At first, Spring Back Colorado workers used razor blades to cut away the fabric covering the old mattress springs. But at 30 minutes or more per mattress, getting the steel out for recycling just wasn’t cost effective.
The Commerce City recycler turned to the Colorado School of Mines. Students appeared to be onto something, coming up with a concept to engineer a highly pressurized, high-powered water knife to slice open the top of the mattress so that an extraction device could pull out the steel coils. Then COVID hit. The students moved on.
So, Spring Back began baling up the challenging mattresses to send to its steel recycling partner. After six months, though, the partner rejected them. “They said it was too hard on their machines,” said Peter Conway, Spring Back’s vice president of business development.
Most of the time, workers spend their days deconstructing old mattresses by hand and machine. They strip out the wood, foam, metal and other commodities of value for recycling, upcycling or reuse. Very little is sent to local landfills — only about 15% to 20%.
But this isn’t just any type of mattress.
It’s those darned pocket-coil mattresses — the ones with individually wrapped steel coils that “offer a superior form of support,” says review site Mattress Advisor. Often wrapped in polypropylene fiber, the coils are made of high-quality steel. But getting them out of each pocket has stymied Spring Back, which receives 1,500 to 2,000 old mattresses a week.
If they could just figure this out, Conway thinks Spring Back could send “less than 5%” of mattress waste to landfills.
“It’s one of my top priorities, actually,” he said, “because if we can (recover) the materials still inside and not landfill it, that’s a huge win, right?”
There’s value in those pockets
According to industry stats, the average mattress weighs around 50 pounds and can have 40 pounds recoverable steel. The average lifespan is 13.9 years. Not all have pocket coils, though a growing percentage do.
But to have workers cut out the springs from each of the 800 to 2,000 or more pockets per mattress is impractical, because most recyclers don’t have enough workers to handle the chore, let alone make enough money to pay them. Conway estimates that retrieving the steel in an old coiled mattress nets them “11 cents a ton.” Good thing that’s not the value proposition for Spring Back.
“We’re not making that much per mattress,” Conway said. “The savings would be from just not having to landfill them.”
Last year, 35.4 million mattresses were sold in the U.S., according to the International Sleep Products Association. About 50,000 are discarded daily while an estimated 2 million are recycled a year, according to the Mattress Recycling Council, a nonprofit formed by the mattress industry to administer recycling programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the only states currently with state-mandated mattress-recycling programs.
It estimated that 30% of the state’s mattress discards have pocket coils— and “this percentage will gradually increase, given the growing popularity of this component over the past 20 years.”
— The Mattress Recycling Council’s latest annual report for California
Data is clearest in California, where a recycling fee of $10.50 is added to the purchase of each mattress to subsidize recycling. Consumers can recycle at no charge. Last year, around 3.8 million mattresses were sold in California while 1.4 million were recycled. Recyclers diverted 78.4% of the materials away from landfills, according to the latest MRC report.
Colorado’s Department of Public Health & Environment, which oversees solid waste and recycling efforts in the state, doesn’t track how many mattresses end up in the state’s landfills. But the state doesn’t have a great record with recycling. In 2018, 32.4% of waste sent to the landfill could have been recycled, according to CDPHE records. The state’s total diversion rate was 31.2% in 2021.
But even in states without a law, like Colorado, there’s a financial incentive for recycling.
“Mattresses are made to not compact,” said Jennifer Richardson, Mesa County’s Solid Waste and Sustainability Division director. “You want it to not compact after sleeping on it, right? And it’s no different in the landfill. So when we put that into the landfill, it takes up a tremendous amount of space. And when (our) equipment drives over it, it’ll get tied up into the compactor tires and cause a tremendous amount of damage.”
Soft things gum up and break equipment. And in landfills, the compacting machines that drive over have “cleaner bars,” which look like cleats, on their wheels that get tangled up with soft things. If the cleats break, it costs $500 to repair. Break the whole bar and it’ll set the landfill back $4,000, she said.
The Mesa County-owned landfill in Grand Junction partnered with Spring Back two years ago. When customers dump a mattress, they’re directed to a collection spot on site. The landfill charges $15 to the customer, even though its own cost is $40 to cover recycling and transportation to Spring Back’s plant in Commerce City.
We’re not making that much per mattress. The savings would be from just not having to landfill them.
— Peter Conway, Spring Back’s vice president of business development
We’re in the business of air space and even for a landfill, you can’t dump forever and ever and ever.
— Jennifer Richardson, Mesa County’s Solid Waste and Sustainability Division Director
At Spring Back Mattress’ Commerce City warehouse, Eric Gallegos pitches in wherever he can to help the company strip down and recycle all the parts of unwanted mattresses. Gallegos, a former drug addict and dealer, faced prison or a local rehab. He chose rehab, which put him in touch with Spring Back for a job. He’s been clean for more than two years. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Spring Back Colorado employee Cameron Gallatin of Westminster feeds mattress foam into a crusher at Spring Back Colorado on July 18 in Commerce City. Bales of this foam are then shipped from Spring Back to California for further recycling. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: At Spring Back Mattress’ Commerce City warehouse, Eric Gallegos pitches in wherever he can to help the company strip down and recycle all the parts of unwanted mattresses. Gallegos, a former drug addict and dealer, faced prison or a local rehab. He chose rehab, which put him in touch with Spring Back for a job. He’s been clean for more than two years. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun) BELOW: Spring Back Colorado employee Cameron Gallatin of Westminster feeds mattress foam into a crusher at Spring Back Colorado on July 18, 2023 in Commerce City. Bales of this foam are then shipped from Spring Back to California for further recycling. Photo by Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun
Other landfills charge more — it costs $74 at the Waste Management-operated Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site in Aurora, and those go straight into the landfill. But in Mesa County, the more mattresses that pile up in the landfill, the more expensive it will be for everyone.
Mattresses are big and bulky and take up more “air space” in the landfill, Richardson said. The faster it fills up, the higher tipping fees to dump trash. And then, a new landfill must be found.
“It’s a maintenance issue, equipment downtime and it’s expensive. And why — for something that is 90% recyclable,” she said. “We’re in the business of air space and even for a landfill, you can’t dump forever and ever and ever.”
Mattress recycling history and the laws
It wasn’t until the 1990s when the idea of recycling an old mattress started gaining traction, according to Terry McDonald, who helped set up the mattress recycling cohort called Cascade Alliance.
One of the first companies known for recycling mattresses was Verlo Mattress Co. in Wisconsin. Customers who purchased a new mattress could get their old one hauled away. But it proved too costly for the company and didn’t catch on in the industry.
But where it did catch on was California after the state began passing laws to reduce waste in the 1990s. At the time, McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County in Oregon, began working with nonprofits in Oakland, California, to provide jobs for people who had trouble getting hired. Recycling seemed like a good industry for that. And in California, if waste companies and solid-waste facilities didn’t recycle, they faced fines.
- The average mattress weighs around 50 pounds and can have 40 pounds recoverable steel
- The average lifespan of a mattress is 13.9 years
- 35.4 million mattresses were sold in the U.S.
- About 50,000 are discarded daily while an estimated 2 million are recycled a year
“That made the districts and solid waste facilities very motivated to pull more products out of the waste stream,” McDonald said. “The easy things had already been pulled out. When we came in and asked how to do more waste-based businesses, they said, ‘Mattresses. It’s 1% of our waste stream by volume.’”
By the early 2000s, the organization had figured out how to recycle mattresses profitably. Over the next decade, it helped found Cascade Alliance to help other nonprofits share best recycling practices, as well as provide jobs to those having trouble finding employment. Spring Back, a Cascade member, partners with neighbor Stout Street Foundation to hire recovering addicts.
“In Colorado, as in Oregon and many other places in the United States, recycling is aspirational,” McDonald said.
That’s changing, too. Last year, Oregon passed a law similar to California’s to collect a fee when people buy a mattress. The law, expected to go into effect in 2024, will use the funds to support mattress recycling.
In Colorado, there is no mattress recycling law, though the state did pass a producer responsibility law last year for packaging.
Conway is hesitant to support any sort of state mandate. That’s because to be successful, there must be a local market and processor for recycled materials, he said. There’s no infrastructure in the state or nearby to complete the cycle.
“We’ve talked about just creating more secondary recycling operations here because why do we have to send the foam that we’re getting all the way to California? Why can’t we have an in-state foam recycling facility?” he wondered. “Mandating mattress recycling wouldn’t be effective here because there’s none of those supporting functions that need to accompany a process like that. … As soon as you have to put all of your materials on a truck and pay $2,000 just to get them to somebody else’s door, you’re cutting into your profit margins that are already very lean in the first place.”
McDonald said if communities really wanted a sustainable plan for the future, they should follow Sweden’s lead, which has something called the extended producer responsibility. That means that even before a product is manufactured, there must be a plan to make sure it can be recycled.
Otherwise, he said, you’ll wind up with difficult products like pocket coil mattresses, which have challenged his group of nonprofits. “We are at our wits’ end.”
There’s one strategy that has been relatively successful, at least for large private recyclers, he said.
“It’s a four-axle shredder (that has) a tight pack of blades that will shred this material and grind it down to little bits. And then you can extract as much of the steel as possible. The steel industry will take a little bit of co-contamination,” he said. “That machine is about $2 million.”
Why the century-old pocket coil is now an issue
- Last year, around 3.8 million mattresses were sold in California while 1.4 million were recycled.
- Recyclers in California diverted 78.4% of the materials away from landfills
- In 2018, 32.4% of waste sent to the Colorado landfills could have been recycled
- The state’s diversion rate was about 31% in 2022.
Mass-produced pocket-coiled mattresses have been around nearly a century.
The Simmons Bedding Company developed the first Beautyrest mattress “featuring wire coils individually enclosed in fabric enclosures” in 1925, according to the history page of Serta Simmons Bedding. The company, which emerged from bankruptcy in June, didn’t respond to a request for comment on what customers should do with old coil mattresses.
The popularity of pocket coils was noted in the Mattress Recycling Council’s latest annual report for California. It estimated that 30% of the state’s mattress discards have pocket coils — and “this percentage will gradually increase, given the growing popularity of this component over the past 20 years.”
Why the uptick? They’re lighter. They weigh 20 to 50 pounds, whereas some deluxe multi-layer mattresses tip the scale at more than 100 pounds.
And mattresses, in general, are much more widely available. Shoppers don’t have to go to a mattress store anymore. They can visit a store like Costco or Sam’s Club, which have them right on the floor. You can buy them online and they’ll arrive in a box.
Many online mattress companies even offer a trial period, after which mattresses can be returned. But instead of going to charity, they wind up in a landfill, an issue that product reviewers at The New York Times Wirecutter site have struggled with.
LEFT: The layers of a pocket-coil mattress. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun) RIGHT: King and Queen-sized pocket-coil mattresses in boxes have expanded the market for mattress companies, which sell them online or, in this case, a local Sam’s Club store. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: The layers of a pocket-coil mattress. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun) BELOW: King and Queen-sized pocket-coil mattresses in boxes have expanded the market for mattress companies, which sell them online or, in this case, a local Sam’s Club store. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
“The pocket coil has come to dominate the market, especially in the last 10 years,” said McDonald, who estimated that about a decade ago, they made up 5% to 7% of the market but now are closer to 50%. “One of the biggest (reasons) is the fact that you can actually compress pocket coils into a dense mat that can then be put into a box or into a roll sold at your local Costco. That has really revolutionized the business.”
Back to the drawing board
Most of the pocket coils dropped off at Spring Back do wind up in the landfill. Conway has been determined to find an affordable solution for years.
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He found a company in California all set up to recycle pocket coils. They’d take the mattresses and just charge Spring Back by the cubic volume. But to pay for that and get the mattresses trucked out to California would cost Spring Back $3,500 to $4,000.
“They had a machine custom built from a company in Denmark that was like $1.4 million. And they said it needs to be repaired every week,” Conway said. “That’s not a viable solution for us.”
He had another idea and hired an engineering firm to turn a large storage container into an incinerator to burn off the material from the coils. He’d hoped to get a grant from the state Department of Public Health & Environment but the agency doesn’t fund concepts or research and development.
“The hard part about the grants that are available is that they are reimbursement grants,” he said.
In 2020, the Mattress Recycling Council sponsored a research project where contract designer Knoble Design designed a machine just for pocket coil removal. It uses a conveyor belt with an arm on top with six corkscrews that poke the pocket above while underneath, the coils are pulled out for complete separation of steel and material. The Atlanta Attachment Company in Georgia acquired the patent and is expected to start selling the machines any day now.
Conway is hopeful and has already inquired about the $140,000 machine. But he’s also a little wary.
“The first iteration of the model, it’s only six coils wide. So you can’t put even a full-size mattress through. So one mattress will probably take three or four passes depending on the size,” he said. “But it’s still better than what we have.”
The smaller machines could really help smaller recyclers like Spring Back. But as a nonprofit, Spring Back has to figure out how to come up with the money. He’s thinking about applying for a CDPHE grant, but even that will be a challenge.
“You have to front all the capital upfront and then as you fulfill the requirements of the grant, they reimburse you the money. The machine’s like $140,000 and it’s available. But we don’t have $140,000,” he said. “It’s very preclusive for nonprofits and self-funded entities to do this.