Industry News

Seattle dad and son start company to process hard-to-recycle items

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Consumers who are looking for ways to sustainably dispose of items not allowed by many curbside services may have a new option thanks to Ridwell, a fast-growing Seattle-based company started in 2017 by a dad and his then 6-year-old son.

Offering regular front porch pick-ups to its member-subscribers, the company provides reusable cloth bags for sorting items in several “core categories,” plus a wood bin for storing the bags between pickups. Typical categories of hard-to-recycle materials Ridwell accepts include:

  • Plastic film (shipping material, plastic shopping bags, produce bags, and more).
  • Clothing, fabric, and shoes (most shoes, clothes, textiles, and more).
  • Household batteries (Alkaline, hearing aid, rechargeable, and small lithium-ion batteries).
  • Household variety light bulbs (LEDs, CFLs, small fluorescent, incandescent).

They also offer a rotating “featured category” every pickup, sometimes tying into seasons, such as holiday lights, school supplies, eyeglasses, wine corks, electronics cords and cables, and printer cartridges.

Ridwell tries to promote responsible consumption by helping consumers find companies that commit to sustainability. It also publishes a blog and sends out regular emails with links and images to educate customers about acceptable and unacceptable items in the various categories.

Since China banned the import of most plastic recyclables in 2018, many local governments and waste companies have had to search for alternatives. Until then, China had processed nearly half the world’s recyclable waste for a quarter century. Now, more plastics are finding their way to landfills, incinerators, or as litter. More than 90% of the plastic ever produced has not been recycled, according to Greenpeace estimates.

The Yale School of the Environment estimates as many as 111 million tons of plastics will have to be processed in the coming decade. They suggest the recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban could have an upside, prompting both the development of better solutions for managing waste and motivating manufacturers to make their products more easily recyclable. It should also be “a wake-up call to the world on the need to sharply cut down on single-use plastics.”

Enter Ridwell.

Founder Ryan Metzer and his son Owen started gathering dead batteries that had accumulated around their house and searched for a company that would accept them instead of taking them to a landfill.

Once that was accomplished, they invited neighbors to become part of their recycling carpool, eventually expanding their list of recyclable items.

What is plastic film?

Unlike dedicated plastic film recyclers, modern recycling centers were not set up to handle flexible, lightweight plastic film. This material can snarl the machinery. Scientists estimate that plastic film can take 450 years or longer to break down in landfills.

(explanation excerpted from Ridwell’s website) In technical terms, plastic film is usually made up of low-density polyethylene (or LDPE) and sometimes carries the plastic #4 logo. More practically we like to think of it as anything that’s ‘scrunchable’ and a single material (meaning it does not have metal or paper in it or affixed to it). Examples include clean Ziploc bags, bubble wrap, air pillows, grocery bags, Prime shippers, plastic wrapping, newspaper bags, clothes packaging, and cereal bags. Padded envelopes, film with food on it and unwashed meat packaging are examples of plastic film that cannot be recycled by Ridwell.

As word spread and demand grew, Metzer and a few “believers” founded Ridwell as a “solution you can always count on to get rid of things the right way.” Using a hyper-localized approach, the company’s goal is to “help fill in the gaps in curbside recycling, reduce contamination, and support local reuse organizations.”

In addition to working with an expanding list of carefully vetted recycling partners and processors in their service areas to make sure “stuff” is kept out of landfills and sustainably reused or recycled, “we make it viable for companies to reuse their packaging and product materials by picking up from consumers and delivering back to their warehouses,” the company promises on its website.

Ridwell representatives say plastic film, which is picked up every two weeks as one of its four core categories, is by far the most used category. Among the ways it is reused is a component of decking material like Trex.

Ridwell’s members can choose from various plans, with pricing starting around $12 per month, depending on location and duration of a subscription. Gift plans are available.

Since its formation, Ridwell’s 60,000-plus members have saved more than 5 million pounds of waste from landfills. Along with Seattle, it operates in more than 40 communities, including Bellingham, Denver, Minneapolis and Portland, and anticipates having 300 employees by mid-year.

Earlier this year, Ridwell added Austin, Texas to the communities it serves. It adds ZIP codes in communities where a certain number of residents – typically from 150 to 1,000 – have expressed interest in a subscription.

The entrepreneurial company has had some pushback, primarily from established trash haulers and sanitation workers in some communities, as well as people who think they are not properly regulated, and some who note its service is not affordable to all. In response to concerns about equitable service, the company launched a pilot program last holiday season whereby Ridwell contributed $10 towards a six-month community-supported membership for every $48 gift card it sold.

Ridwell has also added a “transparency” page to its website. It provides details on where materials end up, how much of the material is diverted, and the amount of contamination. It reports 97.5% of collected material is reused or recycled.

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