HOUSTON -- A pile of dirty mattresses sitting outside a building looks like an eyesore just about anywhere except here. In an old warehouse just off the Gulf Freeway, the non-profit Houston Furniture Bank demonstrates a novel approach to one of the city s most vexing trash troubles.

Teams of volunteers, probationers and recently released prison inmates spend their days ripping apart and recycling discarded mattresses.

They don t have to worry about a shortage of raw materials. Houston area residents throw out more than 600,000 mattresses a year, according to the Houston Furniture Bank, the non-profit that runs the recycling operation.

If you line them up end to end, that would go from Houston to Dallas, Dallas to Houston and back to Dallas again, said Hal Lynde, the group s board chairman.

Another way of looking at it: That s enough to fill NRG Stadium with mattresses, twice a year. More importantly, it s a huge mountain of trash for the city government to pay private contractors to bury in landfills. Every mattress that s recycled essentially saves taxpayers money.

The city has already benefitted by saving money by not putting these into the landfills, said Oli Mohammed, the executive director of the Houston Furniture Bank. They have to pay a landfill fee,

Worse than the landfill expense is the blight along roadways where people illegally dump mattresses.

I know if you live in Houston, you ve driven down the freeway and you ve seen mattresses laying on the side of the freeway, said Solomon Henry, who supervises the recycling shop. Well, this is what we re trying to do now, making people aware that they don t have to throw them on the side of the freeway. It s a place that you can bring em and we ll deconstruct them and keep them off the streets.

Houston s Solid Waste Department encourages people to bring their old mattresses to one of a half dozen drop off sites located at 9003 N. Main, 10785 Southwest Freeway, 2240 Central, 5565 Kirkpatrick, 14400 Summermeyer and 5100 Sunbeam.

Just bring it to one of our depository sites, said Maurice Renfro with the Solid Waste Department. We got six depository sites throughout the city. They can bring em to the sites and we ll take em.

In the noisy mattress deconstruction shop, workers strip padding out of mattresses and pick the stuffing out of bedsprings. Outside, they use hammers and prying tools to rip apart box springs.

The padding, the foam, the fibers, that all gets put into a bailing machine, Lynde said. They re about 500 pound bailers when we finish with them. And then we go sell them to recyclers. Right now, we re getting about $5.15 to $5.30 when we deconstruct all of its parts.

The padding is sold to a recycler that uses the material in carpeting. The springs are melted and sold as scrap metal. Only some of the wood in the box spring sets is used in making other furniture, but the non-profit plans to buy a wood chipper that will make good use of more scrap wood.

Ninety percent of every mattress is recyclable, Henry said. Every time we send a mattress to the landfill, that takes up 23 cubic square feet of space.

The labor force consists largely of recently released prison inmates, a group of workers who often have trouble finding their first jobs back in the free world.

These guys want to help their families, Henry said. They want to pay taxes, they want to do the right thing. And we re just giving them an opportunity to come and work and try to establish themselves in this life as an upright individual.

The mattress recycling operation should ramp up when The Furniture Bank, which provides furnishings to low income Houstonians, moves into a larger facility later this year.

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