WATERTOWN, Wis. – Bob Mudler is about to start doing business with bedbugs, dust mites, drool, sweat and dead skin cells, among others.
For the environment’s sake, somebody has to, he says.
His company, Midwest Mattress Recovery LLC in Watertown, just opened to the public. Midwest Mattress Recovery is one of only about 30 such businesses in the nation that deconstructs used mattresses then salvages the steel, wood, polyurethane foam and cotton inside them and sells the materials to global commodities markets.
“The business model is built on market research, but in large part it’s also built on a vision for environmental sustainability,” Mudler said. “Landfill space is shrinking and Wisconsin is a progressive recycling state.”
Based on those two facts alone, he said, “I thought this was a terrific business concept.”
Mudler says he has been working to get the word out on his company.
“Right now, I am really in the marketing stage and trying to turn interest into business,” he said. The company initially will employ between seven and 10 people. “The interest around the state has been incredible.”
There is plenty of potential business out there for the few companies that recycle mattresses.
Americans dispose of more than 17 million mattresses annually, according to estimates from the International Sleep Products Association, an Alexandria, Va., trade association.
The discarded mattresses end up in a number of different places, including buried in landfills, burned in incinerators, sold in used furniture stores or recycled.
“There’s a lot of mattresses. They’re heavy and they’re bulky,” said Cynthia Moore, recycling program coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “They’re sort of a nuisance all around — and they’re recyclable.”
They’re also home to a variety of unsavory critters who take up residence in them over time.
Among them are dust mites. “Beds are a prime habitat,” according to research from the Ohio State University Extension. “A typical used mattress may have anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million mites inside,” according to OSU.
The mites are microscopic, making them nearly invisible.
Bedbugs, on the other hand, are about the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Bedbugs are small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep,” the CDC says.
It’s not just critters that inhabit mattresses, though.
“Night sweats are episodes of nighttime sweating that soak your nightclothes or bedding even when your bedroom isn’t excessively hot,” according to mayoclinic.com, website of the Mayo Clinic. “Night sweats are a common problem many people experience from time to time.”
Then there are the dead skin cells. Humans shed about one-fifth of an ounce of dead skin each week. Over a year, that’s about 110 ounces or about 7 pounds. Assuming a third of the time we are sleeping, the math comes out to about 2 pounds of dead skin a year ending up in or around a mattress.
Mudler is undaunted.
“There is definitely a yuck factor,” he said. “I’m really not 100% sure what we’re going to encounter with any particular mattress but we do understand there might be challenges with dirt, wetness, bedbugs or anything else that might be associated with these mattresses.
“We’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Mudler has worked in the solid waste business for 16 years, which makes him experienced with gross stuff. “What might be yuck to somebody else might not be as yucky to me,” he said.
His goal is to deconstruct 50,000 to 75,000 pieces a year. “Once we get our process down, each mattress should take about 10 minutes to disassemble,” Mudler said.
There is a need for his business, garbage professionals say.
“There’s definitely a niche for that,” said Rick Meyers, recycling manager for the City of Milwaukee. “We’re excited about it.”
The DNR’s Moore echoed that.
“What we hear from local governments, who end up usually having to handle (mattresses and box springs) through their waste programs, it’s a burden,” she said. “I’ve been surprised at how much interest there has been in this.”
Solid waste disposal pros say they are not big fans of taking mattresses at the landfill, but they do handle them regularly.
“They can be a minor nuisance sometimes,” said Lynn Morgan, spokeswoman for Waste Management in Wisconsin. “As soon as they get wet, they are miserable.”
And mattresses just don’t fit into the increasingly automated waste collection process.
“Anytime our guys have to pick up anything outside the cart on the ground, we’re not crazy about it,” Meyers said.
Mattresses can also be a pain because one of their major components happens to be springs.
“They don’t compact the greatest,” Meyers said. “By their nature they spring back.”
Milwaukee residents are allowed to put out a cubic yard of waste before the city adds an additional charge. A queen size mattress is about a cubic yard, Meyers said. Put a mattress and a box spring at the curb on trash day, and you’re probably going to get an extra charge.
The city hasn’t embarked on any kind of mattress recycling program because it still costs less to dispose of them in a landfill than it does to recycle them.
“Absent it being banned from landfills, it’s not considered cost effective for us to pay that kind of rate vs. what it costs to landfill it at this point,” he said.
Midwest Mattress Recovery will charge $10 per piece that it breaks down, so it would cost $20 to dispose of a mattress and box spring.
Nearly all mattress recycling businesses charge a fee for taking the mattresses and box springs.
That charge is necessary because the recyclable materials that come out of a mattress don’t bring enough money in the commodities markets to cover the cost of deconstructing them, said Ryan Trainer, president of the International Sleep Products Association.
“We’re not dealing with gold or platinum. We’re dealing with steel, dirty foam, dirty fiber, old wood and dirty fabric,” Trainer said. “Companies have to charge a small fee.”
Municipalities are increasingly charging fees for hauling away bulk items. As that trend continues, Mudler is betting that people would rather pay to have him recycle their mattresses than pay to have them buried in landfills.
“What I like to call Joe and Sally Public, who have a couple mattresses in their basement because they didn’t know what to do with them, they are going to be able to come to the recycling center at their convenience and have an opportunity to recycle them,” Mudler said.
The evolution of mattress recycling is about where recycling of electronic items such as old televisions and computers had been: Only a few years ago you couldn’t give them away and they are now increasingly recycled.
Trainer said his organization is seeking a single national standard for mattress recycling.
“The approach that we are trying to support is to collect a small fee at retail and those fees would be pooled and used to pay for the shortfall that companies like Midwest would incur between the value of the scrap that they generate and the cost of processing that scrap,” Trainer said.
Being on the frontier of a recycling trend is not for the faint of heart, Mudler said.
Mudler says he’s establishing the business in Watertown because of its central location between Madison, Milwaukee, the Fox Valley and the Janesville/Beloit area. He will try to draw business from throughout the region. Plus, he lives in Watertown. Mudler is running unopposed in the April 2 election for a spot on the city’s Common Council.
“There’s definitely some risk, make no mistake about it,” he said of his new venture. “But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think the reward was there.
“I think this can be a profitable business.”