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Green Business

Social and environmental criteria in the Irish Prison Service’s mattress recycling initiative

Case study of the Irish Prison Service, Ireland


The Irish Prison Service (IPS) is responsible for the safe and secure custody, dignity of care, and rehabilitation of persons committed to prison. The IPS operates as an Office of the Department of Justice and its estate currently includes 12 operational prisons across the country.

Every year, approximately 1,200 mattresses must be removed from Irish prisons. Sending these mattresses to landfill has a significant environmental impact as synthetic foam, fibres and hazardous flame-retardant chemicals can leach into drinking water. It takes 80- 120 years for a normal mattress to break down in a landfill.

In 2021, the IPS sought to divert such waste and conducted a low-value tender process for the removal and recycling or repurposing of discarded mattresses. The tender also required the contractor to employ former offenders, as being employed greatly reduces the likelihood of returning to prison.

Procurement objectives

The contract sought to reduce the environmental impact of the mattresses going to buried landfill and be costeffective while also having a social impact by supporting meaningful employment for people who had been through the criminal justice system.

The inclusion of social clauses aligned with strategic action in the Department of Justice ‘Working to Change social enterprise and employment strategy 2021 – 2023’.

The estimated value of the contract was €15,000. According to Ireland’s Office of Government Procurement, “contracts for goods and services with an estimated value between €5,000 and €25,000 (exclusive of VAT) can be awarded on the basis of responses to written specifications (e.g. sent by email) to at least three suppliers or service providers” (Public Procurement Guidelines for Goods and Services, 2019).

This process was followed in procuring the service contract. The tender document was published through the usual procurement mechanisms and was also heavily promoted on social media platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn. This meant that it had a far greater reach, not only to private sector businesses but also social enterprises.

Criteria used

The IPS looked toward the United Kingdom – specifically Northern Ireland – for advice. The introduction of social clauses in contracts of the criminal justice sector was a new and innovative approach taken by the Department of Justice, the Probation Service, and the Irish Prison Service. The overall aim was to increase the social impact of collective purchasing power, regardless of the contract size.

Subject matter of contract:

The Irish Prison Service tendered for the removal and recycling of mattresses from each of its 12 establishments. The contract(s) were awarded on the basis of the following criteria: 1. Cost – 60% 2. Environmental compliance, quality control & standards – 20% 3. Employment of former offenders – 20%

Technical specifications:

According to EU GPP Criteria for Furniture, the contracting authority should provide an assessment of the condition of the furniture to be collected. The following technical specifications should be adhered to for the end-of-life services of existing furniture stock: Tenderers should collect furniture directly from a site specified by the contracting authority and provide a re-use and recycling service for furniture that has reached the end of its service life.

Furniture items/parts that are considered not suitable for reuse, and according to the knowledge of the Contracting Authority about appropriate recycling facilities in the region, should be disassembled into different material streams. At a minimum, plastics, metals, textiles and wood should be separated before being sent to different recycling facilities. Any remaining materials shall be sent to recovery facilities, wherever these are available at the regional level.

The Irish Prison Service requested tenderers to provide detailed proof of environmental compliance for the proposed recycling facility and environmentally relevant permits, such as waste collection and waste facility permits.

Award criteria:

Environmental compliance was assessed based on the provision of evidence of appropriate waste permits, certificates, and quality control procedures. The employment of ex-offenders was assessed based on the following table:

Scoring (0 -5) Overall percentage (Max =20%) Indicator - Tender submission has:
0 0 No indication that they are currently or will employ people from the target group.
1 4 Indicated the approach they will take to actively hiring people from the target group.
2 8 Committed to employing ONE person from the target group.
3 12 Committed to employing TWO people from the target group.
4 16 Committed to employing 3 or more people from the target group.
5 20 Committed to employing 3 or more people from the target group with added value measures such as the provision of further on-the-training and/or education.


The tender was published through the usual procurement mechanisms and promoted on social media. It was shared by the Department of Justice, the Office of Government Procurement, and the Department of Rural and Community Development which has responsibility for the National Social Enterprise Policy. It was also promoted by the Community Resources Network Ireland. Advertising the tender on social media helped to reach a greater number of businesses and social enterprises. The tender closed on 25 June 2021.

Following the RFQ process, three bids were received. Two social enterprises were chosen for the contract which was split on a regional basis: Eco Mattress Recycling, based in Dublin and Bounce Back Recycling, based in Galway.

Both social enterprises receive funding through Ireland’s Community Services Programme (CSP). The CSP provides support in the form of financial contributions towards the salary costs of employees, however, in order for social enterprises in receipt of CSP assistance to maintain the employment of these individuals, additional traded income is needed through contracts. The Irish Prison Service’s mattress recycling contract began in July 2021 and lasts two years. The contract’s €15,000 value meant that the two chosen social enterprises can cover additional costs as well as provide a living wage to employees.

Both Eco Mattress Recycling and Bounce Back Recycling met the environmental criteria, and both had experience with employing former offenders. Their social missions are to provide meaningful employment to marginalised people some of whom will have been through Prison and/or Probation services. Furthermore, Bounce Back Recycling was established specifically to employ members of the Traveller community, an ethnic nomadic minority group who have long-faced discrimination and are over-represented in the prison population.

Once pre-contract checks were completed and security clearances were granted for their van drivers, both social enterprises immediately began collecting discarded mattresses from the various prisons. Since the mattresses have a life cycle of two years or less, each prison requires the removal of discarded mattresses on a regular basis.

After deconstruction, sponge materials were returned into the circular economy, suitable textiles were shredded to be re-used as carpet underlay, some textiles are sent to a specialist company in Ireland to be used as part of new mattress material, steel springs were recycled to steel manufacturers, cloth and outer coverings were used as Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) and polyurethane was exported to the UK and recycled for use in a variety of products. Any materials that could not be recycled are compressed and disposed of through recovery facilities.

Environmental impacts

The environmental impact was immediately realised, as 100% of an estimated 1,200 mattresses were diverted from landfills in the year of the contract. The social enterprises were able to recycle up to 80% of the used mattress components. Many of the materials were able to be resold, thus contributing to a circular economy.

The most common disposal route for end-of-life mattresses appears to be a landfill and mattresses account for a large proportion of the total waste sent to landfill. This represents a significant quantity of material that is not recovered.

Obvious environmental and social benefits arise when furniture such as mattresses is recycled. Furthermore, such an approach has clear links to the EU-wide objective of shifting towards a circular economy. Looking ahead, the Irish Prison Service and Department of Justice are working towards an internal GPP and SRPP strategy.

Other impacts


This single, low-value contract has directly supported the continued employment of four full-time positions (two in each social enterprise) for people who have been through the prison system. While this has many positive benefits for each of the four employees, it also has a knock-on benefit to their children, family, and the wider community. Furthermore, the social enterprises were unfamiliar with reusing mattress materials and were able to develop the required knowledge and skills through this contract. In addition, employing former convicts not only decreases their likelihood of returning to prison, it has a further added value of reducing the cost of detaining them in prison, while increasing money going into the exchequer through the payment of their taxes.


The cost of removal and recycling of prison mattresses under this procurement initiative is far less than the previous arrangement with a commercial operator. Therefore, this contract represents a cost saving to the IPS.

Local Economic Development:

By securing this public contract, both social enterprises have used the opportunity to expand their profile and leverage other public contracts which further contribute to their local economic development.

Lessons learned

• A major lesson learned through this process is that while the inclusion of added value social clauses is a change to usual procurement practices and therefore initially additional work for the procurement team, it can be easily done especially when inserted into below-threshold contracts.

• Suppliers do not seem fazed by social clauses. Their inclusion in this contract did not pose any difficulty to them.

• It is possible to achieve multiple goals through public purchasing power e.g. environmental, economic, and social.

• Leveraging cross-departmental input and proactively involving the proper stakeholders stimulates buy-in and when a notable impact is generated, further implementation is inspired.

• Proposals in support of social procurement are now included as a matter of course in Care and Rehabilitation tenderers.

More information

Contact person: Gerard McMahon, Irish Prison Service, gcmcmahonatirishprisons [dot] ie

Irish Prison Service website.

Contact information available online.

For related information, please see EU GPP Criteria for Furniture and the Technical Background Report.