Every time I see a Casper advertisement, I get that queasy feeling. Those cute cartoon people or animals on a bed, on pale blue or green backgrounds are so calming. Even so, they give me a queasy feeling.

Once your food, water, and shelter are secure, there is no product purchase as important as the bed you sleep on. Your time is bed is a biological necessity. Without good sleep, your days are robbed of their full potential. Sleep dis-engages you from the rest of world for the sole purpose of restoring your whole self for the coming day. Nature commands you to spend a lot of time in bed. Her biosphere, her rules.

If you live to be 84, you will inhale about 65 million times during your 81,760 hours spent horizontal. That’s 28 years in bed. Because you have a mouth, nostrils, eyes, skin and more, during your time in bed what is outside of your body gets inside your body, and what is inside your body gets outside. Your body has many doors and windows to and from the world in which you marinate. You, are permeable. The Earth’s air, water, soil and whatever’s in it passes through you. Because you are a spongey beast, your exposure to the materials in your bed is extensive and cumulative.

If you spend your nights on Casper Wave, or any of the thousands of conventional mattresses that most people have been persuaded to sleep on, What are you sleeping with? Petroleum. Oil processed into petro-chemicals. These chemicals present in mattresses as polyurethane foam. In other words, most mattress/beds are squishy plastic.

Because you are the top dog in the biosphere, all chemical roads lead to you.

Around the world, especially in western countries, humans sleep on petroleum derived plastic. How fitting. Our rivers, lakes and oceans are already contaminated with plastic. That ‘purified’ water you drink from plastic bottles is contaminated with plastic particulate. Plastics are inside whales, fish, clams, birds, bees….inside your pet kitty and the vegetables in your salad.

Petroleum plastics in every nook and cranny of our lives casts an ominous shadow on prospects for a healthy climate for all of life, but is especially destabilizing for human beings. These petro-chemicals bio-accumulate up the food chain. Because you are the top dog in the biosphere, all chemical roads lead to you.

mattress pile, alarming bed/mattress waste

Well over90% of all mattresses create toxic waste that never goes away.

Queasier still, is the core chemical required to make the flexible polyurethane foam (PU foam) in your mattress; TDI (toluene di-isocyanate). You cannot make PU Foam without TDI. It, combined with other toxic petro-chemicals results in polyurethane foam. Based on decades of research and accumulated evidence, many governments formally designated TDI as carcinogenic as far back as 1980. Those that did not nevertheless issued cautions that TDI is very likely a human carcinogen because numerous tests on animals have confirmed tumours and cancers are induced by TDI. This should not surprise you. Scientists substitute monkeys and other animals for humans because they know, biologically, all we animals are more alike than we are different. The toxicological effects of Toluene for example, on monkey or human, are essentially the same. That is why many chemicals used in conventional mattresses find themselves on official warning lists of known carcinogens or suspected carcinogens.

Your bedroom is a Hot Spot for repetitive, cumulative chemical exposure.

These mattress ingredients enter you as gases or minute particulate through your nose, mouth, eyes and dermal absorption. Due to the enclosed nature of your bedroom, the size of that chemical slab you nestle into each night, and the significant slice of your life spent on said slab, your bedroom is a Hot Spot for repetitive, cumulative chemical exposure. 

Upstream of your bed, chemical exposures endanger workers who process petroleum and chemicals such as TDI in their most concentrated forms. Downstream of your bed is all of humanity; drawing water and breath, working, eating, living. Some of your human brethren are condemned to live and work near, or on top of gargantuan garbage dumps filled with mattresses and the detritus of an economy based on buying stuff that is intentionally designed to become obsolete, in order to compel you to purchase ever more stuff.

In 1979, The International Sleep Products Association (ISPA) established the Better Sleep Council (BSC) with the stated goal to “shorten the mattress replacement cycle”. They want to convince everyone to “consider replacing a mattress every five to seven years”. Working tirelessly to lower your expectations, this past decade the mattress industry has re-designed, re-boxed and re-marketed its mattress offerings to last less time than ever before. The mattress replacement cycle has accelerated from about 13 years to 7. Forty and fifty years ago, 20 and 25 year warranties were the norm. Today, Casper and many mattress companies offer greatly reduced warranty periods; Casper, a qualified maximum not beyond 10 years. Another, Serta, still has a 20 year warranty on one type of mattress, but, for most of its products it’s a declining scale of 10, 7, 5, 4, 3, 2, even 1 year, depending on model. Instead of ‘good, better, best’ warranties, today it’s ‘okay, worse and deplorable’.

Rather than emphasize Warranties, the sales pitch today is to promote a 90 day, or 100, or 120, or 200 day, or even 365 day return policy. You don’t like it? No biggie, just send it back. It all sounds so reassuring. But what is really going on here?

Some reports suggest return rates average 4%, others 7%. Some brands experience return rates up to 20%. While return rates will vary from one brand to another, between 2010 and 2015, mattress returns in the United States shot up by a whopping 66%! In 2017, more than a 18 million American mattresses were unwanted, but there were only 56 recycling locations in the whole USA. The widely circulated Canadian comparable is 6 million mattresses tossed. The UK reports 7 million. The UK’s National Bed Federation (NBF) reckons 19% of mattresses get recycled. So what did the Brits do with the other 5,600,000 mattresses? While many went to The Dump, we know of a shipment of 100 container loads of baled mattresses that arrived in Sri Lanka in July, 2019. The bill of lading described the shipment as ‘metal’ for recycling. The enormous increases in returned mattresses, combined with much shorter replacement cycles creates volumes of waste so vast, The Dumps in their source countries are overwhelmed. Increasingly, they are refusing to accept mattresses. This has resulted in an illegal trade, shipping container loads of mattress garbage over great distances to poorer countries where they are added to un-authorized mountains of toxic garbage, or burned illegally. These chains of events make people sick, shorten lives and advance poverty.

pile of truck containers

Returned mattresses are shipped “away” to languish and leech their toxins in poorer countries.

It is obvious ’returned’ mattresses do not return. ‘Return’ is a euphemism for ‘dis-associate’.Just like underpants, the seller never takes them back. Unwanted mattresses are shimmied to someone else’s doorstep. Some to charities which may extend their life span a little, but they still end up at The Dump. When we asked Casper Chat how to return an unwanted Casper, they gave us a Google search link for Metro Vancouver waste services; a hands free method to dis-associate from their unwanted mattress, subsidized by the taxpayer. Some Casper cohorts contract with an independent agent or re-seller. Some re-sellers remove a stain or do a repair, then re-sell the mattress like a used car. Others pose as recyclers. They collect unwanted mattresses, slap on a new cover, re-wrap, re-tag as ‘new’, then unload them through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or a Hotmail account, with a sales pitch about a large cancelled order being the source of a great ‘deal’. One more short go round for these mattresses, then The Dump.

The PU foam and mattress trade is well aware its products intersect with criminal elements, domestically and internationally. This type of behaviour is ‘baked-in’. These relationships will continue as long as the mattress industry dis-associates itself from the health and environmental problems it initiates.

As for Casper, their website vaguely states, “We do our best to donate returned mattresses and give them a new home.”. Shielded by vague statements and dis-association strategies, mattress companies invent plausible deniability, while misdirecting you to their charitable engagement, their commitment to recycling, or to health and environmental protection.

Those 90 or 200 day “return” sales pitches were not created to benefit the customer. Just like the truncated warranties, it’s all about the ‘Churn’. Like Mark Knopfler’s lyrics, “We gotta move those refrigerators, we gotta move those colour TVs…”.  Yeh, that’s the way ya do it.

Recycle sign

Like many corporations, ‘Big Mattress Inc.’ has gutted the Three Rs.

Once there was a mantra, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In that order. ‘Reduce’, being the most effective means to diminish environmental impacts. ‘Reuse’, extending utility and saving expense. ‘Recycle’, perpetually returning remainders to their source, because that’s what recycling is. Simple, sensible, wise. But with simplicity, sensibility and wisdom in short supply, the 3R’s had no chance. Corporations hate ‘Reduce’, they worship infinite expansion. They hate ‘Reuse’, they idolize the disposable. Recycling? That, corporations could game. Game on!

Imagine you are the CEO of Big Mattress Inc. Capitalist that you are, reducing units sold sounds crazy, reusing mattresses goes over as well as reusing underpants, and because you instinctively evade extended producer responsibility, you decide to ‘pretend recycle’. You push ‘Recycle’ as far away from your physical operations as possible, but claim it nonetheless. A charity in your Brand’s front window does the virtue signalling for you, but as charity cannot possibly digest the volumes, you proclaim ‘recycling’ as your BFF.

Um,..about your BFF. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is unable to report an accurate number of recycled mattresses. The most it can say is “..some” are recycled. The EPA says, “Recovery of furniture and furnishings for recycling is assumed to be insignificant.”. The UK is more specific: 19%. Which means 81% are not recycled. Other sources suggest 90% to 95% do not get recycled. Although the statistics are variable, they indicate a range. In western countries somewhere between 81% and 95% of mattresses are never recycled. From our study, 90% is a conservative understatement. Worldwide, at least 9 out of 10 mattresses are discarded, end up in humongous heaps of garbage, migrate into water, soil and air, then travel the Globe, toxifying life and destabilizing our climate. In no way is this recycling. Mattress recycling rates are so insignificant, recycling mattresses is synonymous with dumping garbage. In Mattressland, just as ‘return’ did not mean return, ‘recycle’ does not mean recycle.

In Mattressland, just as ‘return’ did not mean return, ‘recycle’ does not mean recycle.

In most homes, people put paper in the yellow bag, plastics in the blue box, or which ever procedure your town uses. Most people try to do the right thing. By now, they’ve seen a news report showing their grocery store’s logo’d plastic bag in a mountain of garbage somewhere in an East Asian country. Most people realize the recycling tales corporations want them to believe, are un-believable. What some have yet to grasp is that at home and abroad, the Caspers and most PU Foam mattress providers are significant contributors to those mountains of garbage. 

Today, most mattresses and furniture fall into a category called ‘Fast Furniture’. The EPA reports 9.7 billion pounds of the stuff arrives in The Dump every year; a catastrophe quickly catching up to the more publicized ‘Fast Fashion’ disaster. Mattress providers are no less responsible for the plasticization of the planet than the H&Ms and Zaras. If corporations are allowed to continue along their selfish, irresponsible path, consumer product corporations will produce enough petroleum derived toxics to deprive humans of the climate that sustains life.

Meanwhile, Casper’s website baldly states: “Good for the planet. Harmful Materials? Nope. High environmental standards? Always. Every mattress cover is made with recycled materials and each layer is CertiPUR certified.”. Similarly, Endy says: “We work hard to ensure our products are safe for the environment, and safe for you. All Endy foams are CeriPUR-US certified. This means they are free of harmful chemicals, so you can sleep easy.”. According to Casper and Endy, petroleum derived polyurethane foam and its chemical entourage are good for the planet and safe for the environment. It appears there are least 1,500 PU Foam mattress providers of one kind or another who agree with them. They are the members of CertiPUR-US, an entity created by The Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam to certify that their own foams are, ‘certifiable’. Given science bluntly reports we have less than 10 years to constrain catastrophic Climate Breakdown, the CertiPUR-US point of view may itself end up certified as certifiably insane. While Casper and cohorts game people by denying or arguing the dose, people and planet ingest their poison. 

About 20% of Casper’s product is fast tracked to The Dump . Illustration by Mica Warren in Marker

If the foregoing did not leave you feeling queasy, perhaps the money will. Casper looses a lot of money; -$73.4 million in 2017 and -$92.1 million in 2018. For the 9 months ending Sept 30th, 2019 -$67 million, up from -$64 million in 2018, even though sales rose 20%. From 2016 through the first nine months of 2019, Casper blew $422 million on marketing and advertising. Casper also refunds, ‘returns’ and discounts a lot of product. Number-crunching Atlantic columnist Derek Thompson summarized Casper’s business model this way: “Buy mattress at $400. Sell at $1,000. Refund/return 20% of them. Keep $400, on avg. Then spend $290 of that on ads/marketing and $270 on admin (finance, HR, IT). Lose $160. Repeat.”.

In their recent S-1 filing Casper wrote, “We have a history of losses and expect to have operating losses and negative cash flow as we continue to expand our business.”. I’m awarding two points here, for unexpected frankness.

By now, you may be thinking I’ve dumped a little too much on Casper. No. In their short existence they have disgorged nigh on a half a billion dollars advertising to the likes of Facebook, Google and the New York Subway System. For what? To stalk you around the clock, persuading you to buy a ubiquitous commodity available through at least 175 look alike bed-in-a-box companies, many made in the same factories. Casper has no unique selling proposition. It does not understand they gift their competitor-clones by advertising on behalf of the entire bed-in-a-box category. Because people comparison shop mattresses, the sales bleed to their competitors is significant. Casper self-presents as some kind of ‘revolution’ when in reality there’s nothing new here. Hubris led them to hold out for a billion dollar valuation that wasn’t real. They spend all their investors money without result. Casper and the conventional bed industry spew an enormous trail of toxic plastic waste from Brooklyn to Bandung. Casper wanted to be the Poster Boy for today’s mattress industry; in this, they have succeeded.

Disappointingly, Leonardo DiCaprio, who has narrated some decent documentaries about Climate, joined Casper’s ‘revolution’ as an early investor. Wrong revolution, Leo. Making mattress covers out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is not virtuous. It just enables Coke and Pepsi to make more and more plastic bottles in a world already choking on plastic bottles.

Recently, we’ve come face to face with Covid-19. Yet another zoonotic disease following after HIV, SARs, Ebola, West Nile and the rest. Inevitably, some infectious diseases are unavoidable, but today their global reach is supersized by our global appetite. Humanity’s environmentally destructive practices, such as poaching, deforestation, sending volumes of garbage to mythical ‘away’ places, fracking, extracting, spewing,…despoiling at such scale and speed, massive habitat loss is one of the grim results. This increases contact between highly mobile, urbanized human populations and wild animals. As wild life and space diminishes, pathogens loose their hosts. Their own imperative to survive guides them to leap to new hosts. Humans are perfect; we are everywhere, we go everywhere and we cannot leave anything undisturbed. What more could a pathogen ask for?

When Casper’s life diminishing attributes are  understood, we know it’s the wrong story for the 21st century.

The ‘revolution’ we desperately need is to re-wild this planet, to plant at least a trillion trees, to cleanse our water and air of contaminants and excess carbon, to kick petroleum, polyurethanes and plastics out of our homes, to cool it all down, and bring the outside, inside. We need to design and build cities not according to Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, but on Biophillic design principals, to live with Nature’s natural materials, within Nature’s limitations. We must stop designing and manufacturing petroleum infused consumer products deliberately designed to become obsolete. We have to recognize the  practicality of the One Health  principle; that people, plants, animals, air, water and soil are inter-dependent. All for one and one for all. If civil society does not embrace these prescriptions, we will be cast out from this Garden of Earth. Our ancient myths exist and persist, to teach us.

This story has focussed on Casper, because Casper is an apt metaphor for our times. Metaphor comes to us from the ancient Greek ‘mythos’, it means story. When Casper’s life diminishing attributes are understood, we know it’s the wrong story for the 21st century. As you must spend one third of you life in bed, start your revolution right where you sleep. In a sense, aligning your bedroom with Nature will take you one third of the way home.

We know the problems. We have the ability to calm this sea of troubles. If we act now, that sea sick feeling will pass.

– Len Laycock is a former IKEA Marketing Director and Founder of Horizontal.eco