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Recycling your old mattress can help save the planet

Here's something to sleep on: Each year in the U.S., nearly 40 million mattresses and box springs are thrown out. Laid end-to-end, that's enough to wrap around the world. Twice.

Mattress recycling
Dennis Schleski, mattress deconstructor at Goodwill, cuts away a fabric mattress cover as a first step in taking apart a mattress for recycling. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Here's something to sleep on: Each year in the U.S., nearly 40 million mattresses and box springs are thrown out. Laid end-to-end, that's enough to wrap around the world. Twice.

If that's not enough to make you toss and turn, realize that most of that bedding is headed to landfills, wasting space and millions of tons of steel, cotton, foam and wood. It's an environmental nightmare, to be sure.

But an effort by Goodwill Industries in Duluth seeks to stem that flow, keeping thousands of mattresses out of landfills, providing jobs and sending recycled materials on to new life.

Goodwill will deconstruct more than 14,600 mattresses this year, keeping more than 145 tons of steel, 48 tons of cotton, 20 tons of foam, 20 tons of mattress topper and 28 tons of wood out of local landfills.

"This is about saving landfill space, recycling some materials that local businesses can use and providing a little employment for hard-to-employ people in our community,'' said Greg Conkins, goods manager at Goodwill in Duluth. "No one is getting rich off any part of this. But it's all fitting together to get something good done in our community.''

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Goodwill was approached by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to see if something could be done to divert bedding from the waste stream of 14 northern Minnesota counties. The University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute was called in to find markets for cotton and other materials.

The effort started in 2004. Now, mattresses come from as far away as Brainerd and Cambridge, and only about 8 percent of the parts are unusable and end up in the landfill, Conkins said.

Reusing the other 92 percent saves huge amounts of natural resources, cuts energy that would be spent making virgin products and helps keep climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And most of the materials are being recycled right here in the Northland, saving transportation costs.

A key contribution came from Duluth businessman Clint Deraas, who invented a hydraulic press to crush and bind steel bedsprings, producing a tightly-packed, 75-pound "brick'' of steel. NRRI confirmed that the steel was the right quality, and it is the perfect density for ME Global to use in its West Duluth foundry.

"Other [bedding] recycling efforts have focused on shredding everything at once and then trying to separate out what they could use. But there hasn't been any market for their materials,'' said Tim Hagen, NRRI engineer. "We've tried to match what we have with what local businesses can use. So it's sustainable environmentally and economically.''

The prototype spring press cost $120,000, but Goodwill thinks it can recoup its cost in just five years or so. Before the press started operating in January, Goodwill was giving the steel away and was unsure where it ended up. Now, ME Global is paying $213 per ton for old bedsprings. And Goodwill wants more mattresses and box springs. Lots more.

"I'd like to see 25,000 units per year,'' Conkins said. That would be a 71 percent increase in workload that would create more jobs. "We've got this beast now and we have to feed it.''

Hagen is working to develop a better market for the tons of cotton Goodwill rips out of old mattresses. While the stuff can be burned along with wood as fuel for electricity, Hagen says a better end-use would be as absorbent liners for diesel oil filters, or to filter pollution out of stormwater.

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NRRI has linked Goodwill with Mat Inc. of Floodwood, which makes erosion control and filtration products. Tests show that mattress cotton can work well for Mat Inc.'s filters -- but only if Goodwill can get impurities, especially staples, out of the mix.

"When they were cutting the material they were running into staples. There are thousands of staples in some of these mattresses,'' Hagen said, calling them a "stop sign'' but not a roadblock.

Hagen is working with Conkins to develop a process that will fluff and sort the cotton, using a magnet to remove the staples. Goodwill officials will need to decide whether to invest another $8,000 to find a paying market for cotton that it now gives away.

Larry Heggedahl, production manager at Mat Inc., said the company is willing to wait for Goodwill to get the process right. Mat Inc., which has about 20 employees, currently buys its filtration cotton from southern U.S. textile mills. Goodwill's cotton could be cheaper and closer to home.

"We think this has potential in a couple different areas. But we have to work out some of the details,'' Heggedahl said. "If you can pull something out of a landfill and make it into something useful and profitable, that's a good move. We just have to be creative.''

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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