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the challenge

What’s the best way to keep used mattresses out of a landfill? Calgary resident Shawn Cable had an epiphany and started a recycling company.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

While touring a department-store warehouse a few years back, Shawn Cable noticed mattresses. A lot of mattresses. Some had been returned by customers after a short trial and couldn't be resold.

Mr. Cable started thinking: What, he wondered, could be the best way to keep these unwieldy things out of a landfill?

The Calgarian decided to make it his business to rip the things apart and recycle them. He founded Re-Matt Inc. in 2014. With five full-time and three part-time employees, Mr. Cable's company disassembles between 3,000 and 3,500 mattresses each month, distributing the components – namely steel, foam, cotton and wood – to local and regional recycling partners.

Municipalities are starting to recognize the wastefulness of mattress dumping. Metro Vancouver, for one, banned them from landfills nearly six years ago, prompting a spike in recycling.

Born and raised in British Columbia, 36-year-old Mr. Cable first came to Calgary after being drafted to the Calgary Roughnecks lacrosse team while in his 20s. After retiring from lacrosse, he began studying for a supply-chain management certificate at Mount Royal University.

It was during a warehouse-management course that he found himself at a Sears distribution centre, surrounded by mattresses. At the time, he was having regular breakfast meetings with a group of friends all interested in working for themselves.

Mr. Cable soon regaled them with his mattress epiphany. "Usually we'd be able to shoot holes through ideas, but this one seemed like it had a chance," he says. With funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada, he launched Re-Matt.

He makes money by charging dropoff fees. His main clients are retailers; Mr. Cable notices a spike in recycling after major vendors have a sale, bringing in a rash of gently-used-but-returned beds. He's also working with major hotel chains, and takes in mattresses from residential customers, charging them $15 a pop. The company also recycles box springs for the same price.

Most of Re-Matt's disassembly is done by hand and was learned by trial and error. "There weren't a lot of people doing it," Mr. Cable says. "People who are in the industry were really tight-lipped because they wanted to keep their secrets to themselves."

Re-Matt is able to transform 95 per cent of a mattress, by weight, into recyclable materials, the company says. This fits nicely with Calgary's goal to divert 70 per cent of its waste from landfill within the next nine years.

Right now, some of Re-Matt's metal and foam goes to recyclers, and the company has found a few buyers who can use the wood. The cotton, meanwhile, is shipped to a company in Vancouver.

They don't sell everything, but sending recyclable materials to the landfill goes against the principles Mr. Cable started the company for in the first place. To be more sustainable, both ecologically and financially, he needs to find more, and more flexible, recipients, to add to the revenue they make from taking in mattresses.

For instance, "springs aren't easy for metal recyclers to work with," he says. "Pocket coils are tough, with their textile coverings."

For a company focusing on expanding its customer base, building more business partnerships on the material-sales side has been difficult, he says.

THE CHALLENGE: How can Re-Matt find more business partners to buy its materials?

Kenneth Wong, distinguished professor of marketing, Smith School of Business, Queen's University, Kingston, Ont.

Re-Matt is offering raw materials, and buyers are going to get it from whoever has the lowest price. Take the cotton – if it goes into the equivalent of making rags, every rag manufacturer knows who has the lowest price of material. That's not a game Re-Matt wants to play. The ideal customer for them is someone for whom an environmental commitment is a major part of their brand.

Or instead, they could consider the resale of recycled parts as a secondary benefit. Given that there's a mattress war going on right now between Sleep Country, Sears and others, if they can provide a more efficient and cost-effective way of acquiring used mattresses, they don't need to make money on the disposal of those goods.

Jacquelyn Ottman, sustainability-focused marketing consultant and author of The New Rules of Green Marketing, New York

A good potential source is mattress manufacturers. It's possible that Re-Matt could go to mattress companies and say, "We can supply you with a steady stream of recycled material." So they can make a claim that their mattresses are made with X per cent recycled material.

Casper, or a company like that trying to make its pitch to millennials, would maybe have more of an interest in buying recycled materials and being able to make that claim. Maybe instead of virgin cotton Casper could use recycled content, and they can connect it back to the brand and say, "You can even get a better night's sleep knowing the mattress has higher recycled content." Emotionally, the fact that it's high recycled content could potentially enhance their brand.

Tchad Robinson, chief executive, Blue Marble Materials, the largest U.S. independent mattress recycling facility, Commerce, Calif.

Wood is dependent on local buyers. Some people make sawdust out of it, or try to sell it to companies that make mulch. You just have to be careful, because if it's coming out of a used mattress it has to be disclosed that that's the source of the material. And different types of foam have different flashpoints, so you have to segment them. Some people have used it to make punching bags, carpet padding, car seats or bus seats.

California is a large market, and the volume justified us making the investment to automate mattress recycling. We have equipment where, basically, you put the mattress in one end and the commodities come out the other end.

Steel, they could sell to us – we would mix it in with our materials that we sell. Working together helps. You have a lot of small steel recyclers that sell their product to the larger steel recyclers who have the equipment to process it more efficiently.


Examine their income

Look at which revenue stream has grown more over time – the mattress dropoff fees or income from selling the component materials? This would give insight into where they should focus their energy.

Call up mattress makers

Discuss partnerships to turn old components into new mattresses.

Network, network, network

Reach out to mulch businesses, seat-making businesses, and even other recyclers to get rid of excess materials.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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