State could become the first to require recycling of mattresses

Legislation that would make Connecticut the first state to mandate the recycling of used mattresses passed the Senate on Wednesday afternoon and is now headed for action in the House.

The bill uses an environmental model called extended producer responsibility, EPR, a principle of the broader concept of product stewardship, in which producers take responsibility for reducing their products’ environmental impact. Under EPR, producers assume stewardship of design qualities and/or systems related to a product’s safe disposal at the end of its life.

In addition to environmental advantages, EPR is seen as a way to ease the financial burden on government to provide certain services — like getting rid of old mattresses — and as pushing manufacturers to be more environmentally conscious in product and packaging development.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimates that 176,000 mattresses a year are disposed of through municipal waste streams at a cost to taxpayers of about $1.2 million. An equal amount is handled through mattress retailers.

But mattresses are 90 percent to 95 percent recyclable. The wood in box springs can be chipped for mulch; springs and metal can be reused in other furniture pieces; foam is often shredded and remixed for carpet padding; cotton, felt and plastic have multiple re-uses. State officials see it — along with electronic waste and paint recycling — as a way to increase the state’s anemic recycling rate.

“I think we’re really doing a good thing in Connecticut,” said Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee, which sponsored the various bills. “We’re establishing a track record recycling difficult products.”

But in the case of mattresses, the consumer will pay.

The legislation requires mattress producers to form a council to come up with a statewide mattress stewardship plan by July 2013 for review and approval by the DEEP commissioner. The plan, in addition to collection, transport and disposal, will include a fee structure tied to the purchase of mattresses to pay for everything. Originally the fee was to be collected by producers, but new language negotiated after protests by the mattress industry places collection of the fee on retailers.

“The fee was ultimately going to go the consumer regardless of whether it goes through the producer or retailer,” Meyer said.

But now retailers are less than thrilled. “We’re not crazy about it,” said Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, who was involved in talks that determined the bill’s final wording. “As an industry we appreciate the fact that members of the legislature involved in this have given us a chance to have input on the bill.

“But we won’t be doing jumping jacks. We’re the ones that have to deal with customers; we’re the ones that have to collect the fees, and we’re the ones that have to battle with online retailers,” he said.

That last point — how online retailers would fit into the program — is unclear; there’s no specific language in the bill, though some involved in the negotiations said there is nothing to prevent them from being included in fee collection requirements.

The International Sleep Products Association, which represents mattress manufacturers and their suppliers, declined to comment for this story. But in its lengthy opposition testimony to the original legislation cited online competition concerns along with increased costs that would further hurt an industry already suffering in a difficult economy.

“The industry would like a federal solution; we would love a federal solution also,” said Scott Cassel, chief executive officer and founder of the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute, which has been working with mattress recycling proponents in Connecticut. “But usually you don’t go for a federal solution without trying these out. They have had numerous, numerous opportunities to discuss this with our group.”

Cassel and other mattress recycling proponents said that if the mattress industry had come to the table to work out a stewardship plan, the legislative route could have been avoided.

The sleep products association has already helped kill mattress recycling legislation in Rhode Island, though a new effort is under way, and it is fighting a measure in California.

Connecticut’s mattress movement was largely spearheaded by Hartford through the efforts of Marilynn Cruz-Aponte, the city’s assistant to the director of public works, after a sticker shock moment. With landfills closed a few years ago, and mattresses unsuitable for burning in trash-to-energy facilities because their components tend to get stuck in the machinery, Cruz-Aponte was faced with a $40 per unit cost of disposal.

She remembers her reaction to that first quarterly bill of $109,000 just for mattresses. “‘Oh God; oh MY God; this is one quarter,'” she remembers thinking. “We had to collect with public works crews and spend money there; store it at the landfill in trucks and spend money there; truck it over and then spend money on the tipping fee.

“If it was impacting our budget, it must be impacting other people’s budget,” she said.

Cruz-Aponte convinced Mayor Pedro Segarra that finding a better way to dispose of mattresses was in the city and state’s best interest. Their work led to the current legislation.

One thing Cruz-Aponte won’t have to worry about is where to recycle mattresses. Recyc-Mattresses, a Canada-based company with seven years in the business, said it’s only a few weeks from opening an operation in Bloomfield.

Founder and president Pascal Cohen said with three 14-employee shifts, it can handle close to half-a-million mattresses a year. The plant is centrally located to be able to easily take in used mattresses from surrounding states. But as a profit-making business, passing legislation in Connecticut is preferable.

“Legislation will help make it a viable long-term solution,” Cohen said. “We can get contracts today, we can lose them tomorrow. The legislation guarantees a product.”

In Bridgeport, a nonprofit mattress recycling company called Park City Green is scheduled to open in about a month, with a capacity of 100,000 mattresses a year that would employ about 20 people — many of the jobs earmarked for former prisoners.

Both Recyc and Park City said they have customers in place and buyers for the recycled material, though declined to name them.

“The customers that we currently have see a need to recycle their mattresses without the legislation,” said Bradford Mitchell, director of operations. “It would be a huge windfall for us if the legislation passes, but we’re committed regardless of what happens.”