STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Years ago, my wife and I bought a rundown house. And the neighbors told us a story about a mattress that somebody had left in the backyard. It had become a home for rodents before the neighbors finally dragged it away. Turns out, it's not easy to dispose of an old mattress. Most recyclers won't touch them, and landfills would rather not. But a business born as a class project in Nashville provides a solution and creates jobs for former convicts. Here's Blake Farmer of our member station WPLN.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Even the best machines can only chew up mattresses. Recycling requires manual labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIPPING)

FARMER: Ron Harness runs his box cutter around a queen size bed to filet the fabric.

RON HARNESS: As you can see, this can become labor intensive.

FARMER: Harness rips off a cotton sheet, peels away the layer of foam and shoves the steel springs into a bailer. Harness literally has deconstructing a mattress and box springs down to a science. He keeps one eye on a stopwatch.

HARNESS: It's actually 7.62 minutes on a mattress is my average, and 5.03 minutes on a box.

FARMER: Efficiency is the key to this enterprise called Spring Back. Otherwise, there's not a ton of competition for used mattresses. Even though they contain an average of 25 pounds of steel and foam that can be chopped up for carpet padding, recycling companies usually just say no. Bobby Bandy is the founder of Earth Savers.

BOBBY BANDY: They've always been viewed as something you can't tackle. It needs to go in the landfill, and the landfill guys don't want it.

FARMER: Unlike other trash, mattresses don't easily pack down. More than a dozen states do have at least one recycler, but they're usually small in scale, so most mattresses find their way to landfills, according to an industry trade group. A few beds are diverted from the dump by being reused, says Andrew Bloomfield with Mattresses Unlimited.

ANDREW BLOOMFIELD: We partner with several people who remove mattresses and reconstitute them into new product.

FARMER: Those would be old springs that get a new cover and are sold in discount showrooms. But instead of feeding into the used mattress market, Bloomfield's company, which operates in five states, is now trying out Spring Back. Salesmen are playing up the partnership, telling customers their old bed will be recycled. If the environmental benefits aren't enough, an ex-convict will be doing the work.

HARNESS: That's not going to cooperate.

FARMER: With a pair of pliers, Ron Harness begins yanking a thousand coils out of a king-sized bed. He's helped refine the recycling process, but just a few months ago, he was behind bars for a serious misdemeanor charge.

HARNESS: Didn't know where I was going to go. The street was an option.

FARMER: Providing meaningful employment for hard-to-hire workers is where this venture doubles-down on its social mission. The business plan from students at Nashville's Belmont University took first place in a national competition. Part of the $10,000 prize became seed money.

JOHN GONAS: This is, in my opinion, very rare and very unique.

FARMER: Belmont finance Professor John Gonas has taken the reins of the start-up. Like most new for-profit businesses, he says very few social enterprises succeed.

GONAS: We've actually tried lots of different things. We had a sewing project one year that didn't work with refugees.

FARMER: The women from Burundi made beautiful pillows, just not fast enough. This charitable business, on the other hand, is approaching an all-important break-even point when revenues cover the operating costs. Gonas says he hopes to license the model in other cities and get Spring Backs popping up all over the country.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer, in Nashville.

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