a double or queen will suit you fine, don’t feel pressured to upsize to a king.
- Decide what type of mattress is right for you:
- Innerspring? The metal innerspring mattress and box spring is the most common bed system in the United States today. Choose an innerspring mattress if you want a conventional mattress that has good, firm support. If you want an all-natural bed, make sure your covering (also called “ticking”) and batting (stuffing) are made from materials such as organic cotton, wool, or hemp. One environmental disadvantage of innerspring mattresses is that they are 70% to 80% steel, which requires more energy to manufacture than other types of mattresses; however, steel is fully recyclable and will be recovered if your local waste hauler recycles mattresses rather than landfilling them.
- Foam? The most popular type of foam mattress is visco-elastic, a petrochemical-based product more commonly known as “memory foam.” Many people like the pressure-free support that memory foam provides. If you’re looking for an all-natural alternative, however, consider a natural latex mattress, which is made from the sap of rubber trees. (Many synthetic latex or synthetic/natural latex blend mattresses are also available.) Natural latex has good, resilient “spring,” provides excellent moisture regulation and efficient air circulation, and resists mold and dust mites. Be aware, though, that some people don’t like the smell of natural latex.
- Stuffed? These mattresses, also called futons, have cotton, wool, or hemp casings stuffed with cotton, wool, or hemp batting that is usually 4 to 6 inches thick. You can customize the firmness by layering multiple mattresses made of different materials. They require periodic sunning and airing.
- Then choose a matching foundation:
- Box spring? If you choose an innerspring mattress, you’ll probably want a box spring (an assemblage of spiral bedsprings attached to a foundation and enclosed a box) underneath it. Despite the name, box springs aren’t springy. They should be very firm. To go all-natural, make sure the box spring is covered with natural-fiber fabric. If your old box spring is in good shape–the fabric isn’t torn and the metal supports aren’t sagging or springy–consider keeping it and just buying a new mattress. Some mattress warranties will be voided if you don’t buy the accompanying box spring, however, so check with retailers for mattress that can be sold separately.
- Wood slats? For a latex mattress or stuffed mattress, you will want a wood slat foundation. Some bed systems come with a mattress and wood slat frame designed to work together. Most of these frames are stationary, but some European slat systems are adjustable. Most have plain, exposed wood; others are upholstered to look like a box spring. If the bed frame is made of composite wood materials like particle board, be aware that they may give off fumes of urea formaldehyde; choose solid wood or metal frames instead. Some companies make FSC-certified-wood bed frames.
Until 2005, manufacturers of mattresses containing foam commonly used flame retardants called PBDEs that may damage human nervous systems. The good news is, most new mattresses and other polyurethane foam products, such as pillows and mattress pads, are no longer made with PBDEs.
Without PBDEs, what are manufacturers doing to meet government flammability standards? Natural mattress companies blend cotton with wool, which is naturally flame resistant. (Buying an organic cotton mattress without wool or fire-retardant chemicals requires a doctor’s prescription.) Some companies use low-toxic fire-resistant chemicals like borate or silica. Other companies use chemical treatments that they claim are proprietary.
To be sure the foam product you are buying is PBDE-free, ask the retailer or check the Environmental Working Group’s list of companies that sell PBDE-free products.
If you are considering a natural bed, here’s what you should know about materials:
- Cotton. Sheets of cotton filling give a bed firm support. On the other hand, they pack down over time, getting harder and harder with use, and do not breathe well. Other disadvantages: Cotton absorbs moisture from perspiration and air faster than it can release it. If you are spending the money to have a custom all-natural bed made, you will likely be able choose between conventional and organic cotton for the stuffing and cover fabric.
- Wool. Many all-natural mattresses today contain at least some wool because of its many benefits. Where cotton gives support, wool offers resilience. Wool is fast drying, so it keeps your body comfortable through the night. It’s also mold resistant, and does not harbor dust mites or bacteria. No chemical flame retardants are needed because it’s naturally resistant to fire.
- Hemp. Organically grown hemp is extremely durable and similar in its properties to wool. It does not grow mold or harbor bacteria. It’s an excellent choice for mattress coverings because it’s so much more durable than cotton.
- Natural latex. The benefits of natural latex foam are similar to those of wool. It has a good resilient “spring,” resists mold and dust mites, and provides efficient air circulation and moisture regulation. If you like sleeping on a foam mattress, this is a good natural alternative.
…to your wallet
Natural mattresses range in price from about $500 for a futon to more than $10,000 for a luxury-brand mattress.
…to the Earth
Natural mattresses are made from renewable agricultural fibers rather than nonrenewable petrochemicals.
Waterbeds. A waterbed heater uses about 900 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s about one-twelfth of the average U.S. household’s total electricity consumption. If you have one of the 6.4 million waterbeds in use in the United States, it’s likely one of the biggest energy hogs in your home.
- What should you do with old foam mattresses, pillows, and other foam products that may have been made with PBDE? No one has a good answer yet about how much of a health hazard they may be. But if you’re concerned, you could replace old foam products with new PBDE-free products. If that’s not in your budget, make an extra effort to dust and vacuum regularly since dust seems to be a carrier of PBDEs. Keep in mind that infants and toddlers bear the biggest exposure burden, since they’re more likely to put dusty fingers in their mouths.
- Check your local community disposal options for mattress recycling. In some places there’s an organization that will come collect your mattress, cut it apart, and separate the materials and recycle them for a reasonable fee.