Covid-19: Recycling Recovery

Over the past several months, mattress recyclers have made adjustments in policies and procedures, and experienced dips and rebounds in the market

More than eight months after the novel coronavirus began to spread across the United States, mattress recyclers say they have adapted their operations to protect the health of their workers and are back to recycling mattresses at nearly normal seasonal levels. 

But, like bedding manufacturers and retailers that had to reconfigure their facilities and ways of working, mattress recyclers say the adjustments they’ve made because of COVID-19 have been significant and they are unsure what impact the pandemic will have on their businesses in the future.

Justine Fallon, director of operations for the Mattress Recycling Council, which operates mattress recycling programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island, says that since early spring, one recycler in California closed permanently and another closed temporarily, but other recyclers have remained open throughout the pandemic. 


In previous issues of BedTimes, we looked at how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected mattress manufacturing and mattress retailing. You can read those articles online or in print:

Considered essential because they are part of overall sanitation efforts, mattress recyclers had to adjust their operations quickly in the spring, using rapidly changing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments.

Charles K. Tenborg, president of Cleaner Earth Co. Inc., a mattress recycler in Santa Maria, California, says that like many other companies, his recycling operation didn’t have a contingency plan for how to deal with a global pandemic when the novel coronavirus began to appear in the United States in February. He quickly put one in place. 

“We were surprised by it like everybody else,” Tenborg says. “We’ve had to adjust our operations all along, waiting for the CDC to give us guidelines about what proper measures to take.”

New policies and procedures at Cleaner Earth include daily temperature checks when employees arrive for work, operational/social distancing, more frequent cleanings and the required use of personal protective equipment, such as face coverings. 

Rest in Peace, a recycler in Fresno, California, began operating two shifts, staggering their starting times and dividing workers into teams, essentially forming “microbubbles inside the business,” says Matt Young, president of the company. The changes have reduced the number of people each worker is exposed to and allowed thorough cleanings between shifts. The recycler also invested in PPE and requires employees to complete health questionnaires and have their temperatures checked at the start of each shift.

“There were a lot of new processes we had to figure out,” Young says.

Recyclers say they believe the risk of infection to their workers from a coronavirus-contaminated mattress is relatively low, in part because it can take days or even weeks for a used mattress to make its way into their facilities, and the virus is unlikely to remain viable that long.

“But one of the things we started doing is making sure we processed on a first-in, first-out basis,” Young says. “We always have about 1,500 to 2,000 mattresses in inventory waiting to be processed, and we make sure now to process mattresses first that have been in inventory the longest. That gives us an extra couple of days, so that if a mattress did contain the virus, it would be gone over that time.”

Both Cleaner Earth and Rest in Peace have had one employee test positive for the virus. One worker was ill; the other remained asymptomatic. After a quarantine period, the employees returned to work.

“We ask that if an employee has tested positive, they notify their foreman and then we take the next steps regarding quarantine and when they can come back to work,” Tenborg says.

MRC’s efforts

At the start of the pandemic, MRC “requested continuity of operations plans from each recycler to understand their protocols in case of shutdown or if they had an outbreak,” Fallon says. 

MRC also put in place “contingency plans in the event that the recycling network or transportation network closed,” did “frequent data analysis to determine the state of the network,” and updated communications plans to regulators, retailers and other stakeholders to make them aware of any potential closures and any changes to MRC operations, Fallon says.

In addition, MRC halted all site visits and travel by its staff, and shifted employees at its headquarters to work from home. 

To aid retailers in all three states, MRC waived late fees and penalties through June 30, 2020, Fallon says.

“We haven’t had to implement any worst-case scenarios, and all plans are still ready to go should there be a need,” Fallon says.

Varying volumes 

When stay-at-home orders began to go into effect in early spring, mattress recyclers say they saw an initial dip in the number of used mattresses coming into their facilities. At the time, shuttered retailers weren’t delivering new beds and picking up used ones for recycling. Special collection events that encourage residents to drop off used mattresses also were halted, and some municipal collection sites temporarily closed because of concerns about virus transmission, drops in the number of incoming used mattresses or a lack of labor.

Fallon says mattress recycling volumes fell as much as 50% in April but had begun to rebound by the end of May in all three states. Driving the uptick were homebound residents doing spring cleaning, the reopening of retailers, and the arrival of federal stimulus payments in people’s bank accounts, prompting new mattress purchases.

When BedTimes spoke with recyclers in late August, they said volumes had returned to normal seasonal levels. March through October typically is their busiest season, Tenborg says. “We’re maxed out at our facility right now,” he says. “Our goal is 10,000 mattresses a month, and we’re on track to do 12,000 this month.”

Staffing at mattress recyclers can be a challenge during the best of times and has been made more difficult by the pandemic, recyclers say. Young notes that his operation is fully staffed but that even in typical years, he competes during the summer with packing houses and other agricultural operations in California’s Central Valley. Rest in Peace employs 16 people full time but during its busy season can have more than 50 workers, Young says.

Some workers made more money collecting an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment that was approved as part of an early pandemic relief package, making them reluctant to return to work quickly, says Tenborg, who has a workforce of about 20 at the Cleaner Earth facility. Other workers may have been worried about contracting the virus or had to stay home to care for ill relatives or children who were out of school. 

For the most part, markets for the components from dismantled mattresses have remained open throughout the pandemic. “We have seen an increase in the cost of transportation because of competition for tractor-trailers,” Young says, “but the price we get for some commodities also has gone up.”

What’s ahead

If another round of federal stimulus checks were to be issued this fall, Tenborg says, he would expect an increase in mattress purchases — and a commensurate increase in used mattresses to be recycled. But without a stimulus and, if the economy worsens this fall and winter, mattress recycling could slow.

Young agrees. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re planning for a number of different circumstances. There are two opposing forces at work: People are spending more time at home and their additional discretionary spending is going toward improving their home environment, but there’s also a substantial amount of unemployment, and those people have less discretionary income available.”

Mike O’Donnell, MRC managing director, says MRC expects that despite the ups and downs of the year, mattress recycling will be essentially flat overall for the year. “Based on our best assumptions at this point,” he says, “we expect to have normalized volumes through the end of 2020.”

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