Since launching in specific Twin Cities ZIP codes in January, Seattle-based Ridwell has seen success selling Minnesotans on easy disposal of hard-to-recycle items.
Ridwell hopes to make sustainability simpler by collecting and recycling items that public services won’t pick up, including plastic shopping bags, old clothing and new this fall, Styrofoam.
“When you look in a dumpster, there’s just so much more that actually can be recycled, but it’s hard because it’s either small, it’ll clog up recycling facilities’ machinery or it’s really expensive,” said E.J. Tso, general manager of Ridwell’s St. Paul facility. “Batteries, for example, when I hear a municipality say, ‘Oh, you can just put them in your trash,’ it kind of kills you a little bit; you really don’t want that to go in the trash.”
Currently, about 4,000 Twin Cities members receive biweekly collections through Ridwell’s subscription service.
The company is expanding its reach into the Twin Cities, with current boundaries north near Brooklyn Center, west to Minnetonka, south to Eden Prairie and east to Maplewood. Tso said Ridwell extends into new neighborhoods based on demand from residents entering their ZIP codes on the company’s website.
At about $16 a month for a three-month pricing plan, though pricing depends on location, members receive a white bin and set of five bags, each of which is dedicated to a different category of items: plastic bags and film, clothing, fabric and shoes, household batteries and light bulbs.
Each pickup also includes a different “featured category,” which in the past has included corks, electronics, towels and linens.
Collected items are then sorted and packaged at Ridwell’s St. Paul facility and distributed to local and national partners, such as Loaves and Fishes and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, which repurpose and reuse the items.
Tso said Ridwell ensures all materials they take are sustainably recycled, or in the case of the soft plastics they accept that government services will not, “upcycled.”
Ridwell sends the plastic film they collect from all their locations to Virginia-based company Trex, which melts it down to make deck boards.
Public services expanding
Some of the items Ridwell picks up can be disposed of free of charge in certain cities and counties. Ramsey County, which oversees its cities’ waste management, is working to offer more of these types of services to residents in the future, reducing the need for private companies like Ridwell to fill the gaps.
“Not everyone can afford that kind of service, so from like an equity and accessibility angle, we hope our communities can move to offering easier drop-off or easier collection for some of those harder-to-recycle items,” said Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit company that collects St. Paul residents’ recycling.
Ramsey County and Twin Cities electronics recycler Repowered opened an electronics recycling collection site in St. Paul in August, and after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, also resumed monthly “Fix-It Clinics” on Nov. 19. These clinics offer free repairs of electronic appliances, household items and clothing, hoping to prevent disposal of these items in the first place.
“The goal of all of this is to keep as much as we can out of the trash … and then increasing the recycling rate, moving things up on the waste hierarchy,” said Rae Eden Frank, interim environmental health division manager for Ramsey County.
Eden Frank said Ramsey and Washington counties are partnering to launch a pilot program next year that will collect residents’ food scraps for composting on regular trash pickup days at no extra cost.
“A huge percentage of what is thrown into the trash can is food waste, and so if we can get that out and then make it into a marketable material through composting, we’re going to really help reduce the amount of trash that can’t be recycled,” said Eden Frank.
Ridwell still claims convenience
Tso acknowledges that people may not want to pay extra for Ridwell’s services when they can use public services for free. However, he argues that many are more likely to recycle when they don’t have to invest extra time into researching where to dispose of their hard-to-recycle items and traveling to different locations to do so.
“People might say, ‘I already know where to go with these things. Why would I pay for a service?’” said Tso. “And I fully understand that. The answer is time and convenience and the gas for your vehicle to leave your house five times in order to recycle all this responsibly, when we come to you once.”
In the future, Ramsey County officials hope to provide a similar level of convenience as subscription services like Ridwell with the construction of an Environmental Service Center.
With a proposed location at 1700 Kent St. in Roseville, the facility would act as a “one-stop shop,” providing disposal of household hazardous waste and electronics, a free product reuse room, and space for Fix-It Clinics and environmental education and activities. Frank said the new facility is expected to be built by the end of 2025.
Tso said Ridwell hopes to reduce as much waste as possible, and therefore sees any competition with their services as beneficial.
“If there are other people that are trying to pull stuff out of the trash cans and remove things from the waste stream and incinerators, that’s sort of a win-win, we think for us and for the environment,” said Tso.
New this year, Ridwell is offering gift cards for those looking to share the service with others, with $10 from every gift card sold dedicated to bringing the service to families who may not be able to afford the service on their own. The company also launched an app earlier this month for members to manage their subscriptions.