The Mesa County landfill is going to the mattresses.
In order to fight a mattress and box spring problem that the landfill confronts every year, its managers persuaded the Mesa County Board of Commissioners to contract with a Front Range mattress recycling nonprofit, the only one of its kind in the state.
Doing so not only will save the landfill money in dealing with the unwanted items, but also do away with something that takes up a vast amount of space.
The landfill’s annual intake of mattresses, which don’t compact like ordinary trash, can take up the equivalent of five Olympic-sized swimming pools a year, said Jennifer Richardson, director of the county’s Solid Waste & Sustainability Division.
“In 2018, we did a waste audit to look at the types of trash that was coming through, and we noticed, ‘Boy, there’s so many mattresses coming in here,’” Richardson said. “We started tracking that, and found out that we’re seeing about 300 mattresses a week. Before that, mattresses were included in the tipping fee so we weren’t tracking them.”
At the time of that audit, the number of mattresses that came in was nearly 15,000, increasing by about 1,000 a year since then.
Trying to deal with them was somewhat of a nightmare, too. Not only do they not compact like regular trash — the landfill takes in about 750 tons of trash a day — but when their springs break in attempting to do so, they often would get entangled in the axles of landfill equipment, which Richardson estimated cost the landfill up to $10,000 a year in repairs.
For landfills nationwide, mattresses are one of the most unwanted items because they take up huge amounts of space, damage landfill equipment and are labor-intensive to break apart for recycling.
Many municipal trash haulers, including the Grand Junction Solid Waste Department in its spring cleanups, won’t take them anymore.
As a result, some landfills charge high per-mattress disposal fees to help pay for dealing with them, or to dissuade people from bringing them in.
While some states regulate that price at anywhere from $10 to $30 per mattress, other landfills can charge $80 or more, said Christopher Conway, president and founder of Spring Back Inc., the Commerce City-based nonprofit the landfill is contracting with the take its mattresses.
Conway said mattresses and box springs are made up of polyester or cotton fabrics, foam-rubber material, steel and wood, up to 95% of which are recyclable or can be made into other things, such as carpet padding.
But the 61-year-old Conway didn’t start his nonprofit a decade ago solely because he wanted to help the environment, but because he wanted to start a business so he could help people, particularly those who need jobs but have difficulty getting hired.
Other than his son, Peter, he hires only workers who are in the final stages of a drug-treatment program they were ordered to go through by the courts as part of their sentences for criminal activities.
“The common theme from them was, ‘I just want to work,’ and I just thought, somebody’s got to do something about that, and found out that person was me,” said Conway, who used to build multi-million dollar high-end homes on the Front Range.
“I spend a large part of my time advocating to other businesses saying, ‘shame on you,’ for not being willing to take a chance on somebody that made a mistake,” he added. “If you’ve never made a mistake, then don’t ever hire somebody who has. But if you have made a mistake, give somebody else the opportunity that somebody once gave you.”
Since he started the nonprofit, more than 250 workers have come and gone. Though not all of them succeeded with their treatment programs, and either ended up re-offending or died from overdoes because they returned to their drug use, many have. Some have continued to work at Conway’s facility for more than seven years.
Initially, Conway would take mattress donations from various businesses or individuals around the Denver metropolitan area. Now, he has contracts with landfills operated by 16 different local governments around the state, including his new contract with the Mesa landfill.
While most of those landfills are on the Front Range, two of his contracts are with Gunnison and Pitkin counties. He’s hoping for another one in Montrose. If he can get that, and add more on this side of the mountains, he’s considering opening up a Western Slope facility to help gather and break apart the mattresses.
(UN)MAKING THE BED
Once those mattresses are disassembled, Conway transports the material to nearby recycling centers or out-of-state businesses.
The steel springs go to metal recyclers, and the wood is turned into lawn mulch or firewood. The fabrics and foam are shipped to companies in Arizona and California that turn them into other products, such as pet bedding, reupholstered furniture, pillows or carpet pads.
A side benefit to recycling mattresses is that it gives people who need to dispose of used ones less incentive to leave them on a roadside, in an alley, or dump them into the desert, Conway said.
The mattresses Mesa County sees come from area hotels, Colorado Mesa University’s dorm rooms and county residents, Richardson said.
The tipping fee for disposing mattresses or box springs is $10 each, a fee the landfill recently raised and expects to keep, she said.
That fee nearly covers the $200,000 annual contract awarded to Conway’s company. Another $200,000 contract was awarded to a Grand Junction-based trucking company, Nostrand Trucking, to haul the mattresses to Commerce City as needed.
Richardson said when factoring in her labor costs, unused space at the landfill, equipment maintenance and savings from not damaging that equipment, the landfill comes out ahead. That landfill, by the way, is entirely self-sustaining, and receives no county subsidies.
“It costs about $40 per mattress to get them recycled when you include transportation,” she said. “So it’s not free. I’m charging $10 when it cost $40, but in terms of air-space savings and savings on the equipment and the down time and labor costs, it’s actually much cheaper to recycle them than to do nothing.”
Leave the mattress; take the cannoli.