Making a dent in mattress recycling

By Jim Parsons

What’s the secret to starting and sustaining a successful mattress recycling program in the United States? A one–year pilot program sponsored by a partnership of public, private and nonprofit organizations in Minnesota hopes it has some answers.

Launched in June 2004, the Duluth–based Northeast Minnesota Mattress Recycling Program is striving to establish a stable, self–supporting way to divert a substantial portion of the more than 63,700 mattresses that are deposited in the area’s landfills each year. 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.

“Mattress disposal has been an issue in northeast Minnesota for years,” says Dan Belden, a senior planner for the seven–county Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, which serves 133,000 residents in a 500–square–mile area. “(Used mattresses) eat up valuable landfill space, which is at a premium since no new facilities are planned.”

Before launching the new project, a group of partners investigated the nuances of mattress recycling operations, drawing lessons from what has been a mixed record of success nationwide.

Some $24,000 in grants from the Office of Environmental Assistance and the Northeast Waste Advisory Council enabled the partners to develop a business plan for the project, which is currently based at a Goodwill facility where it functions comparable amount of compressed trash. Yet most charge only a few dollars in tipping fees for each mattress.”

The pilot disposal program charges $6 to dispose of each mattress.

In its first five months, the pilot facility recycled approximately 800 mattresses and diverted 22 tons of recyclable steel, cotton and foam from the region’s landfills. Many of the mattresses have come from Duluth retailers, the local campus of the University of Minnesota and the sanitary district, representing approximately 30% of the area’s potential participants.

A new pallet shearer, funded by a $7,000 grant from the International Sleep Products Association, will enable Goodwill to more efficiently process box springs.

“It has definitely been an interesting process so far, though not with the volume we had hoped for,” says Greg Conkins, a contracts manager for Goodwill, which has earned more than $6,000 from fees and steel recycling revenue. “We expect that higher mattress disposal fees at the landfills will help bring up the numbers. The potential for the program’s success is definitely there.”

Belden agrees, adding that unforeseen fluctuations in the markets for recycled materials have hampered the program’s early progress.

“We do feel that the program is off to a good start,” he says. “We will continue to evaluate the program, respond to suggestions and improve the process wherever we can. We’re very hopeful that when the pilot period ends in May, we’ll be in a position to take the program to the next level.”

Canadian dismantler plans an expansion

After recycling mattresses successfully in Quebec, a private mattress disposal company called MattCanada is eyeing expansion opportunities in Ottawa and Toronto, and possibly the United States.

Abdullah Erdem, president and founder of the company, started looking at ways to recycle mattress components nearly a decade ago.

“I used to work as a furniture delivery guy and I used to throw a lot of used mattresses into the scrap yard,” he says. “I got an idea (for disposal alternatives) because one day the guy refused to take a mattress at the scrap yard. I thought there’s material there we can sell, like the metal.”

It took years for him to develop a business plan, design machinery to separate and shred the mattresses and find customers for the component foams, fabrics, metals and woods.

“I mortgaged my house to do this, and the first couple of months were very quiet,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.” Initially, MattCanada’s three workers processed only 50 mattresses a day.

Now, he says, the company has 20 employees who process about 1,000 pieces a day, with mattresses coming from retailers, prisons, hospitals, universities, hotels and motels, and individuals. The company also receives mattresses from local landfills that no longer accept the bulky items, Erdem says. In addition to used mattresses and box springs, MattCanada will dismantle upholstered furniture and accepts polyurethane foam, cotton and plastic for processing.

The company charges a fee for accepting products and earns money from the sale of the components. Erdem declined to discuss the particulars of the company’s finances.

Erdem attributes his company’s success, in part, to the fact that MattCanada ensures the retailers and bedding manufacturers who send him damaged or used products that no mattresses or box springs will be renovated.

“We guarantee that none of the mattresses is resold on the market. We do respect our customers,” Erdem says. “For us it is only a destroying business. Anything that comes here is destroyed.” MattCanada dismantles the majority of mattresses the day they arrive at the plant and has a security system to thwart would–be renovators from stealing beds, he says.

Erdem would like to expand his operations, first into Ottawa and then to Toronto and is purchasing equipment to set up those facilities. Eventually, he says, he would like to form a partnership with a company to bring his business into the United States, perhaps in the Boston or New York City areas.

 

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