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Mattress apocalypse? Buried in trashed bedding, Mpls. may seek relief

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Mattresses piled up at Second Chance Recycling.
Hundreds of mattresses are piled up at Second Chance Recycling to be taken apart, Nov. 24, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minn.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Mattresses create lots of headaches for trash collectors. They're bulky, awkward to move and full of air, so they don't like to stay buried in landfills.

Instead, they slowly work their way to the surface, rising from the earth like zombies.

And when Minneapolis residents throw out old mattresses, it costs taxpayers big money. The city spends about $600,000 to recycle 34,000 mattresses each year because, since 2012, Hennepin County has banned the bedding from its garbage burning power plant downtown. Turns out mattress springs don't burn.

Given the cost and hassle, the Minneapolis City Council may ask the Legislature to create a statewide mattress recycling program to help ease the city's burden. The council will decide next month whether to add the issue to its Capitol lobbying agenda.

For now, the costs fall squarely on the city.

Each of those mattresses and box springs costs about $18 to recycle, which is far more expensive than any other recyclable item the city handles, said Minneapolis Solid Waste and Recycling Director Dave Herberholz. The recycled material "does not come close to offsetting the internal costs," he added.

It's expensive, because a mattress is like a layer cake. The only way to salvage the materials is to separate the layers. That's a time-intensive process.

Mattress recycling worker takes apart a mattress.
Marcell Patterson cuts a mattress open, Nov. 24, 2014 at Second Chance Recycling, in Minneapolis.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

At Second Chance Recycling in Minneapolis, the average worker can dismantle around 35 beds per shift.

The most valuable part of the mattress by far is the steel cage of springs. They're strung together into trains 12-beds long and fed into a custom built baler.

The 250 pound bales will eventually get shipped out, sold and melted down. The foam becomes carpet pads. The cotton gets used in the oil fields of North Dakota to soak up small spills.

"There's a lot of hard work involved in this. It's dirty work," said Kevin Cannon, who supervises the non-profit recycling operation.

"The whole point of it is to keep stuff out of the landfill," he added. "I don't know how you would do that without doing it by hand and separating out what you can sell, and what's left over that can still at least be burnt for energy."

Springs are exposed after a mattress is cut open.
Spring and foam are exposed after a mattress is cut open at Second Chance Recycling.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Most mattresses in Minnesota still end up in landfills.

Recycling them is a relatively new idea. There are only a few dozen organizations doing it nationwide. But that's expected to change thanks to new laws passed last year in three states: Connecticut, Rhode Island and California.

The laws, which will go into effect over the next two years, will tack a recycling charge onto the sale of new mattresses.

In Connecticut, the first state to pass such a law, the proposed fee is $9 per mattress or box spring. That money would cover the cost of recycling the product when it reaches the end of its useful life.

Second Chance Recycling receiving mattresses.
Workers at Second Chance Recycling unload mattresses.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

The International Sleep Products Association, a trade group for mattress manufacturers, helped craft the legislation in the three states. Supporting the recycling law gave the industry more control over how the programs would work, said Chris Hudgins, the group's vice president.

"We wanted consumers to know what they were paying for. We wanted better awareness of the program," Hudgins said. "We want them to understand the process. And we also thought that the industry could run it better and at a lower cost than the state could."

Hudgins' organization is focused on implementing the existing laws and isn't advocating for other states to adopt similar measures right away. Minneapolis may start its push at the Legislature anyway.