Fighting a Plastic Planet

Jason E. Kaplan
Taylor Loewen, Ridwell’s West Coast regional director, at the company’s new Northeast Portland facility

Feeling guilty about existing in a world drowning in plastic? For around $18 a month, Ridwell absolves the shame of generating waste for a select few living in the Portland area. But can the startup really solve our plastic-waste problems?

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People who subscribe to Ridwell love Ridwell. And really, what’s not to love? For a monthly fee, the startup whisks away hard-to-recycle items — things your regular garbage hauler can’t process in their single-stream recycling bins — right from your doorstep. Ridwell provides adorable, reusable drawstring bags for sorted trash and a branded bin — reminiscent of an old-timey milk box — that sits on your front porch and signals to neighbors that you are part of the solution. 

But are you? Since launching in 2018, Ridwell has diverted 20 million pounds of waste from landfills in the eight metro areas it serves, according to Taylor Loewen, the company’s West Coast regional director. This includes waste from Ridwell’s approximately 25,000 members in the Portland Metro area. 

Taylor Loewen gives a tour of Ridwell’s Northeast Portland facility. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

However, we are a nation swimming in plastic waste, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimating some 32.2 million metric tons now fill our landfills. No one expects a 200-employee, venture- capital-backed startup to solve problems created by generations of free-market, consumer capitalism. But for people who want to do a bit more, and have the budget to spare, Ridwell offers convenience and the warm feeling that comes from doing something, anything, to effect change. 

Subscribers simply schedule a twice-monthly pick-up through an app. Then one of Ridwell’s 45 local employees drives up in a Sprinter van and — just like that — plastic film, batteries, clamshell containers, and more disappear. These items don’t go to the local landfill. Instead Ridwell ships them to partners near and far to be reused, repurposed or recycled. 

Want to know where it all goes? Just check the company website’s regularly updated transparency page to see where the trash lands. There are even precise percentages (with decimal points!) to quantify how much ends up being reused versus landfilled. Ridwell also engages in robust communications with its members through email and social media about what it should collect next. 

Often, these conversations result in actions. 

“Hundreds of Ridwell members wrote in about having guilt around throwing their coffee bags straight into the landfill,” recalls  Loewen. In response, Ridwell partnered with HydroBlox, a Pennsylvania-based company that turns multilayer plastic, including coffee bags, into composite drainage materials for landscaping use. “So now it’s easier for those people who have a daily caffeine ritual.”

A team of Ridwell employees, based in the company’s head office in Seattle, finds and vets these partners. “We want to make sure we feel good about their level of transparency. If we’re putting that company name on our website, then we feel good about them,” says Loewen. 

Others are a bit more skeptical. 

“The market for these materials is more volatile than what we put in the curbside bin. That is specifically why municipalities choose carefully what they accept curbside, so they have a reliable end market,” says Etosha Terryll, program administrator for Portland State University’s Community Environmental Services research and service unit via email. She is also a second-year graduate student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program and a Master Recycler. “Personally, I’m somewhat dubious about their end markets.”

And just because a partner company is operating today doesn’t guarantee they will be there tomorrow. Even the people at Ridwell were surprised when Agilyx, their Tigard-based partner for recycling polystyrene (Styrofoam), closed abruptly in March. Ridwell still accepts polystyrene but now ships the material to two different partners in the Seattle area.  

Which complicates issues even more. Ridwell searches for local partners where they can, according to Loewen, but most are far afield. Trex Company, for instance, turns plastic film into composite decking material from manufacturing facilities in Virginia and Nevada. Green Impact transforms clear plastic clamshells into feed to make new clear plastic clamshells in Juarez, Mexico. Ridwell also sends hard plastics to Merlin Plastics in British Columbia, Canada. 

Sure, it’s better than shipping trash  overseas, but the carbon impact of moving all this waste around is undeniable. Trying to shrink that footprint, Ridwell recently teamed up with Bob’s Red Mill to carpool multilayer plastic waste generated during their manufacturing process to HydroBlox. “It helps both Ridwell and Bob’s clear out their warehouses faster and make for efficient loads,” writes a Ridwell representative in an email.  

The company would also like to move to an all-electric fleet according to Loewen, but has no timeline set for that upgrade. 

As a growing startup, Ridwell is not profitable but is “working as hard as we can to become self-sustaining,” according to a Ridwell representative via email. That profit must come directly from Ridwell subscribers as opposed to the partners that accept the waste. “For most of the materials we collect, there is no exchange of funds,” according to the representative. “We do make a small amount of income on some items, and in some cases, we pay partners to pass on the stuff we pick up from members.”

Ridwell collects plastic clamshells. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

That makes growing its subscriber base an important part of its business strategy. Most of Ridwell’s current customers are female, age 35 and up, living in single-family homes and have an extra $14 to $24 a month for the service. This fee naturally limits the pool of potential customers. “Considering what residents already pay for standard curbside pickup, this is an unattainable cost for many low-income individuals and families,” says Terryll.

(Ridwell offers a Community Supported Membership program and asks cities to subsidize membership. As of April 2024, 215 free memberships have been awarded throughout all of its markets.)

Local municipalities also stand in the way of expansion. In 2022 Ridwell sued Washington County after the government agency banned pick-ups in unincorporated areas; the company dropped the suit in August 2023. “It’s due to resistance from garbage haulers that want to protect the status quo,” says Loewen. “Many jurisdictions have been pressured by haulers rather than welcoming a new and innovative approach.”

Washington County does not comment on ongoing legal cases. But shortly after stopping the service, they launched Recycle+, a similar specialty-recycling service. 

Run by local garbage haulers, Recycle+ costs between $2.50 and $2.70 a month, plus an on-call pick-up charge of under $10. Both services schedule pickups on an as-needed basis, so if there is a month where a customer doesn’t want a pickup, the Recycle+ customer pays only that $2.50 to $2.70 charge, where a Ridwell customer would pay $18 to keep the subscription.

“Recycle+ is an attractive service for people who are willing to pay for the convenience of having certain items picked up versus taking them for free to a depot,” says Wendy Gordon, communications coordinator for Washington County Health and Human Services, via email. “It’s also going to be attractive to people who care deeply about recycling and who want to go above and beyond what goes in the regular bin.” 

Ridwell would love to add the 1,350 customers currently enrolled in Recycle+ to its subscription base. However, the company has no immediate plans to expand outside the Portland metro area. That leaves motivated recyclers living along the I-5 corridor, on the coast, in Bend or anywhere else in the state on their own when it comes to disposing of hard-to-recycle waste. 

At least for now. The recently passed Recycling Modernization Act should make it easier for everyone in Oregon to deal with unwanted waste. Currently in the rule-
making phase, the law will increase access to collection of plastic bags and film, plastic clamshells, and more either through depots or expanded curbside pick-up. 

More exciting, consumers may not have to foot the bill. “Extended producer responsibility is a big goal of the Recycling Modernization Act, and this will hopefully make companies help pay for disposal costs and incent them to make products that are easier to recycle in the first place,” explains Terryll. “It will also require more transparency and accountability for end markets.”

Implementation of the Recycling Modernization Act is, in the words of Gordon, “complicated and still a ways off.” Because of this, both Recycle+ and Ridwell will continue to pick up our plastic waste. Or consumers can make a different choice. 

“We [at Community Environmental Services] advocate for reuse above all else, which ultimately is about resource sharing,” says Terryll. “In a city like Portland, with a strong reuse community, it’s fairly easy to find most things you need without buying new, through groups like Buy Nothing and community partners like Free Geek and Community Warehouse.”

However, even Terryll can’t live a plastic-free existence. “I try to avoid buying things that have packaging that I can’t recycle curbside. That said, I do have a 3-year-old who loves berries, and I end up collecting clamshells from time to time.”

Her solution? “I have utilized Ridwell pickup through neighbors in my Buy Nothing group.”

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the version that ran in the June 2024 print edition of Oregon Business to accurately report the current status of Ridwell’s lawsuit against Washington County, and to add clarifying text regarding the difference between Ridwell’s and Recycle+’s pricing schematics and to add clarity regarding the possibility of Ridwell expanding to other territories.