Bridgeport — At a new, 14,500-square-foot facility in Bridgeport’s South End, three men spend their weekdays deconstructing old mattresses to be recycled.
“I enjoy myself,” said 44-year-old Angel Morales, who walks from his house a few blocks away to arrive at the plant at 5:30 each weekday morning. (Since there’s no air-conditioning, the employees like to finish their day early to avoid the worst of the heat.) “It kills time, and I’m doing something constructive,” Morales said.
The facility is called Park City Green, and Morales is surrounded by hundreds of mattresses that are brought in by trucks each year. He can deconstruct about 50 a day using little more than a utility blade knife.
“It’s like filleting a fish,” said operations manager Bradford Mitchell as he watched Morales go to work on a mattress he had just hauled onto a spinning wooden worktable. “You basically put the mattress up here, you take a knife, you cut around it, and as you can see, he’s just separating all the different materials.”
Those materials — wood, foam, rubber — were tossed into new piles that rose up alongside the mattress stacks. They are later compressed by a baling machine, so they can be trucked out for resale.
Morales said his favorite part of working at Park City Green is the social environment — working with his fellow employees. The plant also represents a second chance for some employees. The nonprofit Family Re-Entry, which helps people released from prison rebuild their lives, is helping the factory to find, train and counsel workers.
The work “is labor-intensive,” said Adrienne Houel, CEO of The Green Team, a nonprofit in Bridgeport that runs Park City Green. “It gives us the opportunity to create more jobs.”
The Green Team specializes in creating “green” jobs for low-income residents. It has trained people in areas such as weatherization and lead-paint removal techniques; in the case of mattress deconstruction, the workers learn on the job.
There are companies across the country that use automated processes to recycle mattresses. But Mitchell said they’re not necessarily more efficient.
“Every mattress is different,” he said. Some come to the factory with plastic covering, which needs to be cut off. Some might have old casings or other material that isn’t reusable.
As Morales and the others get more and more comfortable with their work, the hope is that they’ll be able to deconstruct even more mattresses than they are now. And when the facility is fully staffed with about 20 people, it could put a big dent in the 176,000 mattresses that the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimates go through municipal waste streams each year in Connecticut, costing about $1.2 million.
But for now, the factory is hungry for more mattresses.
“That’s our competition,” said Mitchell, pointing to a smokestack-like building within sight of Park City Green. He was referring to Bridgeport RESCO Co., a waste treatment and disposal facility.
Park City Green charges $13 to $18 for each mattress that it picks up and transports to its plant, so for nearby towns, RESCO is still significantly cheaper.
“They think that it’s costing them a buck-and-a-half or two bucks just to burn the mattress,” Houel said. “There’s no incentive for them to change that way of doing business if there’s not a special program in the state.”
Connecticut lawmakers this year considered legislation to require mattress recycling. To help pay for the recycling program, the state would require retailers to collect a fee with the sale of each mattress. The proposal, which would have set up a council of mattress producers to develop a plan, passed the Senate this year but did not come to a vote in the state House.
Still, Park City Green is growing fast, taking in 500 mattresses a week since it opened less than two months ago. The goal is to get 10 times that number and eventually deconstruct 100,000 mattresses a year, said Houel. Many towns don’t contribute mattresses because they have no way of separating them from the waste stream. But Houel said she is close to signing a contract with a coalition of small towns that use a private waste hauler that does have an incentive to separate out the mattresses.
Park City Green, one of many businesses forming Bridgeport’s sprawling eco-industrial park, bases its model on a factory in Oregon that is run by St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit human services organization. Houel said 80 percent of its revenue comes from customers who provide the mattresses, while the other 20 percent will come largely from selling off the materials for reuse. At full capacity, she said, the factory could take in revenues of $1.5 million a year.
“It’s really exciting, because there aren’t many [factories like this] in the United States,” she said. “This is kind of a new effort for the U.S.”
This story is the result of a partnership between WNPR and the Mirror. Click here for a radio version of this story.