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Atif Ali

Virginia Tech, PhD in Circular Economy and Sustainability

EREF Scholar 2023

Around 18 million mattresses are discarded annually (directed into landfills or illegally dumped) in the United States. Despite many states announcing decreased landfill capacity and closures, this generation rate is on track to require at least 5,708 Olympic-size swimming pools (540 million cu.ft.) of landfill space each year to deal with discarded mattresses. Compounding this challenge, the availability of digital retail options for folding foam mattresses (e.g., bed-in-a-box) has increased the ease and reduced the cost of mattress replacement. Yet, at end-of-life (EOL), these heavy, bulky products are a consistent and expensive burden for municipal and private waste management teams. There are active responses to mitigate and manage these concerning trends through both systems (e.g., policy and programming) and material-based innovations. On the systems side, four U.S. states (California, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Oregon) have enacted Extended Producer Responsibility programs to ensure mattress diversion and recycling, and to date, these programs have diverted 214 million lbs. of materials and avoided 7,380,000 cubic yards of landfill space. In California, the Illegally Dumped Mattress Collection Initiative helped fund local governments in collecting 250,000 illegally dumped mattresses from 2016-2021. However, for most states and localities, solid waste management service providers are left with the cost and burden of managing >50,000 mattresses being discarded each day. On the materials side, diverse research initiatives are exploring catalytic and enzymatic deconstruction of folding foams (e.g., cross-linked polymers). However, such advanced recycling technologies rely on effective collection and sorting systems and the development of downstream markets. Further, there is little data regarding volumes, locations, and compositions of EOL mattresses: waste mattresses are typically reported as part of aggregated furniture categories without being distinguished from tables, sofas, chairs, or their non-foam components. Thus, even with advanced depolymerization and recycling technologies for folding foam mattresses, it is difficult to assess the current and future costs of managing or evaluating the economic viability of these bulky products. Thus, the primary objectives of this project are: 1. Establishing a comprehensive baseline understanding of the current state of commercialized folding foam mattress recycling technology and programs, globally. 2. Mapping and quantifying the flows of folding foam mattresses in the U.S., for end-of-life disposition, via Material Flow Analysis (MFA) and waste stream characterization. 3. Modeling quantitative baseline environmental and economic impacts of defined folding foam mattress EOL management methods, using streamlined life cycle analysis, impact modeling, and techno-economic analysis.


Atif Ali began his education at University of Engineering and Technology Lahore (Pakistan), graduating with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2019. He then moved to New York and obtained an M.S. degree in Sustainable Energy at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) Syracuse in 2022. He is now pursuing his doctorate degree in Circular Economy and Sustainability at Virginia Tech Blacksburg starting in January 2023.