Simon Zysman and Richard White are somewhat incredulous businessmen.
For years, both men have tried to eke a living out of recycling Canadian carpets and mattresses; two of the largest, most commonplace items found in landfills. But progress has been painstakingly slow.
The businessmen work day in and out to divert these products while Canada’s provincial and federal governments watch on the sidelines. A lack of regulation has given manufacturers and retailers free reign to pump out and sell products with no accountability for a post-consumer existence.
Zysman, managing consultant of Recover Canada (recovercanada.com), is a veteran in the business of mattress recovery, although at times it’s been more of a calling and a public service than a profitable enterprise.
“They don’t call mattresses and box springs non-recyclable for nothing,” Zysman joked to a group of delegates at the May 29, 2013 Waste 2 Product & Energy cleantech conference hosted by Solid Waste and Recycling magazine in Toronto.
Zysman laughs as he speaks, partly out of disbelief, partly out of frustration. He’s somewhat in awe that staple items as large as mattresses have gone unregulated in Canada for so long.
With the ball in the manufacturers’ court, they choose the most cost-effective options for their products, not the most sustainable ones. Landfill is much cheaper than exploring Ontario’s current recycling regime, which means the manufacturing sector has an almost zero per cent diversion rate for its old beds.
To a small extent, mattress retailers have begun to sponsor some mattress diversion initiatives, says Zysman, but those efforts only divert about seven per cent of discarded mattresses in Canada.
As it stands, about 70 per cent of mattresses in Canada are either burned or landfilled. Zysman says that’s equal to approximately 50 million mattresses and box springs each year. In the U.S., that number skyrockets to 500 million!
“The scavengers and illegal builders are the only game in town,” says Zysman, estimating that mattress scavengers actually divert as much as 25 per cent of discarded beds. Illegal mattress rebuilding diverts about six per cent. Zysman sees the scavengers as unheralded environmental heroes.
Since 1996, Zysman’s Toronto-based company has diverted about one million mattresses from landfill. He focuses on rebuilding the old beds for the working poor, as well as replacing worn mattresses for military, institutional and post-secondary residential quarters.
If anyone can relate to Zysman’s plight of thankless, semi-successful recycling, it’s White, who also spoke at the Waste 2 Product & Energy cleantech conference. As President of Aspera Recycling (asperarecycling.com) — a carpet recovery company based in Toronto. White has watched massive numbers of carpets accumulate in landfills for decades. (He puts the numbers of carpets in North American landfills at about five billion pounds per year, or 2.2 billion kilograms.)
Although only 20 per cent of those carpets can be recycled — or 800 million pounds — White says that’s typically not the case. About 95 per cent of carpets find a resting spot in landfills. White is proud, however, that his company has managed to divert more than five million pounds of Canadian carpet since Aspera was founded in 2011.
Carpets have a fairly complex makeup of synthetic materials such as nylon, polypropylene and polyester. Plastic, however, is the largest component of a carpet, comprising as much as 62 per cent of the product’s total weight.
“It all has to do with the purity of the product,” says White, in terms of profit margins from recycling textiles.
To put it in perspective, White says that if all the carpets in one typical North American home were recycled, it would save the equivalent of 54 gallons of oil.
White’s team first shears the carpets, removing the fibres that comprise about 50 per cent of a carpet. These fibres can be sold to yarn manufacturers, White says. The rest of the carpet composite is backing, adhesives. Combined, these materials can be used to make new carpets, car parts, plastic lumber, fibre block flooring or flood containment systems.
Carpet can also be used as an alternative fuel source.
Currently, California is the leader in developing extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation for carpet manufacturers. The cost equals five cents per square yard sold, and appears on the customer’s bill of sale.
Canada has been talking about EPR for carpets since at least 2009. Although no province has committed to any new policy, White estimates that by 2017, Quebec or British Columbia will finally have an EPR policy in place.
It’s at the municipal level where the game is changing the most. Finally, Zysman is making money again in the old bed game. Thanks to a City of Toronto contract, he’s part of the process that picks up curbside mattresses at houses and apartment buildings.
Zysman says he’s not privy to the financials surrounding the Toronto’s end of the contract, but says he’s certain the mattress recycling program is costing the city a lot more than if it landfilled the mattresses.
“I applaud them for that,” says Zysman.
While a carpet made from used carpet components may not even elicit a second thought from most consumers, the rebuilt bed market is quite another story. Bed bugs aside, Zysman says the idea of a rebuilt mattress is not a popular one with most consumers.
“It has always been radioactive in the view of primary retailers — for good reason,” says Zysman, noting that thrift shops and used furniture shops are the only outlets.
Rebuilt mattresses that use old mattress materials are surrounded by stringent laws to protect the public, which means that many mattresses are rebuilt illegally, or not up to spec. In Canada, illegal rebuilders divert about six per cent of mattresses from the waste stream.
Zysman’s company also makes money by providing mattress remediation services, particularly for the eradication of bed bugs, an issue that has only grown in severity for major cities in recent years.
Still, the recycling game remains an uphill battle.
“It is not an easy matter for a very small, struggling enterprise, with only a single voice available to advocate successfully,” says Zysman. “The only obvious solution is to build the enterprise, and that should not be impossible, in the absence of well-organized and motivated competitors.”
Dave Nesseth is Environment Reporter with the EcoLog Group, a department of Business Information Group that publishes this magazine, in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org