What happens to mattresses at the end of their lifespan is likely a topic very few people spend much time thinking about. Considering many mattresses can last for 10 years or more, disposing of old ones is a task most Americans will only have to tackle a handful of times throughout their lives. But what happens when that action is compounded, not only by the 327 million people living in the U.S., but also by all of the hotels, hospitals, university dorms, and military installations nationwide, all of which are replacing old mattresses regularly?
The problem becomes rather staggering. According to mattressrecyclingcouncil.org, the result is that more than 50,000 mattresses end up in landfills every single day.
But thanks to the initiative of Hector Figueroa, furnishing management officer, old mattresses from Fort Riley's barracks have not been part of that statistic for over seven years.
"The landfill and the Defense Reutilization & Marketing Office on Fort Riley did not take any mattresses," Figueroa said. "It takes ten years for one mattress to biodegrade, so that's why landfills don't want them."
Figueroa said originally his office had a private service bring a construction hopper and they would pay to have the old mattresses hauled away.
This method worked for a while. However, disposing of the mattresses was not only an environmental problem but also a financial one. With an average lifespan of only five years, Fort Riley's 6,500 barracks rooms generate over 1,500 mattresses a year that need to be disposed of. At a disposal cost of $5 per mattress, the expense added up quickly.
Figueroa knew he needed to research alternative solutions.
"I just started calling around to see if anybody in Kansas would take any mattresses to recycle. And Hutchinson Correctional Facility did."
As the only mattress recycling center in Kansas, HCF has recycled more than 17,000 mattresses since 2010, which, disassembled, consisted of 46,000 pounds of foam, 287,000 pounds of steel, 22,000 pounds of wood and 46,000 pounds of cotton, according to their website. This means that more than 1.5 million pounds of solid waste has been diverted from local landfills through their recycling efforts.
Fort Riley has contributed to those numbers since July 2012, and has saved over $35,000 in the process.
"Any time I have over 65 mattresses, I call them up and ask if I can bring them over. And they always say yes. It might cost my hourly time, but it doesn't compare to a year's worth of turning them all in for $5 each."
Fort Riley isn't the only installation trying to find a solution to the mattress disposal problem, said Figueroa.
Some other installations, like Georgia's Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, use Unicor, the Federal Prison Industries program, for mattress acquisition and disposal, explained Figueroa. "When they get new ones, they send all the used ones back on the same truck, back to Unicor for recycle."
But due to Fort Riley's distance from a Unicor recycling center, that strategy won't work here.
Installations, like Fort Carson, Colorado and Fort Huachuca, Arizona, face the same hurdles.
"At one time Fort Huachuca called up and asked what we were doing with our mattresses, and we told them that we recycle them here in Kansas," Figueroa said. "So they got in touch with the HCF and loaded up all their mattresses and sent them ten semi-trucks."
Figueroa said he is concerned now that new management at HCF may be looking at changing the way the program works, and they may no longer be able to handle the amount of mattresses that Fort Riley donates.
Instead of accepting mattress donations for free, they may have to start charging a per-mattress fee.
"Now, we aren't sure what's going to happen. We have a large volume of mattresses. According to what they told me, they're not making enough headway on them. Right now when we take them, they stack them and they sit outside in the weather."
The furnishing management office dropped off a shipment of 600 mattresses last week, reducing Figueroa's inventory to zero. However, he said that when he starts working on replacing the mattresses from 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team's barracks, he could accumulate up to 1200 more.
Figueroa said that the decision on whether the installation will be able to continue their shipments to HCF will have to be made at levels above his office, but that everyone is working on identifying potential solutions.
Even though the future of the mattress recycle program may be uncertain, Figueroa takes pride in doing everything possible to reuse, recycle, and conserve whatever he can.
"I even recycle refrigerators and microwaves. I go through each one from the buildings that are going to be remodeled. If it's still serviceable, then I keep it. I'll replace the seals on the doors, test them out with thermometers. If everything works, we'll use them again instead of getting rid of them."
"I feel good about what we've been able to accomplish." Figueroa said. "I think we're doing everything we can to save the government money."