Workers take apart a mattress for recycling. Credit: Courtesy of Mattress Recycling Council

BRIDGTON, Maine — The transfer station in this western Maine charges $20 to dispose of a mattress and box spring, a fee that does not cover the added cost of having it trucked away, dismantled, recycled or burned.

Some towns charge $50 or more to dispose of a bed set, driven by rising gas, labor and transportation costs. Those hikes are reverberating across recycling programs statewide, many of which have seen participation rates drop in recent years.

Bridgton is struggling to keep its programs going. Its recommended budget for the fiscal year beginning in July raises disposal costs more than 50 percent over this year to nearly $227,000. Residents will vote on the budget, which starts July 1, at the town meeting in June.

“Every vendor increased their rates because their labor, gas, electric and other costs have gone up,” Holly Heymann, the town’s finance director, said. “The costs are passed down, so everybody pays the price for it.”

Images of the layers in a mattress (left) and box spring (right). About 75 percent of the materials, including wood and metals, can be recycled. Credit: Courtesy of Mattress Recycling Council

She said the town makes a modest sum from the mattress and box spring disposal fees, but it also pays an average of $89.20 per ton to dispose of them to ecomaine or Pine Tree Waste Services. That breaks down to $2.20 for a mattress weighing 50 pounds and $6.70 for one weighing 150 pounds, she said. But ecomaine also charges a $25 processing fee for each mattress or box spring, eating into the town’s take.

Residents in Bridgton, where the population of 5,400 swells fourfold in the summer tourism season, bring about 100 old mattresses or box springs to the Bridgton transfer station each month, foreman Forrest Kollander said. Not everyone can afford the fee.

“People have been dumping things in the woods forever, and it’s not going to ever stop,” he said.

That is a concern in towns contending with higher disposal expenses and efforts to recycle. Hauling costs are so high, Heymann said, that Bridgton is even considering getting its own trucks to haul trash and recyclables.

Trucking is 28 percent of the cost of recycling mattresses, with processing the bulk at 51 percent and collection another 9 percent, according to a December 2019 mattress stewardship report submitted to the Legislature. That report cited high costs for recycling, including the labor-intensive dismantling of mattresses into reusable components, and no markets for items including the soft materials in Maine. It recommended trying pilot projects rather than passing a statewide recycling effort.

Not all towns charge for mattress disposal. The city of Auburn on April 1 said residents could dispose of mattresses and box springs free at Maine Waste to Energy, which will burn them. But in May, the City Council voted to eliminate its curbside recycling program because of low participation rates and high costs. It was paying $144 per ton for recycling. Sending it to Maine Waste to Energy costs $42 per ton.

Discarded mattresses pile up at the transfer station in Bridgton. The western Maine town receives about 1,200 mattresses and box springs combined in a year and has them hauled away by a waste management company. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

The state has been studying how to dispose of and recycle mattresses for several years as they occupy large amounts of space in landfills and take decades to decompose. A bill passed by the Legislature in 2017 would have charged an upfront $5 recycling fee upon purchase of a mattress, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Paul LePage.

Similar programs exist in Rhode Island, Connecticut and California, which all have passed mattress recycling programs. They are run by the nonprofit Mattress Recycling Council, based in Virginia. In the New England states, it has collected 600,000 old mattresses in Rhode Island since 2016 and 1.5 million in Connecticut since 2015. The upfront fee is $16 per mattress or box spring in Rhode Island and $11.75 in Connecticut.

The council said more than 50,000 mattresses are discarded every day in the United States, but more than 75 percent of them can be recycled into other products rather than going into landfills. Wood and metals can be recycled, but woven fabrics and felt used in bedding often cannot, Tom Smith, marketing manager for the council, said.

He said program’s like the council’s are important as landfill space becomes tighter. The state has three solid waste landfills, two near Alton and one near Lincoln. Maine’s disposal and recycling capacity for solid waste should last another five years at current recycling and disposal rates, according to state data.

There also are private landfills, such as the one owned by ecomaine, a waste management company that works with 73 communities, including Bridgton. It does not disassemble mattresses for recycling because of high expenses. Instead it disposes of them at its waste-to-energy plant after breaking them apart, said Matt Grondin, an ecomaine spokesperson.

At left: Box spring coils disassembled for recycling; at right: Foam reclaimed from a mattress can be recycled and reused. Credit: Courtesy of Mattress Recycling Council

That plant generates about 100,000 megawatt hours of electricity and reduces the volume of trash by 90 percent. Ashes from the burned materials at the plant go into ecomaine’s 264-acre landfill in Westbrook. He said the landfill has enough capacity until 2045.

Casella Waste Removal said there has been a significant increase in interest in recycling since Massachusetts banned tossing mattresses into the trash last November. That state is sending some of its mattresses to Casella’s recycling centers in Connecticut and New York, Casella spokesperson Jeff Weld said.

“It’s a great opportunity for Maine to look at ways to implement recycling of mattresses,” he said.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...