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With solution to ‘aspirational recycling,’ Ridwell growing to pick up what Amazon leaves behind

Ridwell’s Justin Gough (Image: Ridwell)

It’s one of those perfect spring afternoons. The sun rays glitter on the water of Lake Washington. Ryan Metzger swiftly opens up his car door, walks up to the porch of a grand Leschi house and immediately reaches for the trash.

To clarify: it’s very clean trash meant for recycling; and the people who stuffed it all in cloth bags in the white bin on the porch knew Metzger, CEO of the local recycling startup Ridwell, would be there to pick it up. They pay for Ridwell’s subscription service (which starts at $10 a month) for pick-ups of used light bulbs, batteries, clothes, plastics and other materials that shouldn’t go in the garbage or are better off recycled and reused.

Metzger fishes one small bag out of the bin filled with a couple of batteries. Another is stuffed with old clothes, and a third one brims with what fits in the ‘plastic film’ category of scrunchable plastics, including ziplock bags and dry cleaner bags.

“It’s a lot of Amazon packaging,” Metzger says, while he opens the bag to check its contents. “Bubble-wrap-envelopes and stuff, which doesn’t fit in regular recycling.”

(Image: Ridwell)

The bad news: People want to recycle so badly that they’re also cramming stuff that doesn’t actually get recycled in the blue bin, part of a phenomenon called ‘aspirational recycling.‘ It’s pervasive, and it is gumming up the system. Often, loose plastic bags and plastic wrap will make the recycling process harder and can even jam the machinery in recycling facilities.

There’s good news too. If kept separate, some of these items can be recycled and turned into composite decking materials. Rather than everyone making a trip to the store or pick-up point (if they do to begin with and don’t just throw it in the trash or recycling), Ridwell picks it up and drive it to Kent where it gets baled and sent to manufacturing facilities.

“We make it easy for people,” says Metzger. “We are essentially carpooling.”

Many of the materials Ridwell picks up such as light bulbs, clothes, and batteries, can be dropped off at different pick-up points throughout the city. However, a couple of searches on the city’s online “Where Does It Go?” tool shows that it’s not as simple as that.

Halogen, Xenon and Incandescent light bulbs go in the garbage, but compact fluorescent lamps need to go to a household hazardous waste facility or a LightRecycle location. Non-rechargeable, household alkaline batteries (such as AAA, AA, C, D, or 9-volt) can go in the garbage, while the city recommends bringing alkaline batteries to either household hazardous waste facility or city transfer stations. Still feel like recycling?

A recent report by King County’s Responsible Recycling Task Force recommended “harmonizing” recycling programs and messaging, noting that “consumer confusion drives contamination.”

Consumer confusion, specifically around batteries, was what sparked the start of Ridwell, back then (late 2017) known as Owen’s List. Metzger’s 6-year old, Owen, wanted to dispose of some batteries without sending them to landfill. The process to find a drop-off point was harder than it should be, so they offered to pick up batteries and other items from neighbors. Soon, Owen’s List had grown into a pick-up service for all things typically thrown in the trash, through word-of-mouth, the local Buy Nothing Facebook group, and email.

It was far from a business, Metzger says. More like a “fun little project. We would pick a day and a category, send out an email to say, we’re picking up eyeglasses! But it’d be very unpredictable because it was only when we had time.”

People loved it. They wanted more. Metzger started thinking about transforming the volunteer project into a business. After all, he’d been advising start-ups on expanding their customer base and marketing for a living. With Aliya Marder, David Dawson, and Justin Gough, early volunteers with Owen’s List, he formed the company last summer.

The first pick-up rounds, in October of 2018, serviced some 65 people. Today, Ridwell’s customer numbers have risen to over 800 clients across the city, serving Capitol Hill and the Central District, Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia, NE Seattle, Wallingford, and newly added routes in South and West Seattle. Metzger, Marder, Dawson, and Gough are working for the company full-time and say they want to hire part-time drivers starting this April and are looking to expand into Bellevue, Edmonds and areas outside Seattle.

Today, Metzger’s on the new route through South Seattle, jumping in and out of his car to take the full cloth bags in the bins and replace them with new bags to be filled in the next two weeks. On all the stops, there is one constant presence: plastic film bags. One 16 x 20-inch bag is so stuffed its contents spill over into the bin: at least 5 Amazon Prime bags, one Fedex envelope, ziplock bags, and air pillows.

“What many people don’t realize is how much trash space it takes up,” Metzger says. “If you can reduce the size of your garbage by recycling these materials with us, people can spend less on their trash pick up, which is priced by volume. The upside is, their stuff will be sent to better destinations.”

Not all of those destinations are actual recycling plants. Ridwell also picks up a rotating category. Sometimes, it’s electronics to be recycled, but more often than not, Ridwell asks for things that can be reused rather than recycled: Unused diapers and wipes (donated to Westside Baby), books (for Friends of the Seattle Public Library), kitchenware (for Refugee Women’s Alliance) or leftover Halloween candy (for Birthday Dreams).

After the Ridwell “van” — for now, just passenger cars owned by the team — gets briefly stuck behind a garbage truck, Metzger’s onto a couple more deliveries. One woman brings her Ridwell box down from her apartment, which has a secure entrance, on an upper floor. It works, but it’s not ideal. “We’re hoping to bring our service to more apartment buildings to work with them to get access to service whole buildings,” he says.

“If you have less space, like in those buildings, reducing waste is even more impactful.”

You can learn more about Ridwell at getridwell.com


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11 thoughts on “With solution to ‘aspirational recycling,’ Ridwell growing to pick up what Amazon leaves behind

  1. This is a great idea, although I really wish it were simply part of our existing municipal waste management infrastructure. Finding where the heck to take polystyrene is hard, discovering the nearest pickup point is in Renton is just ridiculous.

    I’m never sure what to do with old/worn out clothing, either. I suspect most people simply dump it on various thrift shops who then have to take on the extra work of sorting through it before it goes into the trash. I have a closet full of old clothing that I can’t conscionably take to Lifelong but also am pretty sure it doesn’t belong in the garbage. Maybe this service is right for me.

  2. It would help if the City opened more “hazardous waste” sites and expanded their hours. Whenever I stop by the site in north Seattle (off Aurora), it seems to be closed…..hours are very limited.

    • Yea, sometimes there’s no practical way to do it. I was collecting my old batteries in a bag at one time; I can’t make a trip for each one. Then I realized they would leak and spark, and went back to throwing them in the trash. I’d love to see drop-off points in the neighborhood, but don’t know if that would be feasible.

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