What do you do with an old mattress? You can't resell it, and you can hardly give a mattress away. It's no wonder that mattresses turn up so often illegally dumped by some rural road.
Hank Fisher is a regional planner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He says the cumbersome box springs and mattresses take up too much space in landfills.
"And they seem to be problematic from an operational point of view, in that the springs get coiled around, or wrapped around the compactors, and wear out bearings in the wheels," said Fisher.
And Fisher says mattresses have something recyclers call an extremely good memory.
"In that they'll rise up," Fisher said. "They'll work themselves back to the surface of the landfill, so they're very problematic from that viewpoint."
There are a lot of mattresses out there, in our homes, hotels and institutions. According to Fisher, Minnesotans purchase more than 600,000 mattresses a year, with a comparable number getting tossed out.
Over the past four years, some 46,000 old mattresses have ended up at Goodwill Industries in Duluth. They charge the public $7 per mattress at one of 14 collection sites in 10 counties. Their building, just off the John Blatnik High Bridge, is where mattress recycling begins.
Goodwill's Greg Conkins watches as a worker filets a mattress cover with a sharp utility knife.
"What we do here is, we manually dismantle every mattress, every box spring that comes into our facility," Conkins explained.
Each layer of fabric, cotton and foam padding is pulled off and stacked. They had to build a machine to rip the coil springs away from the wooden frame.
Right now the value of the springs is zero because nobody will take them.Tim Hagen
The used foam goes to Madison, Wis., to become carpet underlay. The wooden frames become fuel in a local paper mill. Cotton goes into oil filters for big rigs like locomotives.
But there are still some problems reusing mattress innards. Tim Hagen is a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute. He's trying to figure out what to do with a fiber layer called shoddy, which no one seems to want. And, Hagen says, there's the biggest problem.
"One of the challenges that we've seen there is the steel springs - that they're not compressible," Hagen said. "We've looked at shredding the springs, but that's cost prohibitive."
Right now Goodwill just gives the springs to an auto recycler, which chews them up with the old cars. But that doesn't return any money to the mattress project.
"The steel - that's the highest value component in the mattress," Hagen said. "Unfortunately it's the hardest to process. And, we're at the cutting edge of what it's going to take to take those springs and put it into a form that the local markets, local communities and (the) steel market can take."
His latest plan is to kind of roll the steel springs into tightly packed bales.
"So we're hoping that this bale that we have now, that's been compressed in a piece of customized machinery ... the local community here, as far as the recycling market and/or the end use market will be able to accept this, and the material will have a value at that point," Hagen said. "Right now, the value of the springs is zero because nobody will take them."
Hagen is working on a contract with Hennepin County to find a market for the steel and other mattress components.
Hennepin County, meanwhile, is contracting with Minneapolis-based PPL Industries to start a Twin Cities region mattress recycling project. Mattresses will be collected at recycling centers and municipal drop sites. That should be underway later this summer.