Chemicals and the Circular Economy: A Mattress Case Study

As the UK moves towards its ambitions for a circular economy, interest around recycling bulky waste items, such as mattresses and sofas, is on the rise. But could the large quantities of chemical flame retardants often used in these items be a barrier to success? How are chemicals being managed in our ever-circular commercial markets? Our new Evidence Review investigates how mattress recycling may provide a key case study for improved chemical management within a circular economy.

Improving Mattress Waste Management

An estimated 6.4 million mattresses were disposed of in the UK in 2020 (1). Whilst this number may sound high, it actually reflects a decrease of 17% from across the previous three-year period (2018-2020) (1). Aside from the sheer volume of waste, the difficulty in storing and disposing of large items, as well as the relatively low value of recoverable materials, has made mattresses an on-going problem for local authorities (1). Bulky waste items, including mattresses, were therefore listed as priority items for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes in England’s 2018 Waste Strategy (2).

The need for mattress EPR schemes has been echoed by the National Bed Federation (NBF). The NBF has committed to improving waste management of mattresses, and have a set a goal of diverting 75% of mattresses from landfill by 2028 (1). In their latest report, the NBF acknowledged that whilst mattress recycling rates have increased from an estimated 10% in 2012, to 24% in 2021, they are still far from target figures (1). EPR schemes and improved product design were identified as key to the solution. EPRs could provide the resource and incentives necessary to develop an effective collection infrastructure, whilst innovative product design would ensure mattresses could be dismantled with ease and produce the highest quality secondary materials possible.

But what about chemical management? Could this also fit into incentivised EPR schemes and evolving product design?

Alongside the need for improved bulky waste management, England’s 2018 Waste Strategy acknowledged the threat of chemicals to safe reuse and recycling initiatives. The report outlined how new risk data may emerge for chemicals used in long-lived items, such as mattresses, after the products had entered circulation, allowing newly restricted chemicals to contaminate waste streams and undermine efforts towards circularity (2).

Chemical Flame Retardants in Mattresses

The leading chemicals of concern in UK mattresses are flame retardants. Although their use is not mandated, chemical flame retardants are seen as the most cost-effective way of passing current fire safety requirements (3). The UK holds some of the most prescriptive fire safety requirements for upholstered furniture items, more stringent than most other countries, and resulting in some of the highest human exposure rates to chemical flame retardants in the world (4). In recent years, these requirements have been criticized as being outdated and ineffective; other countries with no or less prescriptive furniture fire safety requirements have demonstrated similar declines in fire fatality trends as the UK, largely explained by the increased use of smoke detectors and decreases in smoking rates (3; 5; 6).

The unintended impacts of flame retardant exposure to public health, the environment and our circular economy is also facing increased scrutiny. Many flame retardants have been connected with serious adverse health impacts, including abnormalities in neurological and reproductive development, cancer, and hormone disruption (5; 7). They have been shown to readily pollute the environment, being found in air, water, soil, and numerous wildlife species across the globe, with documented adverse effects to behaviour, fertility and survival rates (5; 8; 9; 10; 11). Recent restrictions on recycling and reuse of waste domestic seating items due to the presence of harmful legacy flame retardants has also highlighted the direct impact chemical flame retardants can have on circular initiatives (12; 13).

Evidence Review

It is clear from the available evidence that current practises undermine the UK’s ambitions to improve mattress waste management. In order to avoid contamination of waste and recycling streams, relieve pressure on local authorities, and truly protect public and environmental health, we must commit to effective chemical management.

In our new Evidence Review, we assess innovative approaches to chemical management in a circular economy, focusing on chemical flame retardants in mattresses as a case study. Following the review’s findings, we will be continuing to work with stakeholders from across the mattress supply chain towards viable solutions. If you are a mattress manufacturer, retailer or recycler and would like to be involved, contact the Fidra team via:

Find links to our full Evidence Review and summary document below. For updates on the next blog in this three-part series, follow us on Twitter.


Evidence Review

Evidence Review Summary



1. End-of-life mattress report 2022. Oakdene Hollins for the National Bed Federation, 2022.

2. Our Waste, Our Strategy: a Strategy for England. Defra, 2018.

3. Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life. Environmental Audit Committee, 2019.

4. BCUK Briefing – Flame Retardants. Breast Cancer UK, 2017.

5. Percentage of households owning a smoke alarm or a working smoke alarm by nation (0701). Home Office, 2022.

6. Statistics on Smoking 2020. NHS Digital, 2020. [Online] Available at:

7. San Antonio statement on brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. DiGangi, J., Blum, A., Bergman, Å., de Wit, C.A., Lucas, D., Mortimer, D., Schecter, A., Scheringer, M., Shaw, S.D. and Webster, T.F., 2010. Environmental Health Perspective.

8. Flame retardants in the livers of the Eurasian otter collected from Scotland between 2013 and 2015. Walker, L., Moeckel, C., Dos Santos Pereira, G., Potter, E., Chadwick, E. and Shore, R., 2016. Natural Environment Research Council.

9. Novel flame retardants (N-FRs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs) in fish, penguin, and skua from King George Island, Antarctica. Wolschke, H., Meng, X.Z., Xie, Z., Ebinghaus, R. and Cai, M., 2015. Marine pollution bulletin.

10. Organophosphorus flame retardants (PFRs) and plasticisers in harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) stranded or bycaught in the UK during 2012. Papachlimitzou, A., Barber, J.L., Losada, S., Bersuder, P., Deaville, R., Brownlow, A., Penrose, R., Jepson, P.D. and Law, R.J., 2015. Marine Pollution Bulletin.

11. Flame retardants and methoxylated and hydroxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers in two Norwegian Arctic top predators: glaucous gulls and polar bears. Verreault, Jonathan, Geir W. Gabrielsen, Shaogang Chu, Derek CG Muir, Magnus Andersen, Ahmad Hamaed, and Robert J. Letcher., 2005. Environmental science & technology.

12. An assessment of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in waste domestic seating. WRC on behalf of the Environment Agency, 2021.

13. Waste Upholstered Domestic Seating – Information to help you ensure you comply with the existing legal requirements for waste containing Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Environment Agency, 2022.