the afterlife of Providence matresses

by by Joe de Jonge

Illustration by Diane Zhou

Mattresses do not sleep well in landfills. They are an inefficient use of space, both big and hard to compress. The air pockets they contain cause them to float up, rising through the layers of trash, bringing with them any debris in their path. Aware of this, landfills often refuse to accept mattresses.

Thousands of mattresses are left on Providence sidewalks each year. Nineteen thousand mattresses were collected and disposed of in 2010, costing the city $513,000—“a surprisingly high price tag that the city simply can no longer afford,” states a press release on City of Providence Department of Public Works (DPW) website. The DPW is tasked with maintaining much of the cities infrastructure and also cleaning it up: maintaining Providence’s sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, traffic signs and lights, highways and bridges, while also cleaning the streets and picking-up and disposing of our collective refuse. They take out Providence’s trash—performing the maintenance work that keeps Providence running smoothly.

As of August 2011, the DPW stopped picking up old mattresses and box springs for free as part of its large trash item pickup program. Providence residents have since had to pay $20 per mattress or box spring to have them trucked away, lug their beds to the Department of Public Works’ Convenience Center or face fines of $50 to $500 for leaving mattresses on the curb without scheduling a pickup.

The headquarters of the DPW is located on 700 Allens Avenue in Washington Park, and is open Monday through Friday from 8:30AM to 4:30PM. The Department of Public Works’ Convenience Center, at the same address, is only open on Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. None of the building’s signage mentions ‘convenience.’ Three hand drawn signs use “You are Here” and arrows as guides to a lot behind the building. At the gate of the lot a large vinyl sign welcomes you bilingually, to the “Mattress|Box Spring Convenience Center,” “Centro Para Botar Colchon|Box Spring,” “Two (2) Pieces Per Load Per Day,” “Limite De Dos (2) Piezas Por Dia,” “Proof of Providence Residency Required,” “Se Require Demostrar Prueba De Residencia,” “Warning! Video Surveillance. No Unlawful Dumping,” “Adviso! Vigilancia De Video. Ilegal Botar Basura.”

A minimal rendering of a clock in lime and yellow sits above the hours of the convenience center, without numbers but with a second hand—the time always approximately 11:05:13. A matching couch and love seat, a purple nursery mattress and the bench seat from a minivan seem to have been thrown over the chain-link fence that the sign is hanging from. A bookcase, four broken dining room chairs, upholstery still protected by clear plastic, didn’t make it over the fence.

Halfway down the driveway, Steve is sitting in his white DPW Chevy with the driver side door open, waiting to help load your discarded mattress into one of Waste Management Inc.’s large green dumpsters.  Pointing towards the love seat Steve tells me, “People dump couches and stuff at night, but it’s not a dump. That’s still free to get picked up.” He’s got a pad of paper on the dashboard where he notes the names of residents who have dropped off mattresses and the number of mattresses or box springs dropped off. In the first two hours of the day four people had dropped off mattresses. The representative for Waste Management Inc. (WM) I reached explained that mattresses brought to the DPW Convenience Center or picked up at resident’s homes are incinerated in Millbury, Massachusetts. WM is a Houston based corporation contracted by the DPW to dispose of mattresses and other bulk trash. The DPW was not willing to discuss the details of this contract without getting clearance from Providence’s communications department. Presumably recycling, like landfilling, is not cost effective for WM.

Mattresses disposed of elsewhere in Rhode Island are, according to a 2012 paper published by Clean Water Action, a non-profit citizens group that monitors water pollution, initially trucked to the Central Landfill in Johnston, RI, the only landfill in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) owns and operates the landfill. The RI General Assembly created the RIRRC in 1974 as ‘quasi-public’ company. It is not a department of the state government; it is self-sufficient, earning revenue from sales of recycled products and methane gas produced by the landfill, but it must report its finances as if it were a branch of the state government. It also returns a portion of its profits from the sale of recyclables to the municipalities where the recyclables originated.

According to Clean Water Action, Mattresses brought to the Central Landfill are shipped to Conigliaro Industries in Framingham, MA to be recycled. In the 2010 fiscal year RIRRC sent 35,000 mattresses to Conigliaro Industries costing RIRRC $350,000. According to a 2007 report in American Recycler, an industry news publication, Conigliaro Industries is one of three large-scale mattress recyclers in the country, the only one that is run as a for-profit operation.  Company President Gregory Conigliaro explained, in a 2003 interview with Rubber News, that at the facility low-quality mattresses and high-end mattresses are separated.  Cheap mattresses are shredded whole, with 60% of the shreds recycled. These low-quality mattresses are primarily from schools, prisons and hospitals.  Brand-name mattresses are ‘filleted’ so the springs can be removed before shredding to separate the polyurethane foam and cotton from the other filler that cannot be sold on the secondary market. Filleting the mattresses allows for up to 90% of the material to be recycled, often ending up as insulation or carpet backing. All of this is done at rate of one mattress per minute.

It takes only a minute to fillet and shred a mattress, but Providence residents are taking longer to adjust. The City of Providence has not been picking up mattresses free of charge for over a year, but Steve thinks people are still confused about the policy. Steve implored, “Make sure you tell the people that it’s not a dump, that couches and furniture are still picked up for free.” To schedule a pick-up of bulky trash or a mattress call 1-800-972-4545.


JOE DE JONGE B’14 sleeps well in landfills.