[This story first appeared in the September 2019 Government Update from the association.]
As Kevin Matthews sees it, California’s mattress recycling program adds a little more to the cost of doing business in a high-cost state. It increases the workload, according to Dan Pedersen. Yet, both try to manage the program effectively or even turn it into an opportunity.
California launched Bye Bye Mattress in 2016 to stem the flow of the bulky items into landfills and to reduce illegal dumping. The program, operated by the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC) in Alexandria, Va., puts significant responsibility on retailers who sell sleep products. They must:
- Register to participate in the program.
- Sell only mattresses made by manufacturers that are registered.
- Charge customers a fee of $10.50 for each mattress and box spring sold.
- Send the fees monthly to the MRC.
- When delivering new mattresses to customers, remove used mattresses upon request at no charge. But they are not required to handle “contaminated” mattresses.
- Send used mattresses to recycling centers and keep paperwork on everything.
Al’s Furniture displays signs in its showroom that explain the recycling program.
Matthews owns Home Furnishings Association member Matthews Mattress, which operates 12 stores in northern California, stretching 90 miles from Napa to Roseville, including one in Sacramento. The company is based in Vacaville. Its main warehouse is in Dixon, and that’s where the used mattresses are taken and placed in a truck trailer.
Although the warehouse isn’t a public collection point, Matthews said, people are welcome to drop off used mattresses. Usually twice a week, a recycler comes with an empty trailer, leaves that and hauls away the trailer filled with old mattresses. There’s no exchange of money for the service, Matthews said.
Evans serves as collection point
HFA member Evans Furniture Galleries serves as an official MRC collection point at its warehouse in Yuba City. The arrangement has worked well after a few initial bumps were resolved, Chief Financial Officer Marian Jackson said.
“We had an issue with people illegally dumping mattresses,” she said. The MRC paid to have a security camera installed and the offender – someone from another business – was identified and discouraged from continuing that practice.
Matthews picked up customers’ old mattresses before the law mandated that service, so the recycling program adds a minimum cost. For some other retailers, like Al’s Furniture in Modesto, the expense is higher. Al’s carries used mattresses 40 miles to the nearest recycling facility, where the driver often must wait in line to drop them off, according to Pedersen, the general manager for Al’s Furniture. The volume is higher than it was before the requirement to remove customers’ used mattresses, he added.
“If they asked, we’d always do it,” he said. “It’s pretty much increased tenfold.”
To minimize the cost, Pedersen said, Al’s waits until it has a full load, which is only a few times a year, so it stores the old mattresses in the meantime.
Evans Furniture Galleries does even better. MRC pays Evans $2.25 per unit for the old mattresses it collects, Jackson said. Once it fills its trailer, which holds 80 to 90 mattresses, it calls a company that hauls away the full trailer and leaves an empty one, at no charge. The only expense to Evans is the labor it uses to load the trailer. Before the recycling program, the company paid a fee to dump used mattresses at the landfill, so it’s saving money.
Violators risk large fines
Matthews Mattress, Evans Furniture Galleries and Al’s Furniture, also an HFA member, are among the best participants in Bye Bye Mattress. Not every retailer belongs in that category. Some have been unaware of their obligations under the law or have chosen not to comply. Although California’s recycling agency lists only seven enforcement officers, who are also responsible for other programs in addition to mattresses, violators can face fines rising to $5,000 for every day they fail to comply. One store owner, who sells Murphy beds, told the Home Furnishings Association he didn’t know he was required to charge the recycling fee. He is. Now that he knows, he plans to register and begin to comply, he said.
Enforcement isn’t a priority for the MRC, according to Lori Barnes, its manager of industry communications.
“We really try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want to recycle mattresses.” To date, more than 4 million mattresses have been recycled in California, she added, with the program achieving an 80 percent compliance rate.
Kirby Garrett, a supervisor for CalRecycle’s enforcement staff, echoed Barnes’ sentiment. “We really want to get them into compliance,” he said. “We don’t want to go down the road of penalty.”
When inspectors find a business not following requirements, they issue a notice of violation. The retailer is given 30 days to correct deficiencies. If there’s still a problem, the business gets a second notice of compliance and 30 more days. “Really, a majority of the businesses do come into compliance before we get into the penalty phase,” Garrett said. If not, fines begin at $500 a day and can reach $5,000 a day for willful violations.
That can add up to a lot in a hurry. California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery sought penalties of more than $600,000 against Mission Mattress and Furniture Warehouse – not an HFA member – in Oceanside for multiple violations over two years. A settlement was reached in August when the business agreed to a penalty of $57,200 – with $50,000 of that held in obeyance for three years. The full amount will be due immediately if the business fails to meet the terms of the agreement, but the $50,000 will be dropped if Mission Mattress remains in compliance for the next three years.
It’s fair if all participate
In addition to the risk of penalties, noncompliant retailers are taking an unfair advantage over competitors that meet their obligations. They neither charge the fee nor incur the expense of collecting and transporting old mattresses, unless they choose to do so. And, of course, they aren’t contributing to a program that, despite its costs, does accomplish a positive purpose.
That’s the primary reason Evans Furniture Galleries offered to serve as a collection point in the first place, Jackson said. “We wanted to do something to help the earth.”
Crews can decline to pick up used mattresses if they appear to pose a health risk or in other extreme cases. “We’ve seen some that looked like they were part of a crime scene,” Jackson said.
Matthews supports recycling. No one in his business likes seeing mattresses dumped along the sides of roads or clogging up landfills. He just wishes California wouldn’t keep adding fees on top of taxes on top of more fees. This is one that he and his salespeople try to explain to customers.
“A lot of it comes down to the customers’ education,” he said. “When they understand it’s for recycling, it’s easy.”
Use the program to advantage
At the top of its website, Matthews Mattress promotes “mattress removal and recycling” as another service along with “expert same-day delivery” and “complete mattress and bed setup.” That’s how a retailer can turn an obligation into an opportunity to connect with customers who support recycling.
And, if customers balk at the recycling fee, it can become “part of the negotiating process,” Matthews said. “I’ll pay your sales tax and MRC fee.” That’s another opportunity to make the customer feel that he’s getting something back rather than giving more. And it’s practical.
“We’re not going to lose a $3,000 sale for $21,” Matthews said. “We’ll pay for it ourselves.”
On the other hand, a $21 fee for a $169 children’s twin mattress and bed frame is a lot for the customer and for the retailer. Then there are customers who insist they shouldn’t pay a recycling fee if they’re not turning in an old mattress to be recycled. While there’s some logic to that argument, Matthews asks them to think of it like the state’s beverage container fee, which is collected at purchase, not when the bottle or can is returned.
Pedersen, with Al’s Furniture, has found that customers are reasonable and supportive, if they’re made aware of the fee before the sale is rung up.
“In our mattress area, we have two or three signs explaining the program,” he said. “And our sales rep mentions it, so it’s not just a surprise. Then it’s real smooth. Most customers just understand it as another recycling fee, so there’s no arguing about it. As long as you do it upfront, they move on.”
The recycling program is improving, too, Pedersen said. At first, the nearest recycling facility was even farther away – a 90-minute drive each way. It was cheaper to pay the fee to dispose of mattresses at the local landfill.
Unfortunately, some Fresno-area residents still dump their mattresses in the wrong places, Pedersen has observed.
“Any program you start, you’ve got to give it time and see it move forward year over year,” he said.
No penalty for starting late
Connecticut and Rhode Island have similar programs, and more states are sure to follow. Mattress retailers across the country can get started anytime they want.
So far, when a retailer who has not participated comes forward to register for the program, California has not assessed penalties or required payment of past-due fees, Garrett said. So, it’s not too late to start with a clean slate. Retailers should not wait another day.