Are Latex Mattresses Eco-Friendly & Sustainable? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Are Latex Mattresses Eco-Friendly & Sustainable? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:13 Minutes

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Humans have long used natural latex for various purposes, from car tires to pain relief medicines. Now, it’s being used in mattresses. Unfortunately, greenwashing makes it harder for you and other consumers to figure out whether latex is the answer to achieving an eco-friendly and sustainable mattress. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are latex mattresses?

Latex mattresses made from 100% natural sources (rubber tree sap) are sustainable, whereas those made from fossil-derived synthetic latex are unsustainable. Natural latex is renewable, durable, and biodegradable, as compared to nonrenewable synthetic latex, which takes a long time to break down.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of latex mattresses. Then, we will evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable mattresses made with latex.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Latex Mattresses

Latex mattresses have been praised as a sustainable option for sleep. They are superior in durability while being biodegradable, which is not the case for mattresses made with traditional synthetic foams. 

Latex is an emulsion of polymer microparticles. It can be found in nature in the form of milky liquid or manufactured in laboratories. Natural latexes can be extracted from various flowering plants, predominantly the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). In contrast, synthetic latex is synthesized from two petroleum-based compounds—styrene and butadiene. 

Due to greenwashing, the label “latex mattress” is not always as straightforward as it should be. Unless the label specifically says “100% natural latex,” the materials used in your otherwise latex mattress could either contain a relatively low or a very high percentage of fossil-derived latex. It is often the case that a latex mattress has a low-cost synthetic latex core and a sleep surface made with natural latex foam to add comfort. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of latex mattresses, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCAs to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of latex mattresses!

The life-cycle stages of latex mattressesEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of latex mattressesSourcing natural latex from rubber trees for latex mattresses is sustainable because the sap is renewable and can be harvested responsibly without killing the tree. Rubber trees can live for a long time, sequestering carbon dioxide throughout their lifespan. 

However, it’s crucial to note that latex mattresses can be made with fossil-derived synthetic latex. This sourcing method is highly unsustainable due to the nonrenewable nature of fossil fuels. The extraction and refining of these fuels not only have a significant energy demand but also contribute to the climate crisis and environmental pollution.
Manufacturing of latex mattressesDue to energy consumption, manufacturing natural latex mattresses can have a high carbon footprint. However, natural latex production is less energy-demanding and chemical-intensive than synthetic latex and, thus, is relatively more sustainable. 
Transporting of latex mattressesTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of latex mattresses because of the emissions associated with the transporting and delivering vehicles. Latex typically travels from forests/plantations (natural latex) or mines (synthetic latex) to processing factories and then to sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of latex mattressesThe usage of latex mattresses is relatively sustainable because they generally have a long lifespan. 
End-of-life of latex mattressesThe end-of-life stage of 100% natural latex mattresses is sustainable because they are biodegradable and can be recycled. On the other hand, 100% synthetic and blended latex mattresses, which contain synthetic materials, don’t have sustainable end-of-life options because they don’t biodegrade and are very challenging to recycle. 

Overall, we can say that latex mattresses vary from sustainable to unsustainable. Specific factors that affect the actual environmental impact of a mattress include:

  • the sourcing of raw materials
  • the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
  • the distance and mode of transportation

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy latex mattresses more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Latex Mattresses

Sourcing natural latex from rubber trees for latex mattresses is sustainable because the sap is renewable and can be harvested responsibly without killing the tree. Rubber trees can live for a long time, sequestering carbon dioxide throughout their lifespan. 

However, it’s crucial to note that latex mattresses can be made with fossil-derived synthetic latex. This sourcing method is highly unsustainable due to the nonrenewable nature of fossil fuels. The extraction and refining of these fuels not only have a significant energy demand but also contribute to the climate crisis and environmental pollution.

What Raw Materials Are Used for Latex Mattresses

Latex mattresses generally consist of the following components

  • a foam core made of latex
  • one or multiple topper layers made of latex and other materials depending on functional designs
  • covers made of textile materials, either natural or synthetic

The choice of materials for each component depends on manufacturers, resulting in a variety of sustainability. 

  • 100% natural latex mattresses are generally the most sustainably sourced latex mattresses. These products are based on a natural latex foam that’s derived from rubber tree sap. Also, any latex topper layers are purely plant-based. The sustainable choice for components like covers and fire barriers is an organic fiber (either cotton or wool). 
  • Blended latex mattresses can be relatively sustainably sourced if the natural latex content exceeds the synthetic latex content. A common practice is to construct a latex mattress with a synthetic latex core and a natural latex topper, which cuts down the cost while offering a more comfortable and breathable sleeping surface. Yet, these blended latex mattresses might contain a high proportion of fossil-based raw materials and, thus, would not be as sustainable.

It’s important to note the labeling practice of latex mattresses and the greenwashing techniques, which are as follows:

  • “100% natural latex” is the only label that guarantees the pure natural content of the foam and any latex topper layers. 
  • “Latex” could refer to both plant-derived or fossil-derived latex. This label is often greenwashed to make a product more sustainable than it is, so make sure to check which components are synthetic.
  • “100% synthetic” is the required label for mattresses made with 100% synthetic latex (or other fossil-derived polymers like polyurethane). 

In the following section, we’ll dive deeper into the natural and synthetic latex materials in latex mattresses and the sustainability of sourcing either of the two types. 

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Vegan Leather Impact the Environment

In this section, we will examine the two resources for raw materials that are used in latex—plant materials and fossil fuels. In particular, we will consider the following two areas:

  • sourcing plant materials for making natural latex in latex mattresses 
  • sourcing fossil fuels for making synthetic latex in latex mattresses 
How Does Sourcing Rubber Tree Sap for Making Natural Latex Impact the Environment

Tapping the sap of rubber trees to make latex is generally sustainable thanks to the plant’s carbon sequestration potential and renewability.

  • Carbon Sequestration
    As rubber trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. During their long lifespan of up to 100 years, they act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis
  • Renewability
    Tapping the rubber tree for sap doesn’t kill the tree. When a rubber tree is big enough, generally at around 6 years old, its sap can be harvested sustainably for natural latex. This process is called tapping and can be done multiple times a day for many years. 
How Does Sourcing Fossil Fuels for Making Synthetic Latex Impact the Environment

Sourcing fossil fuels for synthetic latex is not sustainable because extracting and refining fossil fuels depletes nonrenewable reserves, accelerates the climate crisis, and pollutes the environment. 

In brief, sourcing 100% synthetic latex is not as sustainable as sourcing 100% natural latex for latex mattresses. Regarding the hybrid technique of blending synthetic and natural latex, the higher the percentage of fossil-derived components being replaced with plant-derived components, the lesser the environmental impacts of this life-cycle stage (sourcing) and other life-cycle stages, especially usage and end-of-life. Also, keep in mind that a mattress made partly with natural latex is potentially less harmful to the environment than one made with 100% synthetic materials, whether it is latex or other conventionally used fossil-derived polymers. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Latex Mattresses Usually Sourced From

The rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is native to rainforests in the Amazon region of South America, including Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Today, there are commercial rubber plantations in many parts of Southeast Asia and Western Africa, predominantly in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Nigeria

Rubber trees can be cultivated sustainably for latex while increasing biodiversity and alleviating the climate crisis via carbon sequestration. However, the rubber industry is known for the link with deforestation and land grabbing in biodiverse areas as well as human and labor rights violations, especially with unorganized small-scale farms. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Latex Mattresses

Due to energy consumption, manufacturing natural latex mattresses can have a high carbon footprint. However, natural latex production is less energy-demanding and chemical-intensive than synthetic latex and, thus, is relatively more sustainable. 

In the following sections, we will look into the process of manufacturing natural latex and synthetic latex, as well as their sustainability issues.

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Latex

The typical process of manufacturing natural fabrics includes the following steps: 

  1. Tapping: The sap (or latex) is harvested from the rubber tree through various small incisions in the tree’s bark. 
  2. Foaming: The liquid sap is mixed continuously until becoming a frothy foam with the desired density. 
  3. Molding and solidifying: The foam is poured into a mold of the chosen size and mechanically treated to create a solid form. Such treatments are the main demand for energy usage in natural latex mattress production.
    1. In the Dunlop method, mechanical treatments include oven baking, washing, and drying with hot air. 
    2. In the Talalay method, mechanical treatments include applying a vacuum, flash freezing, and flash heating. 

On the other hand, the typical process of manufacturing synthetic latex starts with styrene and butadiene, each derived from fossil fuels. These chemicals undergo polymerization to produce a material that mimics the properties of natural latex. Polymerization is a highly energy and chemical-intensive process. 

Natural Latex vs. Synthetic Latex: Chemical Use 

Producing natural latex requires minimal chemical usage, especially compared to other mattress materials synthesized from fossil fuels. This reduces consumers’ exposure to potentially harmful substances commonly found in conventional mattresses, and it also improves indoor air quality. 

Natural Latex vs. Synthetic Latex: Energy Consumption

Though heating, vacuuming, and freezing processes in producing natural latex consume energy, such energy demand is comparatively lower than that of synthetic materials, as a study exemplifies. 

Where Are Latex Mattresses Usually Manufactured

The main producers of natural rubber are Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, with annual production of over 4 million tons. 

Because manufacturing natural latex is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

The following is the renewable energy share in primary energy in main natural latex producers:

  • Malaysia: 8.15% renewable energy
  • India: 10.4% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.2% renewable energy
  • Thailand: 7.33% renewable energy
  • Sri Lanka: (no data)

It is important to note that the renewable energy shares in the main producers are relatively low, with the highest numbers only just above 10%, indicating significant carbon emissions associated with producing this product. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Latex Mattresses

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of latex mattresses because of the emissions associated with the transporting and delivering vehicles. Latex typically travels from forests/plantations (natural latex) or mines (synthetic latex) to processing factories and then to sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

In the life-cycle of natural latex mattresses, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From forests or plantations where rubber trees grow to latex manufacturing locations.
  • From the latex manufacturing location to the latex mattress manufacturing location. 
  • From the latex mattress manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops. 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s home.
  • From the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling/disposing of.

Traveling Distances of Latex Mattresses Vary Depending on Their Country of Origin

It is uncommon for latex mattresses to have raw materials grown, processed, and sold in one town, country, or even continent. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting latex mattresses: 

  • Rubber trees can be planted and harvested in Vietnam. The natural latex is transported to a factory nearby for mattress production and then to the US for retailing. 
  • Fossil fuels are mined in Alberta, Canada, and transported to Sri Lanka to be made into synthetic latex. Natural latex is sourced and processed in Thailand. Final mattresses with blended latex components are assembled in factories in China and then sold worldwide. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing latex mattresses that travel a shorter distance from the forests/plantations/mines and are made closer to your home.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Latex Mattresses Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation

During its life-cycle, a latex mattress can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • large container ships 
  • planes 
  • freight trains 
  • long-distance trucks 
  • short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts, as follows: 

To reduce the carbon footprint of your purchase as a consumer, you can choose not to pick a fast delivery option when ordering your latex mattress. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Latex Mattresses

The usage of latex mattresses is relatively sustainable because they generally have a long lifespan. 

Latex mattresses have a long lifespan of between 10 and 20 years, meaning that they do not need to be replaced as frequently, reducing waste generation and conserving resources. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Latex Mattresses

The end-of-life stage of 100% natural latex mattresses is sustainable because they are biodegradable and can be recycled. On the other hand, synthetic and blended latex mattresses, which contain synthetic materials, don’t have sustainable end-of-life options because they don’t biodegrade and are very challenging to recycle. 

Mattresses made with 100% natural latex are biodegradable. When they reach the end of their lifespan, they break down naturally, returning to the earth without leaving a significant environmental footprint. A study showed a substantial decrease in the mass of the latex foam after three months, estimating that it would take one to two years for latex foam to break down completely. 

Conversely, synthetic latex would take hundreds of years to start degrading. Blended latex mattresses that contain synthetic materials are not considered biodegradable. 

How Circular Are Mattresses Made of Latex

As a principle, products made with one type of material, such as 100% natural latex or 100% synthetic latex, are easier to disassemble and recycle than products made with a blend of materials. Consequently, commonly labeled “latex mattresses,” which contain both natural and synthetic materials, pose a challenge to the circular economy. 

The circular economy is a system where materials never become waste and nature is regenerated. In a circular economy, products and materials are kept in circulation through processes like maintenance, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture, recycling, and composting. The circular economy tackles climate change and other global challenges, like biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution, by decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.

Ellen Macarthur Foundation 

Mattresses are bulky waste that take up significant space in landfills—often for a long time, too. Luckily, it is possible to produce circular latex mattresses, whether from plant or fossil sources. Furthermore, many companies, such as Revor, have invested and succeeded in making circular mattresses with latex foam. 

Why Is It Important to Buy Mattresses Made of More Sustainable Materials

It is important to buy mattresses made of more sustainable materials because such materials generally have lower carbon footprints, put less pressure on natural resources, and are safer for both consumers and workers. 

Buying Mattresses Made of More Sustainable Materials Reduces Toxic Chemicals In Your Sleeping Environment 

Many mattresses are made with synthetic materials in chemical-intensive processes, exposing factory workers and end users to health risks, especially regarding the respiratory system. For example, one memory foam model was found to emit 61 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including the known carcinogens benzene and naphthalene. 

In contrast, mattresses made of more sustainable materials, such as plant-based latex or organic wool, are generally safer, as they don’t contain toxic chemicals and are produced in more responsible processes. 

Buying Mattresses Made of More Sustainable Materials Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

Conventional synthetic materials used in mattresses are fossil-derived and, thus, have a high carbon footprint. On the other hand, mattresses made with more sustainable materials, either organic or recycled, have relatively low carbon footprints. 

Buying Mattresses Made of More Sustainable Materials Reduces Demand for Natural Resources and Waste Management

Buying mattresses made with more sustainable materials, such as organic or recycled ones, means that you can avoid fossil-derived mattress foams, which contribute to the depletion of nonrenewable resources. 

Additionally, using organic materials for mattresses lessens the pressure on landfill space. Keep the following in mind:

Considering that synthetic materials don’t break down for hundreds of years, opting for organic mattresses that are biodegradable and recyclable significantly lowers the pressure on landfills. 

Buying Mattresses Made of More Sustainable Plant-Based Materials Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests and Ecosystems

Sustainable plant-based mattress materials, such as natural latex, are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed. 

When you buy sustainable plant-based materials, you discourage unsustainable practices like clearing biodiverse forests for cattle raising. Furthermore, you help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effects of climate change. 

Final Thoughts

Latex mattresses can be sustainable when made with 100% bio materials in low-impact processes. The raw materials for plant-based latex foam come from potentially renewable and sustainably managed sources, and the manufacturing process doesn’t involve toxic chemicals. Additionally, 100% natural latex foam is durable and biodegradable. 

To make your use of latex mattresses even more sustainable, follow these steps:

  1. Buy recycled or upcycled latex mattresses.
  2. Keep a latex mattress for as long as possible.
  3. At the end-of-life of your latex mattress, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.

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