Latina Pioneers Mattress Recycling Legislation


By Wayne Jebian

Taking out the trash is typically an easily chore, but what happens when you want to get rid of an unwieldy mattress? The question has often left many Connecticut residents scratching their heads – who then dump them, sometimes illegally at the curb, leaving the municipality to pay exorbitant fees for disposing of thousands of them yearly.
Now, as a result of the efforts of a woman in Harford’s Public Works department who took drafting a policy to resolve the issue into her own hands, Connecticut is now the first state to pass comprehensive laws on mattress recycling, which could serve as a national model. The legislation she spearheaded was passed in May and requires mattress manufacturers to create a program in Connecticut that manages unwanted mattresses.
The policy change started three years ago. Marilyn Cruz-Aponte, Assistant to the Director of Public Works in Hartford, who oversees solid waste disposal for the city of Hartford, experienced sticker shock at a $109,000 bill for the cost of two months of  mattress removal. “One hundred nine thousand dollars for two months!” she exclaimed. “I thought ‘this is crazy.’ Multiply that by six for the year. The cost for material waste streams is really out of control in this city. It’s not that we ask for it. It just shows up on the curb and we have to pick it up.”

She decided to approach her director and Hartford mayor Pedro Segarra about initiating a piece of legislation highlighting the fact that mattresses are indeed recyclable, and that manufacturers should play a role in their end-of-life disposal.
“It was problem solving at an environmental policy and local public-works level,” she said.

The leap forward took persistent advocacy and leadership, and Adrienne Houel, President and CEO of Greater Bridgeport Community Enterprises, credits Cruz-Aponte, a Latina who has spent her career in the male-dominated field of waste management, for her tireless effort.

“Marilyn Cruz-Aponte has really been the glue that has held this effort together for more than two years until we actually got the legislation through,” Houel said.

Bridgeport’s Senator Andres Ayala praised the law, calling it a “win-win.”

“Probably the more exciting piece to this is that we actually have a mattress recycling plant here in Bridgeport,” Ayala said. “They do a phenomenal job in recycling all the parts and everything that makes up those mattresses.” Bridgeport’s mattress recycling facility operates on a not-for-profit basis and gives good jobs to local residents who most need them, including ex-offenders.
Not only did Cruz-Aponte’s work help with mattress disposal, but the mattress stewardship law has allowed Bridgeport’s Park City Green facility expand its capacity and hire more people.
Houel, also part of the group that founded Park City Green, called the law “an excellent example of public/private collaboration.”

Before being hired by the city of Hartford, Cruz-Aponte spent 17 years on public works in New Britain, managing landfills and overseeing other areas long considered to be “men’s work.” “It is very unusual to have a female in public works, but to have a Latina in public works, unique,” Cruz-Aponte mused.
When asked how she had worked her way up the ranks of a field with few women in it, Cruz-Aponte explained that she had always had an interest in environmental protection and urban protection issues. She had originally been appointed at age 25 by then-Governor O’Neill. “He gave me the opportunity to serve as a liaison to the Department of Environmental Protection. Later, the people within the Department of Public Works tried to help me grow my knowledge base on environmental issues.”

She continued, “When the [O’Neill] decided he wasn’t going to run again, I had developed such a skill base in environmental policy that my hometown mayor at that time, Don DiFronzo, asked me to set up a recycling program for the city of New Britain.” Eventually, her combination of administrative experience and her skill in environmental policy development made for a smooth transition into the field of public works.
This New Britain native, whose parents come from Puerto Rico, went to New Britain High School, St. Joseph College for Women and graduate school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  “Mine was part of a small group of Puerto Rican families in New Britain who came to work in the factories and seek opportunity — you know, the classic story,” she recalled.

Cruz-Aponte said the law will create a national model for product reuse and stewardship that could be exported to other states and scaled up to include numerous products besides mattresses.
Manufacturers must submit a plans for their program to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection by July of 2014. If the program is approved, it will be implemented between late 2014 and early 2015.
(Photo by Alan Stanton via Flickr)