Roughly 20,000 households in the Portland metro area are customers of Ridwell, a Seattle-based startup that offers a monthly subscription service to pick up items like batteries, light bulbs and plastic clamshell containers that typically can’t go inside curbside recycling bins.
Last month, Ridwell filed a federal lawsuit against Washington County, alleging the county had illegally forced it to cease operating in unincorporated parts of the county. Meanwhile, Ridwell is experiencing some competition from the third-largest garbage and recycling services company in North America which began offering its own, add-on service for hard to recycle items for customers in Vancouver, Washington. Joining us is Caleb Weaver, vice president of public affairs at Ridwell, and Derek Ranta, the director of the RecyclePlus program at Waste Connections of Washington, Inc.
Washington County told “Think Out Loud” that it cannot comment on pending litigation and therefore declined to participate in this interview. It also alerted us to updates to its recycling collection services in unincorporated Washington County.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to questions about the future of recycling and trash hauling. They’ve been prompted by a successful Seattle startup called Ridwell, which offers a monthly subscription service to pick up items like batteries which can’t be thrown away and plastic clamshells, which can’t be recycled at the curbside. Ridwell now has roughly 20,000 customers in the Portland metro area. It’s also in the middle of some legal issues. Last month, the company filed a lawsuit against Washington County, alleging the county had illegally forced it to cease operating there. Meanwhile, Ridwell is also experiencing some competition in Vancouver, Washington. I’m joined now by Caleb Weaver, the vice president of public affairs at Ridwell, and Derek Ranta, the district manager of Waste Connections of Washington. Good to have both of you on the show.
Guests: Great to be here.
Miller: Caleb Weaver first. Can you give us a sense for what you pick up?
Caleb Weaver: Absolutely. Ridwell, first and foremost, is a waste reduction service. What we’re looking to do is to make it easier for households to reduce the amount of material that they’re putting into the landfill every week. What we’re doing every single day is looking for opportunities, particularly around reuse, and are the things that people have around their house that they’re not using, that end up getting put into the trash, do their spring cleaning and they’re getting ready to move. Can we find ways to put those items into another use and get them to an organization that can reuse them? Those can be things like old jeans that people tend to hold onto for a long time, or books, or old bikes and bike parts. So, that’s our first goal. And then second, there’s a lot of materials that can be recycled but can’t be recycled in the curbside bin. There’s lots of really good reasons why those materials can’t go into your curbside bin. Plastic film is a great example: when that goes into your curbside bin, what happens is it usually gets contaminated. It gets wet. When it gets wet, it gets moldy. Then it gets really hard to recycle and be reused and turned into something else. And then, as Derek knows, it causes major problems in the sorting machines that the garbage haulers used to sort out the recyclables and get into the right place. So, it can’t go into the commingled bin. There’s drop off opportunities, and we encourage people to take advantage of those. However, for a lot of people, they can’t find the time and they don’t know where to go. So, we just try and make it easier. We provide a service where we’ll pick up some of those items, and then we’ll get them to the organizations that can reuse or recycle them.
Miller: Where is your plastic film going, for example?
Weaver: Our plastic film is going to Trex. Trex has a facility in Nevada where they turn plastic film into composite wood decking, and so you’ll see that at playgrounds and on your neighbor’s decks.
Miller: What are the challenges that you have run into in terms of turning a profit when it comes to picking up plastic film, or old bike parts, or books, or whatever.
Weaver: It’s a great question, because it’s one of the things that makes our business a bit different than Derrick’s. We rely on the fee that people pay us as part of their monthly subscription to cover the cost of the service. We aren’t gathering up materials and then selling them. We don’t rely on selling or reselling the things that we pick up in order to cover the cost of our business and cover the cost of our service. We charge a monthly membership fee and that enables us to do those pickups and then get those items, get those materials to the partners that are going to reuse and recycle them.
Miller: Derek Ranta, you launched a program in Vancouver, Washington last year, that sounds a lot like Ridwell, a subscription-based service collecting hard to recycle items from residences, places where you’re already doing curbside recycling and garbage pickup. What led you to offer this new service?
Derek Ranta: Well, for a long time we’ve offered these services for free for drop off at our transfer stations in Clark County. Residents have visited us Saturdays, Sundays. We saw them all the time. Ridwell definitely showed that there was an option for people, that there was demand and desire for the services to be provided at the curb. We have 130,000 homes here in Clark County that we service for all of our traditional services, and we felt like it was something that the customer was now asking of us and we were willing to deliver it.
Miller: So this is plain old competition in a capitalist market. Ridwell showed you a market that existed that you weren’t maybe aware of before, and you said ‘we can do this too’.
Ranta: That’s correct.
Miller: How many customers do you have who have signed up for this? You said 130,000 overall customers. How many say ‘yes, we will pay a premium, so you can pick up our Saran Wrap.’
Ranta: We have about 1% of the market right now that has signed up for the service. I think it’s a growing market. I think it’s something people are willing to pay for. But you know, it is definitely more expensive than regular, traditional curbside service. Most customers would pay somewhere between $5 and $7 to the recycling service for a [regular] cart, and this is probably somewhere between $10 and $15 a month.
Miller: What does that tell you about how widespread a service like this could be for existing trash and recycling haulers like your company?
Ranta: Well, I think it’s an interesting dynamic. The solid waste industry in general is built in the franchise model to be able to provide safe, efficient service that handles solid waste in an environmentally sustainable manner. The materials that we collect in our recycled plus program are less than 1% of the solid waste material that’s collected throughout Clark County on a daily basis. So, it’s a very small percentage of what is out there at the curb. I think it shows that there is this very small percentage of the population that’s interested in the service. And I think that they want it, and I think it’s something that can be provided. But as to the larger spectrum of how do we handle our solid waste? It is a small portion of the pie.
Miller: Caleb Weaver, I want to turn to some of the legal questions here. How did it come to the point where Ridwell decided to sue Washington County?
Weaver: We worked for many, many months to try to come to a mutually agreeable resolution with Washington County. And indeed some of the things that occurred over those months are now the subject of that lawsuit. We applied for permission to operate in the unincorporated areas of Washington County, and we believe that that request for permission to operate was improperly denied. So, that’s one of the issues.
Then more generally, we believe that Oregon state law just does not allow a local jurisdiction in the county or a city to prevent a service like ours, that is helping households reuse and recycle items, from operating, because there is the presence of an exclusive monopoly contract for curbside garbage and recycling pickup. I want to emphasize, we support the franchise system. We believe that that franchise system makes sense. As Derek noted, the materials that are part of our service are a very, very small percentage of the overall materials that are being collected by the garbage haulers on a daily basis. What we are focused on, again, is really trying to help households who want to do a little bit more, reduce the amount of material that they’re putting into the landfill. And really, with that focus on reuse first, to really help change people’s mindsets to help them better focus on what are the things that can be reused or recycled, and really try to begin to make progress. And by making it easier, we hope to get to more people.
Again, we encourage people to use the drop-off locations if that’s something that works for them, and that’s great. But there’s a lot of folks that don’t do that, and are interested in, as Derek noted, interested in this additional service and willing to pay a little bit of extra money for that. Essentially what the lawsuit raises is that we just don’t believe that the county can prohibit its residents from taking advantage of a service that enables them to do that.
Miller: A representative from Washington County declined to be on the show because they said that they didn’t want to comment on pending litigation. They did send us a statement though. It reads this: ‘In general, businesses that collect unwanted material in unincorporated Washington County for a fee are required to hold a certificate. Ridwell does not have a certificate and knowingly started operating in Washington County without one.’ What’s your response to that?
Weaver: This is the heart of the lawsuit. They identify the issue that’s raised, which is that Washington County seems to be taking the position that, because there are these exclusive arrangements for the garbage haulers to do these pickups, that a business like ours that is providing a personal service, and another option for materials that are not part of the curbside service that is being provided by the garbage haulers. We just don’t believe that that’s allowed under state law.
Miller: Derek Ranta, in the bigger picture, why do you think some garbage haulers or recycling haulers have have seemed to feel threatened by what Ridwell is doing, given two things: one, that the tiny percentage of stuff that Ridwell is picking up, and [two], the fact that that these things either can’t be thrown into trash cans or can’t be put into recycling bins? I mean, recycling folks don’t want there to be cling film in their recycling bins. So why would they care if somebody else picks it up?
Ranta: Well, I think there’s a reason for the certificate. There’s a reason that the county wants its haulers certified. And that’s because we collectively, within the solid waste industry, are committed to providing, like I said, safe, environmentally sound practices. When you start collecting these items – and we see in our own recycled plus route [that] there’s a lot of garbage that comes on that route – and it’s through customers either not understanding what is an acceptable material, or sometimes not caring and having an opportunity to put it in another container. And so I think for us, there’s just a lot of concern that we deal with regulators on a regular basis. We’re committed to the communities we serve. We spent a lot of time and effort and education and providing those services. So, I think we really want to see that these regulations are being followed, that solid waste is being properly managed for the safety of the employees, for the community, and for everyone else.
Miller: Caleb Weaver, I want to move to the bigger picture here that’s at play. How do you feel about this characterization of your business model? Are you monetizing rich people’s guilt about consumer culture in a society that hasn’t taken a more thoughtful and systemic approach to all of our stuff?
Weaver: We would generally disagree with that characterization. However, we are trying to raise awareness of the opportunities for people to do more than they’re doing today.
Miller: But what’s wrong with that? But what’s wrong with that characterization? That this is largely people who have the ability to pay a real premium, $12 to $16 a month, to have you pick stuff that as a society, we haven’t figured out a better way to deal with. That’s what I mean by ‘there’s no more systemic approach to dealing with this trash, instead it’s up to rich people to do it themselves?’
Weaver: We see this as part of the broader waste reduction effort. We don’t anticipate that we are still picking up plastic film and plastic clamshells as part of our service in 5 to 10 years, because we are very supportive of the efforts that are happening around the country to really change the rules and requirements around packaging to ensure that producers are taking responsibility for the materials that they’re putting out into the market. We believe that those are changes that can’t come soon enough.
However, the number of Ridwell members that write into us a couple of months into their service and say, ‘I had no idea how much plastic film I was creating. And still I started separating it. And I am changing my buying habits, and I am now following the public policy debates about plastic film, because now I see what a problem it is.’
Again, that’s why this is only one part of our service. We are really trying to focus on what are the broader issues here, as you identified, that we can begin to really turn the corner on the amount of waste that we’re producing as a society. That’s why reuse is such a key priority in our business and why that’s the focus. We spend an incredible amount of time out talking to community organizations, figuring out what items they could use that people have around their house.
Then additionally, we really are looking forward to the opportunity to help with reuse, with reusable packaging. We did a pilot with Starbucks last year where people could get a reusable plastic cup from Starbucks and sure, they could take it back into their local Starbucks that was participating in this program. But you know, people never remember to take their reusable cups unfortunately. So, we made it easier by saying, ‘hey, you can just drop it in your Ridwell bin if you are a Ridwell member, and we’ll get it back to Starbucks so it can be reused.’ We think that there’s a ton of opportunity, and we really see that’s the direction that our business is gonna grow. It’s not about these hard to recycle items right now. We believe that by, again, really focusing people on the opportunities that exist and really thinking about their buying habits, we can begin to make a real culture shift in our waste problem.
Miller: Caleb Weaver and Derek Ranta, thanks very much for joining us today.
Guests: Thanks for your time … Thank you so much.
Miller: Caleb Weaver is vice president of public affairs for Ridwell. Derek Ranta is district manager for Waste Connections of Washington, in Clark County.
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