Christopher Moken was working at a food bank in Charleston, South Carolina, when he got an up-close look at the sheer volume of material that Americans throw away.
Food donated from grocery stores that was nearing or past its expiration date rotted and went into the trash. Gallons of 1 percent milk left over from school lunch programs went down the drain.
“I’m just sitting here doing this math in my head,” Moken said. “Wow, this is ridiculous.”
The experience led Moken, 30, to question how he could help cut back on the stream of waste flowing into landfills and put more recycled materials back into the market.
That’s why he founded Re-Mat, a San Antonio nonprofit focused on recycling old mattresses – a product for which few recycling options exist in Texas.
After receiving financial sponsorship from the Austin Community Foundation, Moken is holding his first major fundraiser this weekend, a three-day “no-sleep marathon” involving a livestreaming video game site, with participants invited to play a custom video game.
Moken hopes this fundraiser will help Re-Mat become San Antonio’s first mattress recycling center. He wants to recycle 20,000 mattresses in the nonprofit’s first year and scale up to 50,000.
Based on national mattress replacement rates, Moken estimates that people in San Antonio dispose of approximately 140,000 mattresses a year.
For him, the startup is not just about the environmental benefits of keeping mattresses out of the landfill and getting companies to use more recycled steel and other materials.
Re-Mat also will focus on providing a living wage – around $12 an hour – to workers who struggle to find employment, such the homeless or people just leaving prison. The plan is to start with two to three employees and ramp up to 11 to 12, Moken said.
“You’re not only helping the environment but helping our community at the same time,” Moken said.
Moken’s path to mattress recycling was a winding one. Before working at the South Carolina food bank as part of Americorps Vista, he worked as a contractor for the Navy and at Southwest Business Corp.
After moving Texas from South Carolina, he seized on the idea of recycling mattresses after asking San Antonio officials what type of waste they find hard to properly dispose of or recycle.
Besides taking up space in landfills, mattresses are frequently seen littering illegal dumping grounds in parks and empty lots around the city. That’s a disappointing end for a product that is about 80 percent recyclable, according to the Mattress Recycling Council.
Steel springs, foam padding, wooden frames, and cotton can all be reused, according to the council founded by the International Sleep Products Association to respond to recycling laws in California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Those three states are the only ones to require mattress manufacturers to create a statewide recycling program for their products. Texas has similar laws only for electronics waste.
But there is some precedent in Texas for mattress recycling. One for-profit company in Houston called Mattress B Gone charges $65 to pick up and haul away one mattress and will remove additionally mattresses for a slightly higher fee. For a $10 fee, the nonprofit Houston Furniture Bank also accepts mattresses to be dropped off at its location and charges $25 for those it has to haul away.
Moken says he thinks he can charge $20 per dropoff at Re-Mat’s future location and somewhere around $45-$65 for pick-ups.
Re-Mat has plenty of challenges ahead to become the go-to recycling option for mattresses in San Antonio. For one thing, Moken doesn’t have a location yet.
Moken hopes he can get warehouse space at a free or discounted rate from a developer or commercial property owner who has extra space and wants to make an in-kind donation. He had originally wanted to make Austin the site of his first location but soon realized he couldn’t afford warehouse space in that city.
To find employees, he’s hoping for help from local career centers, such as Workforce Solutions Alamo, to find the right employees to disassemble the mattresses and sort and bale materials.
“We want to be that first step for someone coming out of prison, for example,” Moken said.
Once the nonprofit is up and running, Moken said his main role would be “getting as many mattresses through our front door as possible.”
Richard Menchaca, one of Re-Mat’s board members, thinks Moken can pull it off.
A former commercial banking executive who’s now co-owner of oil and gas exploration and production company ROZ Resources, Menchaca met Moken while speaking at a young professionals group Moken was attending. They found a common interest in social entrepreneurship.
“I have a lot of respect for Christopher,” Menchaca said. “He’s a hard worker and he’s got a great vision.”
Moken also seems to have a knack for tapping into other peoples’ talents. For the fundraiser, he’s recruited Evan Hansen, a self-employed IT contractor, to build a video game to promote Re-Mat.
It features an animated longhorn bull – Re-Mat’s mascot – running through side-scrolling San Antonio scenes while picking up mattresses, dodging obstacles, and redeeming them for gold tokens, Hansen said.
“It has a really strong ’80s retro-wave neon vibe to it,” Hansen said of the game.
Hansen plans to make the game available for 99 cents on the Apple App Store and Google Play, with all proceeds going to Re-Mat.
Re-Mat has a long way to go to meet Moken’s fundraising goal of $60,000. So far, it’s only brought in $75.