It is no secret that America’s curbside recycling programs are a colossal failure. Despite consumer willingness to fill curbside bins with paper, plastic, and cardboard, most of what gets recycled at curbside ends up in landfills anyway. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. A small Seattle company proves the point.
Ridwell is a recycling startup founded in 2018 as a home-based project between father and son. Owner Ryan Metzger and his then six-year-old son, Owen, began looking for ways to recycle around the house. Their efforts expanded to include their neighborhood, giving birth to a company that is now able to recycle a number of things that cannot go into curbside bins.
The Ubiquitous Clamshell Box
One of the items Ridwell recycles is the ubiquitous clamshell box. Customers place the plastic containers, along with other items on Ridwell’s list, in boxes located on their front porches. Every other week, Ridwell takes the materials away.
The clamshell box offers a perfect illustration of why Ridwell’s business model works. A clamshell box is made with a single type of plastic. At worst, the only contaminant it is a paper label that’s not hard for recyclers to deal with. It is essentially a non-issue.
Since clamshell boxes are not mixed with other non-recyclable materials, they are easily cleaned, melted down, and transformed into new clamshell boxes. That is exactly what happens. Ridwell sells the recycled clamshell boxes to another Seattle company that makes new ones.
Clean and Separate Materials
Ridwell’s business model works because they deal only in clean, pure materials. Each type of material it recycles is put in a separate bag (by customers) before being placed in the Ridwell box. Once collected by the company, there is very little sorting involved. Ridwell doesn’t need to use huge sorting machines or pay a large staff to sort items manually.
What they do is very similar to what Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics does in seven states, including Ohio and Missouri. The only difference is that Seraphim focuses on industrial plastic waste. They do not accept any residential plastics.
Collect and Grind It
When Seraphim purchases a load of commercial plastic waste, they are purchasing a clean and pure product. For example, let’s say they purchase a load of plastic totes from a manufacturing company. Those totes require no sorting. And because they are not made with different types of materials, very little effort is required to recover usable materials.
Seraphim collects the plastic totes from the customer. They ship them back to their processing plant where they are run through grinders to reduce their size. The ground material is then run through a series of magnets to remove any metal contamination. What comes out the other end is ready for shipping.
Changing the Way That We Recycle
What Seraphim Plastics does for commercial plastic waste, Ridwell does for consumer recyclables. Both companies prove that recycling can be efficient and economically viable if we just change the way we do it. The reason our curbside recycling programs are a colossal failure has nothing to do with plastic itself. Failure is the result of how we manufacture plastic and how we go about recycling it.
You could say that our big recycling problem really boils down to laziness. It takes a bit more work to manufacture plastics in a way that makes them easily recyclable. It also takes a willingness to sort at the consumer level so as not to put that burden on recyclers. But if we just changed these two things, we could make consumer recycling a viable enterprise.