Seattle takes its trash seriously.
The city banned single-use plastic shopping bags and plastic straws and utensils. It taught residents to toss banana peels and chicken bones in the compost can instead of the garbage bin. Even preschoolers here know their yogurt cup goes in the recycling bin along with mom and dad’s beer and wine bottles.
And the efforts have paid off. Thirty years ago, Seattle residents chucked out more than 2 pounds of garbage per person each day. That number is down to less than a pound today, according to city data.
But in some ways, it’s still too much. King County’s landfill is bursting at the seams. Seattle outgrew local landfills decades ago and sends its garbage by train to a site in north-central Oregon.
And even recycling isn’t always the path to salvation that some hope for. The owners of Total Reclaim, Washington’s largest electronics recycling company, were caught illegally disposing of defunct monitors and computers. Last month they received two-year prison sentences for their crimes. Seattle might soon stop accepting bundled-up plastic bags in recycling bins. The bags break free, mucking up the recycling process and often include a mix of plastic types that’s tough to manage.
A Seattle dad and his son are stepping up to help. They’ve launched Ridwell, a startup that collects hard-to-dispose-of items for reuse or responsible recycling.
“We make it easy to waste less,” said Ryan Metzger, Ridwell CEO and co-founder.
Ridwell got its start in late 2017 when Metzger and his son, 7-year-old Owen, were trying to get rid of dead batteries and realized it was something of a hassle. They offered to help others dispose of various waste through a Buy Nothing group on Facebook. Interest kept growing and they created Owenslist.org to do more recycling. In August 2018, the team officially launched Ridwell and pickups began in October. The company’s other founders are Aliya Marder, David Dawson and Justin Gough.
Ridwell subscribers use labeled cotton bags to toss out old batteries, light bulbs, clothing and shoes, and plastic film — including produce and dry cleaning bags, six-pack rings and Amazon bubble envelopes — all items that generally otherwise end up in the trash.
Customers place the items in a white, metal box outside their door. Every two weeks, Ridwell drivers pick up the filled bags and replace them with empty ones. For an extra fee, customers can dispose of Styrofoam peanuts and other products.
Ridwell also rotates through specialty pickups. Past items for collection include art supplies, electronics, unused diapers, latex paint and wine bottle corks. In the fall, Ridwell collected unwanted Halloween candy to give to a group that provides birthday party supplies for kids experiencing homelessness. Another pickup gathered eye glasses that get scrubbed in industrial dishwashers, their prescriptions measured and then are redistributed to those in need.
“We are highlighting ideas [for recycling] that people don’t even know about,” Metzger said.
Seattle’s Pike Market Food Bank was eager to receive disposable utensils, chopsticks and flavor packets from takeout foods from Ridwell customers to pass along to their clients.
“We have a lot of folks of Asian descent from the International District. They were happy to see the chopsticks, to see something from their culture,” said Jill Weidman, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the food bank. The organization also provides prepared foods for clients who are homeless. The donations meant they could hand out a fork or spoon to go with the meals.
Ridwell’s every-two-weeks pickups cost $10-14 per month, depending on the length of service subscribers sign on for. Customers can pay an extra $9 for a Styrofoam pickup of a 40-gallon bag. The business contracts with drivers who operate like Lyft or Uber drivers, with routes available between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The recyclers don’t pay Ridwell for the items, though as the business grows it could scale to the point where they would. The company has more than 1,000 customers in Seattle and is considering expanding, perhaps to Portland.
Customer Carla Rogers of West Seattle dates back to the Owenslist days.
“I take advantage of the local services that are provided [by the city],” Rogers said, “but there are still things that have to go in the trash and that drives me crazy.”
Her husband works for the Seattle Aquarium and has shared stories about marine animals that die and when scientists examine their bodies, “they’re full of plastics and other crap,” Rogers said. She’s willing to pay extra to divert her garbage from landfills.
The city of Seattle recently expanded the items it will pick up for recycling. Residents can schedule extra pickups of Styrofoam blocks for free, but not peanuts or large pieces of foam. The city will also collect furniture, electronics, batteries and compact fluorescent light bulbs for an extra charge. A Seattle official welcomed the services offered by Ridwell.
“There has always been a good vibrant recycling community in Seattle,” said Hans Van Dusen, the solid waste contracts manager for Seattle. “We support vendors who are helping folks recycle different commodities.”
And where does all of the recyclable waste go? Metzger, often with Owen in tow, has visited the facilities that take the materials to see what happens to it. The Styrofoam is heated and condensed into items such as picture frames and light-weight molding. The plastic film is turned into products including plastic lumber used as decking materials. Latex paint is reblended by a company called GreenSheen and sold to consumers that include Habitat for Humanity. The metal from batteries can be reclaimed.
There are many businesses and locations around the area that will accept dropped off items for free recycling. But that requires someone to research which items go where and then take them to locations scattered around Puget Sound.
Ridwell offers a convenient, time-saving alternative, Metzger said, and the reassurance that your garbage is going to the right place.
“We want to be this concierge service for people to ask questions” about what to do with their trash, he said. Their bottom line is “we optimize for convenience.”