Recycling Mattresses

Recycling mattresses is one way of protecting landfills from being overfilled. There are companies that specialize in recycling mattresses. But there are steps you can take too, like donating them to shelters for the homeless or battered women, that effectively recycle mattresses.

Americans discarded up to 40 million mattresses and foundations (box springs) in 2006. About 70 percent of them wound up in landfills. Nearly 30 percent went to mattress re-builders. Only a few hundred thousand were deconstructed for their recyclable materials.

Mattresses are a heavy burden on landfills. Each mattress takes up about 23 cubic feet of space. Mattresses do not degrade well, and they can create dangerous “soft spots” in landfills.

Re-built or re-used mattresses find their way to the poor. Thrift stores often serve as retail outlets for re-built mattresses. But the overwhelming majority of used mattresses are not suitable for re-use for health and sanitation reasons.

Currently, there are only three large-scale mattress recycling plants operating in the U. S.: Conigliaro Industries (a private firm in Framingham, Massachusetts), the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Oregon, and the Northeast Minnesota Mattress Recycling Program, a facility near Duluth operated in partnership by the Western Lake Superior Sanitation District and Goodwill Industries.

Founded in 1990, Conigliaro Industries is located about 17 miles southwest of Boston. Its plant has a capacity of 150,000 mattresses per year, enough to accommodate all of the discarded mattresses in the state of Massachusetts. But its mattress recycling plant operates at 25 percent of capacity. The company recycles mattresses along with 150 other materials. Mattresses are classified as “difficult” for a number of reasons.

Mattresses and foundations are built to last 10 or 20 years, so they are extraordinarily difficult to deconstruct. While the metals in mattresses are enjoying high prices now, the other materials, mostly felt and polyurethane foam, have very volatile, low-price markets. Sometimes foam will fetch 50 cents a pound; at other times, Congiliaro cannot find buyers at all.

Generally, Conigliaro charges a fee of $8 to $18 to accept a mattress for recycling. It is the only way to pay for the labor-intensive deconstruction process, and most consumers who are interested in recycling are willing to pay it.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society established its 26,000 square-foot mattress recycling plant near Oakland, California, which serves a nine-county region. (The society has another mattress recycling plant near Eugene, Oregon.) About 350,000 mattress sets are discarded per year in that area. Of those, about 10 percent are re-used, 20 percent re-built, and another 10 percent are deconstructed and recycled.

Unlike Conigliaro, which accepts mattresses from the public, St. Vincent de Paul gets its mattresses from city and county collection sites, hotels, hospitals, and universities. Between its Oakland and Eugene plants, the society diverts 100,000 mattress sets per year from landfills.

The Northeast Minnesota Mattress Recycling Program arose from a partnership between public, private, and nonprofit organizations. The program has the backing of Goodwill Industries, seven Minnesota counties and the state’s Office of Environmental Assistance, as well as mattress retailers, hospitality and waste-hauling industries and other institutions that generate a steady stream of used mattresses. It charges $6 per mattress piece dropped off at Goodwill Industries’ deconstruction plant. In its first five months, the facility accepted 800 mattresses and diverted 22 tons of metal from landfills.

The Mustard Seed of central Florida recycles mattresses, along with furniture, for the needy. If the donated mattresses (a $25 donation is requested if pick up is needed) can be reused they are given to families, in the three-county area around Orlando, that have suffered some kind of tragedy or major loss. If the mattresses aren’t clean enough to repurpose they are recycled through deconstruction. They want to grow past their present 1,000 mattresses/month being processed. One way they are doing that is reaching out to all Florida counties hoping to attract more donations.

Still in its infancy, and with prices for recycled materials languishing, the mattress recycling movement will need help to grown. Rising landfill fees for mattresses and manufacturers who are willing to accept used mattresses for recycling will help this sector save more space and generate more revenue.