UTEC ready to recycle unique business model

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

This is probably how the recycling industry sees the current ban in Massachusetts on disposing of textiles and mattresses in household waste.

From November 1st, these new disposal regulations will include clothing, shoes, bedding, towels, curtains, fabrics and similar products. However, they do not cover items contaminated with mold, bodily fluids, insects, oil or hazardous substances, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Mattresses – defined by state regulators as “any resilient material or combination of materials surrounded by ticking, used alone or in combination with other products and intended for sleeping” – are also no longer allowed to go to landfills.

According to the DEP, about 250,000 tons of textiles are thrown away in Massachusetts every year.

Of the approximately 600,000 mattresses thrown away every year, only a third comes from local residents. And while that represents just 16,500 tons of waste per year, the agency said, “that tonnage has a disproportionate impact as mattresses are bulky, difficult to handle and take up a lot of volume in waste facilities.”

MassDEP believes at least a third of these mattresses, or more than 5,000 tons per year, can be diverted from landfill to recycling sites.

Regulators say there are more than 25 textile reuse and recycling operations in the state. This appears to be sufficient for the current rate of municipal recycling participation, which accounts for about half of Commonwealth cities and towns.

However, given the scope of this mandatory statewide ban, more recyclers are likely to enter the Massachusetts market.

This is both an opportunity and a challenge for one of these current recyclers, the Lowell-based United Teen Equality Center, better known as UTEC.

The non-profit organization for at-risk young adults currently operates a successful mattress recycling business from its Lawrence facility.

UTEC began recycling mattresses in 2014 when it became a waste handling subcontractor to provide mattress pickup service in the city of Lowell. Since then, UTEC has expanded its operations to various communities as well as hotels, colleges and furniture stores in northern New England.

It currently provides mattress recycling services to several local communities including Acton, Cambridge, Framingham, Hanson, Hanover, Kingston, Lowell, Marblehead, Medfield, Needham, Newburyport, Norwood, Pembroke, Sherborn and Winchester.

When UTEC separates mattresses from the waste stream, approximately 85% of each piece is recycled by weight. His teenage workers cut the mattresses by hand and recycle steel, foam, wood, some of the pads and cotton.

UTEC’s commitment to mattress removal and recycling has not gone unnoticed.

In 2015, Mass. DEP recognized UTEC as a qualified provider of mattress recycling services in the State of Massachusetts, and in 2016 UTEC received MassRecycle’s Institutional Award.

But for all its success, UTEC’s corps of young adults who pick up and disassemble those mattresses remains cautious about competing with wealthy conglomerates for a bigger slice of the Massachusetts recycling pie.

UTEC CEO Gregg Croteau said competition from better funded and larger companies could threaten the unique services provided by young people in the community who face complex barriers to employment.

Croteau and his team had hoped that a bill authored by Lowell State Senator Ed Kennedy aimed at protecting non-profit recycling companies like UTEC in this new recycling environment would be passed before the end of the formal legislature.

That did not happen, although efforts to win his passage continue.

UTEC has been in the business of providing socioeconomic opportunities to at-risk Lowell and Lawrence youth for some time, efforts recognized by the Baker-Polito administration.

It has taken troubled youth from gang and potentially criminal activity to acquiring valuable workplace skills, in this case reusing and recycling items previously discarded as trash.

The UTEC team can assert itself in this new recycling landscape. It has carved a niche for itself throughout the Merrimack Valley and has also proven to be a sustainable business model.

From this challenge, we see opportunities for UTEC to expand its recycling reach.

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