Terrence McDonald helped Houston Furniture Bank found our Mattress Recycling Center in 2012. For 35 years, McDonald has been the Executive Director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. Terry’s road to entrepreneurial leadership began with a modest tool employed by many nonprofits- the retail thrift store- and has expanded to encompass a small empire of reuse, recycling and upcycling businesses. He also opened the first mattress-recycling facility in the nation and remains the largest mattress recycler in the United States.

Terry has led the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County to become the largest social services agency in the region. Roughly 60 percent of its annual $50 million budget comes from earned income. For nonprofits like SVdP, the value of generating revenue means you can pivot quickly to emerging community needs. 

In 2012 he developed a mentoring arm within SVdP, the Cascade Alliance, to take all of the knowledge and materials that SVDP has acquired and made them available to nonprofits interested in operating a waste-based business. Houston Furniture Bank is a member of the Cascade Alliance.


What’s the scale of the problem?

What we know about Mattresses is that they make up about 1% of the waste stream by volume. So if you think about how many mattresses are disposed of in the United States and how much waste we create, this is about 1% of that space that is taken up in landfills or in incinerators around the country. So as such, it’s one of the great identifiable products that can be removed from the waste stream and recycled. We have the will to do so. So what we are seeing around the country is an increasing number of communities and states that are looking at this very identifiable product that has good commodities that can be resold back into the marketplace as an opportunity for economic development as well as waste stream diversion.

How many recyclers are there?

In California, there’s about 10. In Connecticut, there’s 2, and then in Rhode Island, there’s one. And then there’s another of smaller operations like in Orlando, Florida and in South Carolina and North Carolina where there are a number of mattress recycling operations. We are seeing an increased volume of mattresses being diverted because they are difficult to handle items in waste streams. If you think about a bulky mattress, a mattress that is difficult to handle, it doesn’t compact well, it tends to float up into the landfill. They kind of float like boats on top of landfills. It’s a strange process. You know, it’s one of those places where you say, “Why shouldn’t we find a way to divert this product away from the waste stream.” And so across the country, we are seeing an increased number of nonprofit and for-profit companies recycling mattresses every year.

As a comparison, you guys are the largest in the country? How many mattresses do you recycle every year?

About 500,000

So how far do we have to go?

As a region, of course, Houston is one of the largest metropolitan bases in the country. And so you are a universe unto yourself. So you could probably if you were able to gather that stream into yourself, you could probably do the same amount of volume that we are in our northern California and Oregon facilities.

Well, that’s a good and bad answer. Good, in the sense that we have a long way to grow, but bad in the sense that, until we can get there, these mattresses are ending up in the landfill. So hopefully we are a part of that solution and we can be a bigger part of that solution as we move forward,

You already are part of the solution.

Tell us a little bit about the Cascade Alliance and why it’s such an important operation?

Well, one of the things that we recognized a number of years ago was that recycling and waste-based businesses were an opportunity for not for profit organizations to create capital, jobs, and employment as well as gain access to materials needed for their charitable purposes. So in cooperation with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, St. Vincent de Paul embarked upon an effort to reach out to many nonprofits around the United States to find a way to bring them together to create an organization that would trade on each other’s strengths and best practices to create new waste-based businesses. So over the years, which it’s now 8 years, we have been able to create partnerships with up to 20 nonprofits around the United States, including the Furniture Bank. And the opportunity to create not only jobs and employment in mattress recycling but in thrift and online sales or books of automobiles or all kinds of different activities based upon the waste stream, creating jobs and employment. And over the years, we have created hundreds of jobs out of the waste stream, generating lots of revenue for the nonprofits we work with, so it’s mutually beneficial cooperation among multiple nonprofits scattered around the United States.

How did we begin working together in 2012?

Well, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had come to pay us a call and asked us to create this kind of partnership around the United States and we approached the National Furniture Bank Association in Atlanta and asked for organizations around the country that might be interested. And one of the first places that they identified as a very viable and very successful furniture bank was your furniture bank. And so that’s when I reached out to Oli and said do you mind if I wander out and visit with you and chat about how we might be able to create some partnership that would give you the ability to generate funds and revenues and also meet your mission statement of getting furniture into people’s homes. So it was an opportunity brought to us by a foundation that could have the wisdom to see the benefit of waste-based development.

What does the Cascade Alliance have up its sleeve for the future?

Well, the good news about the Cascade Alliance is that it’s very vibrant and growing. So as we reach out to other nonprofits throughout the country in a variety of different applications, whether it’s retail thrift or whether its online sales of books or whatever else, we are finding other nonprofits in salt lake city, in Spokane, and throughout the united states and Maine and other places… that would like to find a way to create social enterprises, such as you have done, that will generate jobs and opportunities for people as well as revenue. So we see, probably at a growth of about 10 and 15% per year, virtually forever.

What do you see as the future of mattress recycling?

Yeah, that’s actually a very exciting part of what we are looking at. We recognize that mattress stewardship laws are very likely to be rolling out around the country. Currently, there are three states in the United States that have mattress stewardship laws. And by that I mean, a mattress stewardship law is where the retailer pays a fee to a recycling organization upon the sale of a new mattress, so just like with electronics, when you buy electronics, or in some places around the country when you buy paint, they also have a fee that is charged to the consumer that goes back to make sure that the end of life of that product is taken care of and it doesn’t have to go to the landfill. So currently in Rhode Island and Connecticut and in California, such a mattress stewardship law has been put in place, and they have very robust mattress recycling programs. There’s a bill before the legislature in Oregon next year that is doing the same thing. We are investigating this in Massachusetts. Maryland has reached out to us. Pennsylvania has reached out to us. Illinois has reached out. And we believe that its very like that ultimately that mattress recycling will be nationally mandated. In which case, it gives a great business opportunity for a not for profit organization like the Houston Furniture Bank to capture jobs and employment and a revenue-generating center that would be perpetually available for you.

So these are all nonprofit organizations?

Yes, our emphasis is on waste-based business development for not for profit organizations. Community-based organizations that are deeply rooted in their community that provide essential services but need the opportunity to grow outside of foundations and grants.

What other furniture banks are doing mattress recycling around the country?

The Tacoma Furniture Bank is involved in an operation like this. The Orlando mustard seed is involved and they have been doing it just as long as you have, as a matter of fact. So yes there are other organizations that are doing this.

What’s next for the Cascade Alliance?

Well, it depends on what area. Mobile home park preservation is very important to us. So, the largest reservoir of affordable housing in the United States outside of public housing is mobile home parks. Many of those mobile homes are past their usable life, pre ‘76 units, and so we are buying up mobile home parks and finding a strategy and now we can get them to be energy-efficient and replaced. We are looking at expanding of course the mattress recycling operations. We are looking a lot at other business opportunities like polystyrene recycling, which has turned out to be a very good business for us. Glass recycling, in some areas back into manufacturing new products out of window glass. So yeah we are kind of looking at the various places that we can graft onto new things out of the waste stream that make sense. 

Terry, you guys are a great role model for the country for the entire country and for the world as a matter of fact. We couldn’t be more grateful for the work that you have done personally there but also with the Cascade Alliance and allowing us the opportunity and the knowledge to move this operation forward. We look forward to some more future guidance from you on how to scale up to doing a half a million a year as well as you do. 

It’s a partnership and it goes both ways. We appreciate your efforts!

Many thanks to Terry for speaking with us and for being a great resource to the Houston Furniture Bank as we grow our mattress recycling program. Thanks to Hal Lynde for the excellent questions. See the entirety of our celebration of 100,000 mattresses recycled at Houston Furniture Bank here.