Remixing Mattresses – A Social Enterprise Mashup

Reusable grocery bags? Check. Thermal coffee mug? Check. For some of us, this is the extent of our eco-conscious behavior. There are those among us, however, such as the Team at Rubicon National Social Innovations, for whom this is only the beginning.
Most famous for “baking a difference” through the successful Rubicon Bakery program, Rubicon has raised the bar by systematically building double- and triple-bottom-line businesses (check out the Rubicon Landscape Services program as well) at an impressive rate. Now, though, the committed team at Rubicon has set itself an even more ambitious goal: to build a national – and scalable – social enterprise, from scratch, and show everyone that it is possible to tackle our biggest social and environmental challenges in a financially sustainable manner. Their challenge of choice: discarded mattresses.

According to Katherine Daniel, Senior Business Analyst at RNSI in San Francisco, Rubicon’s latest initiative is simple:

“Our goal is to develop nationally-scaled social purpose businesses which rely on market forces to achieve financial sustainability, while maximizing social returns for working poor and disenfranchised communities.”

All of this will hit Rubicon’s sweet spot: the disadvantaged men and women who often find it difficult to re-enter the workforce, due often to a lack of skills or minimal criminal record. Under the leadership of Rubicon founder and Bay Area legend Rick Aubry, the organization has built a solid reputation for empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty, and has left hundreds of happier, healthier, self-sufficient people in its wake.
Recycling Sleep
While this goal is ambitious – but equally, definitely reachable given Rubicon’s track record – it does beg a gnawing question: mattresses? Absolutely, says Katherine – the RNSI team spent months scouring the country for existing social purpose business models that work, with a view toward pairing the best model with an unmet social and environmental need.
Mattresses, it turns out, are clogging up our landfills for the simple reason that nobody has figured out how to dismantle them efficiently in order to reuse their base components (such as foam, coils springs, etc.). Moreover, “they are large, easily identifiable items that landfills don’t particularly like as they are difficult to compress and they damage equipment such as tractors and backhoes,” says Katherine. Worse, mattresses “actually ‘float’ to the surface of landfills, even when covered with dirt,” meaning that even though your discarded Sealy is out of mind, it is certainly not out of sight.
For most, this would seem to be a challenge without an easy solution, but the Rubicon team thinks differently: “Mattresses are a perfect recyclable item,” continues Katherine, explaining that Rubicon is intentionally trying to create demand for a mattress recycling market (which doesn’t really exist as of yet). “To date, there are few uses for mattress components – creating little market justification for the expense of the recycling process.”
“Until now.”
Discarded Dreams
In typical Rubicon fashion, the RNSI team isn’t going about the whole affair in a traditional manner. They have teamed up with local architecture and sustainable design firm, Architecture for Humanity, in order to tap some of the innovative thinking that the Architecture for Humanity crew has made their calling card. Brainchild of Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, Architecture for Humanity gained quasi-celebrity status after winning the 2006 T.E.D. conference in Monterrey, which resulted in the creation of the Open Architecture Network, an online community of 4000+ architects and designers who share ideas and designs, and collaborate on common projects. The OAN has become a useful platform for design competitions, called Open Architecture Challenges, that have helped focus the community’s attention on a range of sustainable development issues (such as a low cost football stadium, or classroom redesign). Rubicon’s sponsored challenge is called “Discarded Dreams“, and aims to figure out the mattress recycling and re-purposing conundrum in a decidedly Web 2.0, crowd-sourcing fashion.
Rubicon approached Architecture for Humanity because of its reputation for fostering innovative solutions to difficult challenges, or as Katherine puts it, “Rubicon knows social enterprise and is skilled at launching businesses. We are not, however, experts in design, industrial or otherwise. Architecture for Humanity is one of the most innovative design organizations around and we have the wonderful coincidence of working in close proximity with them.” (Rubicon works out of Architecture for Humanity’s Co-lab, a community office located in San Francisco’s SOMA district that houses half a dozen social and environmental purpose organizations).
A Community Effort
The end result of this collaborative design effort? More than 25 design submissions from all over the country and beyond, each a unique approach to a unique – and persistent – problem. Once the winning submissions are selected from the larger pool by Rubicon’s judge panel, Katherine and her colleagues have big plans for implementing the design solutions: by partnering with Silicon Valley Goodwill, the RNSI team is hoping to leverage Goodwill’s recycling experience as well as draw upon its trained workforce of disadvantaged men and women working in Goodwill’s reuse, recycling and re-purposing facility. In the face of a most daunting challenge, Katherine remains decidedly upbeat

“Our greatest hope is that of the 27 bold ideas that were generated by the competition, a few of them will prove commercially viable as an end of life value added product and becoming integrated in our recycling facility.

Beyond that we are just excited about the interest people have shown in the reception (yesterday, Thursday, Jan. 22) and beginning the effort to educate people about the need for mattress recycling and initiating folks on the possible uses for mattresses parts.”

So the next time you lay down on your mattress for a good night’s sleep, rest easy knowing that the folks at Rubicon are out there changing the world, one mattress at a time.

A self-described surferpreneur working at the intersection of business, philanthropy and government. Based in San Francisco, an impressively fantastic place that is only eclipsed by the amazing people that live in it.

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