Old mattresses represent a huge waste problem – they’re bulky, made of multiple materials, and need to be dismantled for recycling. Sarah Houlton visited a mattress recycling facility in Massachusetts that’s not only keeping mattresses out of landfill, it’s helping young offenders have a brighter future
Hiding inside an old textile mill in the middle of Lawrence, in the Merrimack Valley just north of Boston, is UTEC Mattress, one of Massachusetts’ three mattress recycling facilities. ‘Our main mission is to reduce waste going into landfill or through the incinerator,’ said Aaron Uehara, the facility’s mattress recycling operations supervisor. ‘Our operation is smaller in scale than most mattress recyclers, as we do just 20,000 units a year.’
Collection is currently a combination of residential and commercial pick-ups and commercial drop-offs, plus 20-yard containers for mattress dumping at waste transfer stations. ‘In many towns, the waste transfer facility is not able to pull them apart and separate the materials, and this programme allows different towns to recycle,’ Uehara said. ‘Rather than having to fill up a box-truck to drop them off, they can load up our van.’
UTEC recently started a pilot project with the city of Cambridge – just across the Charles River from Boston – to carry out kerbside pick-up. Clearly, Uehara says, this is the most desirable way to collect mattress- es from the consumer point of view, but it’s expensive.
‘It’s easier to collect and recycle computers, because there is more value on the back end,’ he said. ‘The cost is not all being put on the consumer.’ Cambridge is a good option for a pilot scheme because the housing density makes alternatives difficult. UTEC also works with various colleges and universities.
Pick up the pieces
Taking a mattress to pieces involves cut- ting and separating all the different layers. If there are springs, these will usually be bound together with metal clips. Even the modern breed of bed-in-a-box foam mat- tresses need to be taken apart. ‘Cutting apart that first layer to separate the foam is the most tedious part with a traditional mattress,’ Uehara said.
‘Stacking and organising the material is very lifting-intensive.’ Whereas many European recycling facilities now have automation, in the US this still all tends to be done by hand.
‘The material dirty, it’s staple-ridden, and it takes a lot of labour to sort,’ he said. ‘It’s also hard to find buyers for the material. We have to charge customers for the cost of deconstructing as we make so little from selling the materials. So much pre-consumer recycling material is already available.’ The state pays $16 per mattress and private customers $17.50, plus extra for transportation if UTEC collect them.
Uehara is working hard to increase the diversion yields. This helps to keep as much material as possible out of landfill, as well as bring in revenue. His aim is to achieve 90% diversion. About two-thirds of the waste by weight is metal from springs, and about 20–30% foam, felt and cotton. The metal goes to local scrap yards, with the facility’s truck often delivering metal and returning with mattresses.
They have invested in a vertical baler from Max-Pak that allows the foam, felt and cotton to be compressed into 360kg bales. The foam is the hardest of all the materials to manage, he said, but is the second most valuable material, after the metal. But even then, getting enough cash for it to cover costs can be a struggle.
‘We were sending polyurethane to a facility in Springfield, Massachusetts, and were being paid about 2.5¢ a pound for it,’ he explained. But that’s 100 miles away and, he said, they were haemorrhaging money sending it so far without being able to back-haul anything. ‘We have other partners in Connecticut and Rhode Island, but even there it’s 4–5¢ a pound.’ More recently, they have sent mate- rial to Mexico, for about 10¢ a pound. ‘That covers a little more,’ he said.
The polyurethane foam recovered at the site is largely used to make rebond carpeting material. The fabric shoddy pads are mostly wool blends, and recyclers will clean them, chop them up, and make new pads with them. It is nonwoven, and thus fairly easy to insert it back into the textile stream. The final material generated from the mattresses is loose cotton, which they break even on. ‘It is very easy to separate, and the contamination rates are very low,’ he said. ‘We collect maybe 3–5% cotton, and a typical price for this is 12–13¢ a pound.’
There are some components that simply cannot be recycled, however. Mattress toppers are big culprits here. These have small amounts of wovens, non-wovens, plastic and metal in each one, and this makes separation too labour-intensive to be economically feasible. As the most exterior part of the mattress, they are often badly soiled, too, making recycling even more difficult.
Spring into action
Pocket springs are becoming an increasing problem for mattress recyclers. These started to become more popular in the US in the late 2000s, Uehara said. And, as many of these mattresses are now reaching the end of their life, the number to be recycled is set to grow. Each individual spring is glued inside a fabric covering making separating the two extremely difficult.
Right now, he said, they have to use a baler to make them more manageable, and distribute them around the different scrapyards, as they will often only accept one load a month. ‘It goes into the contaminated waste stream, and we don’t get paid for it,’ he said. Currently he’s sending out about five tons a month of this waste.
A handful of recycling facilities will hand-cut the springs out of pocket springs, but most end up in landfill. About a fifth of all mattresses reaching recycling facilities in the US now contain them. A Mattress Recycling Council research project is looking at ways of mechanically separating them, ideally without sacrificing either component material.
Another difference between the US and Europe is that in the US mattresses are still commonly sold with box-springs. These include a wooden frame as well as springs, and also these also have to be dismantled, although this is far easier than mattress separation. ‘At first, we used a hammer and crowbar to pop them apart,’ he said. UTEC now has a machine to strip them apart, separating the metal from the wood. But, Uehata said, the metal is left as a gangly mess, which makes transportation a challenge. The wood is much easier to dispose of.
Made for recycling... if only
'Mattress innovations are constantly changing, but how can we connect the manufacturers and recyclers to create something that is easier to recycle?’ Uehara said. ‘A lot of the foam that is now coming in is memory foam, including different blends of latex as well as polyurethane,’ he said.
‘Polyurethane recyclers won’t go near it,’ he said. ‘The recyclers mostly turn our foam into rebond, and there is no room for material with latex.’ The growing market penetration of adjustable beds is also going to increase dismantling problems.
Uehara is looking at more creative ways of re-using materials, too. For example, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been using some of the felt to make laptop cases and other bags. They are looking at repurposing some of the small amount of vinyl they collect, too. ‘It’s pretty small scale and won’t take tons of material, but it might spark ideas,’ he said.
UTEC is now looking to expand the mat- tress recycling operations, with a larger facility that is better designed for the process than the current mill. ‘I’m very happy with what we are doing in this facility, but we don’t always have the mattresses available for the programme work,’ Uehara said. ‘Sometimes we have to turn mattresses away because we don’t have the space. A bigger facility would widen our ability to generate revenue, and to expand the programme.’
Recycling with a social purpose
There is more to UTEC, however, than simply recycling mattresses – it is a non-profit organisation working with at-risk youth. It started in 1999 as a safe drop-in space in downtown Lowell, an area where gang violence was rife and there was little for young adults to do. A workforce development programme started in the early 2010s, including the mattress recycling. There is also now a cafe and culinary department, a woodworking school, and a host of other activities to help young people into the world of work.
They might be offenders, young parents or even victims of trauma. ‘Life has taken its course, and a lot of times we are the last solution,’ Uehara said. A lot of data suggest that what happens in the 48 hours after leaving incarceration will dictate the kind of path they will continue down. A transformational beginnings programme works with these young people. Its aim is to move them on to the workforce development programme.
‘We go into prisons where we talk with young adults – and listen to them,’ he said. And they will often offer them a ride home when they are released. ‘When they come out, we occupy as much of that 48 hours as possible, because if they link up with people they ran with in the past, behaviour can repeat itself. A lot of times they don’t have the network to remove themselves from the situation.’
People joining the workplace programme are paid the minimum wage. As they often have no qualifications, they can also work towards the High School Equivalency Test, splitting their time between education and the workforce. There are other educational opportunities, too. ‘We strive to give forklift training to as many of our young adults as possible,’ Uehara said. ‘This is exactly the sort of thing that will increase their opportunities for well-paid employment in future.
‘The mattress recycling facility is a great way to interact, create a safe space, and allow young people to feel they are doing something positive,’ he concluded. ‘There is a huge population of people who need something to do, and a huge population of mattresses that need somewhere to go. We are trying to create a win–win situation that will have a lasting impact.’