"What's your pain point?"
Entrepreneurs and business leaders know the answer to that question often opens doors to new opportunities, but the problem with pain points is that they are painful precisely because solutions are often elusive. In the realm of materials management—transforming stuff that has no value in its current form or location to stuff that does have value—requires collaboration to get from problem to solution.
Mattresses make a good case study, particularly now as several US states have passed legislation or are considering end-of-life management strategies for them.
Mattress springs represent what is both good and bad about beds. Made of coiled tempered steel, mattress springs hold up well, providing years of comfortable sleeping. But once the useful life of the mattress ends, the springs become a real problem. They don’t compress, and in a landfill, mattresses tend to float to the top where pockets of them create a tipping hazard for the heavy equipment that crushes and condenses materials. But there’s more to it. The springs still have value. So does the foam, quilted covering, and wood, which make up the bulk of mattresses and their box springs. When a mattress goes into the landfill, the embodied energy of its components—still valuable in manufacturing—is lost. It’s like throwing away money—and jobs.
In the United States, 15 to 20 million mattresses and box springs flood the waste stream yearly. To put that in perspective, if you laid 20 million mattresses end to end, they would circle the globe.
But new mattress stewardship laws in Connecticut, California, and Rhode Island, and other states considering similar legislation, could divert more of these bulky and difficult-to-handle materials from landfills, in ways that benefit both the environment and the broader community. Stewardship laws, also known as extended producer responsibility laws, require that product manufacturers create systems to reduce the waste impact of their products.
Our organization, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, pioneered mattress recycling in 2000—well before those stewardship laws were on the books—in a small warehouse in Oakland, Calif. There we opened DR3 Recycling in response to a “what’s your pain point” conversation with landfill managers in the Bay Area. Our first year, we processed fewer than 50,000 mattresses. By 2016, we had grown our operations to three facilities, and we kept more than 300,000 mattresses out of landfills in California and Oregon. Under a unique mentoring grant, we also helped three other nonprofits in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida, diverting another 75,000 mattresses. Laid end to end, the total number of mattresses we recycled would have stretched from Boston to Washington DC.
The stewardship laws have prompted for-profit companies such as Blue Marble Materials and Crystal Materials to get into the business, but a recent review of the California program revealed that our facilities may be the most effective at keeping materials out of landfills. The statewide mattress-recycling rate is 75 percent, meaning that 75 percent of mattress materials diverted by the state’s official recyclers stayed out of the waste stream in 2016. Our two California facilities—among the 11 nonprofit and for-profit operations contracted to provide recycling under the stewardship law—had a 90 percent diversion rate.
To get there, we married good business principals with our social service sensibilities, and employed four guidelines that could apply to any organization that needs to pivot quickly in an ever-changing business environment.
Value people. When it comes to hiring and partnering, it’s more important to find people who have problem-solving skills and a strong work ethic, than a glowing resume or college degree, so we recognize and promote individuals regardless of their backstory.
Art Taylor, the employee who pushed us toward mattress recycling in the first place came to us straight out of prison. When he suggested we could do something different with the mattresses people were donating to St. Vincent (which also operates retail thrift stores) our executive director, Terry McDonald, listened. Taylor started with us as a general laborer and rose up through the ranks to project manager. Some of our other project managers have troubled backstories as well—they’ve done some time in jail or prison, are in recovery from substance abuse, have had a stretch of homelessness, or have been out of work for a long period. But we have found that by giving people who have barriers to employment—but who also have common sense, energy, and creativity—a chance results in employees whose loyalty and desire to improve benefits everyone. McDonald says, “We do it because it strengthens the internal culture of the organization.”.
Work the problem. When things go wrong, it’s tempting to focus on who or what to blame, but that distracts from fixing the problem and can create a counterproductive dynamic.
Machinery breaks down. A load of mattresses shows up late. People who buy our materials one month at one price suddenly want a much lower price. An over-zealous forklift operator stacks materials too high, and stuff bumps against the ceiling sprinkler head creating a soggy mess in the warehouse. Fixing the problem comes first. Developing systems to avoid future incidents comes second. Rooting around to find someone to blame, that’s last. “Once you’ve mitigated, if you want to go through the exercise of who did this and how did it happen to make sure it doesn’t happen again, that’s fine,” McDonald says. “But don’t assign blame before you’ve solved the problem.”
Assigning blame outside that solution-oriented context degrades the idea that you are operating as a team, the sense that we all share in our successes and our failures.
Pay attention every day. Conditions can change in heartbeat, and the sooner we respond to those changes, the better. Constant awareness of what’s happening—including revenue and costs—means that we can solve many small problems before they become big ones.
For example, the market for steel fluctuates almost daily, and sometimes the bottom drops out. We had a scrap buyer call out of the blue one day, flatly refusing to buy our mattress steel because she didn’t like the bales we compressed it into.
“In one day, she completely turned our world upside down,” McDonald says. Processing 302,000 mattresses a year boils down to about 1,100 units a day with average steel spring weights of 30 pounds per unit. That means we need to do something with 33,000 pounds of steel a day. That steel could have ended up being a disposal cost to us rather than a revenue stream if we hadn’t—that very day—started calling other scrappers. Part of paying attention is understanding the industry and maintaining relationships, he says. We were able to find another buyer, and the original buyer eventually came back to us.
Lead by example.
Our director of business operations, Leisha Wallace, has a saying: “Everybody cleans the bathroom.” And even though she manages a staff of more than 300 people, she includes herself in that “everybody.” Wallace actually does clean the bathroom on the first day a new retail thrift store opens, and her store managers work alongside their line staff daily—helping deconstruct mattresses, pricing and hanging clothing in our thrift stores, or working the sort line in our online used book department—as a way of understanding the challenges while demonstrating that everyone shares the load.
These simple guidelines have helped us grow our materials management businesses over the last couple of decades—we’ve gone from being a small local charity with a few retail thrift stores to being the largest social services agency in our county. We currently oversee five homeless programs, 1,300 units of affordable housing, and an emergency services office that helps thousands of people every month with a variety of needs, such as finding furniture and clothes or helping paying utility or medical bills.
The growth of our materials business has naturally increased our earned income—about half our annual budget—but more importantly, it’s had outsized impact on waste reduction and employment. Today, we divert about 100 tons of materials from landfills—not just mattresses, but also appliances, clothing, housewares, books, and cars. And our work recycling and reselling currently provides employment for close to 600 people
In addition, we are now using Culture of Health grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to mentor 10 other local nonprofits that want to build similar businesses and become similar anchor organizations—place-based institutions such as universities and hospitals that have deep roots in their communities. Last year, these nonprofits—based in California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania—diverted more than 17 million pounds of materials, generated $7 million in gross revenue, and employed 90 people.
It’s important to remember that such opportunities to collaborate aren’t limited to charitable organizations like ours. Our business collaborations work because both sides benefit. And sometimes the smart move means not collaborating at all. In many parts of the nation, for example, the cost of disposal is so low that it’s cheaper to landfill a mattress than to divert and deconstruct it. Both sides in the collaboration need to benefit, or the business isn’t sustainable.
We arrived at this triple-bottom-line approach—environmental stewardship, sustainable jobs and revenue to serve social mission—by asking: “What’s your pain point?” We then worked diligently to come up with a mutually beneficial solution.