Off all the items that end up in a landfill, operators agree that mattresses are the biggest nuisance. So one Greensboro entrepreneur found a way to give new life to mattresses while turning a profit.
"Landfill operators hate mattresses, frankly. Mattresses don't compact well at all."
That's Gayle Wilson. He runs Orange County's Solid Waste Department.
Americans throw away more than 20 million mattresses per year. They're huge, and they take up more space than they're worth, which shortens the life of a landfill.
To add insult to injury, "the springs pop out and get tangled in equipment. And then they can damage the equipment, and then they have to spend a lot of time unraveling the wire."
So Orange County cut its losses. They charge residents $10 to drop mattresses off at the landfill. Then they pay a private mattress recycler $9.25 to come pick them up.
Purpose Recycling is based in Greensboro. Owner Bob Savino collects mattresses here, where they're processed.
His warehouse is a labyrinth of stacked mattresses: Old, new, big and small. Grouped by size. They'll all be stripped down and sorted into materials: Springs, textiles and foam. It's a zero-landfill operation, so nothing gets thrown out. The soft stuff is baled and re-sold.
"We've shipped cotton to the Middle East," Savino says. "So, there is a use for everything. It becomes a commodity. So the prices change, and the demands change. But there's still a use for it all."
And the heavy part, the springs, get reused right here. Savino runs a second company called BedEx under the same roof as Purpose Recycling.
"You know, instead of a cradle to grave operation, we have more of a grave to cradle operation because we're taking an older discarded product and we're making it new and reusable," he says.
Savino heat-treats all internal springs according to state law, to kill any microorganisms. Then he sprays his own special coating on the springs to strengthen them.
BedEx employees then wrap the core in foam and new fabric, building a whole new mattress.
Savino sells a few repurposed mattresses out of his shop, but BedEx makes most of its money through contracts with several hotel chains, military bases and colleges in the state. UNC-Greensboro has replaced 3,000 used mattresses through BedEx since 2010.
Lindsay Burkhart is Facilities Manager for residence halls at UNC-G. She says the university likes that their dorm mattresses aren't going to a landfill.
"And actually, as an added bonus, we're saving a lot of money because the process is so efficient and eco-friendly," she says. "I'd say we're saving 30-to-40 percent per mattress."
There are a few charities in the country that also repurpose mattresses. Industries of the Blind is a common vendor for many North Carolina colleges. As a for-profit, BedEx is an outlier.
Still, Bob Savino says it's a good time to be in the mattress repurposing business. But it has its challenges.
"It's really expensive. Equipment is expensive. Property is expensive. You're not going to find somebody who's just going to walk into it," he says."
Still, Savino says competition in the mattress repurposing industry is inevitable. But for now, he says, he's inventing the wheel in this business.