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December 2007

Mattress recycling in the United States growing

Americans discarded as many as 40 million mattresses and foundations (box springs) in 2006. With materials that contain recyclable elements, mattresses should be removed from the waste stream and sent to recycling centers.

However, it appears that 70 percent of these products go to landfills and nearly 30 percent to re-builders, with only several hundred thousand at best being deconstructed and recycled.

Moreover, there are only three major organizations recycling these products – Conigliaro Industries (a private firm in Framingham, Massachusetts), the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Northeast Minnesota Mattress Recycling Program, a facility near Duluth operated in partnership by the Western Lake Superior Sanitation District and Goodwill Industries.

A mattress is pulled into a shredder.

Based in Framingham, Massachusetts, Conigliaro Industries recycles mattresses and foundations (box springs).

Established in 1990, the company, located 17 miles southwest of Boston, recycles about 150 materials, of which 80 are plastics and another 20, including mattresses, are labeled as difficult materials.

“Right now our capacity is about 150,000 units annually and we are operating at about 25 percent capacity,” says Greg Conigliaro, the president and majority owner of the company. “The majority of mattresses from any retail outlet usually go to the re-builders.”

Conigliaro created a mattress recycling plant within its 100,000 square-foot facility following its receipt of a $50,000 grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Recycling Investment Reimbursement Credit program.

“In 2000/2001,” he says, “we sized our facility to handle every mattress in Massachusetts if we were to get them all. The biggest issue in mattress recycling is that it’s more expensive than trash and as a result, in addition to attracting tonnage, we have to be cheaper than trash.

“The recycling we do is with the people who really want to recycle and generally they’ll pay a fee at the drop-off center – an approach that we have always advocated,” he adds. “For example, if you are going to buy a new mattress, maybe you pay a $5 fee [or higher] to ensure that it doesn’t go into a landfill. For the mattresses we recycle, the fee is anywhere from $8 to $18 depending upon the size. Most private citizens are willing to pay that.” says Greg Conigliaro.

“Generally, the cost for labor is far in excess of the value of the materials that are recovered from mattress recycling,” says Conigliaro, “which is why we charge a fee. The parts of a mattress are commodities with variable values based upon current market conditions.

“Metals prices can be up and that’s great,” he adds, “and the foam, felt and fabric have different commodity values. The markets for the materials from mattresses, save for the metal, are very volatile, especially the felt, foam and fabric. Polyurethane foam jumps all over the place. In the old days it was worth $.50 a pound. Now we are lucky to get rid of it. It depends on the day.”

A filleted mattress awaits further processing.

Mattresses, built to last through many years of use, are not designed to be easily processed by recyclers.

“We make our mattresses so they won’t fall apart over a 10 to 20 year lifecycle and as a result, it is difficult to separate them,” says Ryan Trainer, the executive vice president and general counsel for the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), which represents manufacturers. “Some manufacturers have designed products to make them more easily separable. Products that do not contain innersprings are also easier to separate because they do not have steel in them to complicate the dismantling process.

“But by and large,” he adds, “our industry has not yet developed a responsible and commercially efficient process for dealing with our products at the end of their useful life.”

Discarded mattresses can take up a significant amount of landfill space, do not degrade well, and can create a dangerous “soft spot” in a landfill, says Terry McDonald, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County (SVDP) in Eugene, Oregon.

To deal with mattresses, the SVDP created its DR3 mattress recycling program. The program’s centerpiece is a 26,000 square-foot mattress recycling facility in Oakland, California, that serves Alameda and San Francisco counties and seven surrounding counties. The SVDP has another plant in Eugene.

According to McDonald, the nine California counties discard about 350,000 mattresses annually. The SVDP has been able to deconstruct 7 percent of those products, with another 10 percent being reused and 20 percent being reconstructed.

The recycling operations deal with various components and nearly 600,000 pounds a year of polyurethane foam, most of which is remanufactured into carpet pad, is recovered.

“Many of our mattresses come from city or county transfer sites—sites where trash is unloaded and then repacked for delivery to landfills,” says McDonald.

The SVDP recycled approximately 160,000 mattresses (120,000 in California and 40,000 in Oregon) in 2006. Trainer says that higher tipping fees charged by landfill operators will have the most impact in reducing the amount of mattresses that are landfilled.

“By increasing the tipping fee, they increase the attractiveness of mattress dismantling,” he says.

McDonald supports implementing the SB20 model for mattresses and agrees that higher tipping fees will increase diversion rates to recyclers.

“Mattress recycling is being driven in the northeast by the private sector,” he says. “The new mattress industry would like to see the traded or used product not end up in the secondary market, but to have it shredded or destroyed for a variety of reasons, particularly as it decreases the amount of used product.”

Trainer says the landfill operators should reconsider accepting mattresses.

“From a landfill inventory perspective,” he says, “the ratio of tonnage to volume for our product is way off, so landfill operators are creating huge opportunity costs by accepting mattresses. You could be charging a hell of a lot more for landfilling mattresses than you do for regular solid waste refuse or C&D debris because you are under-pricing your inventory when it comes to space.”