Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
By co-founding Ridwell, a waste management service based in Seattle, Aliya Marder is empowering communities to reduce waste in their homes. In this fireside chat, Aliya explores the challenges faced within the waste industry and how we can create a future with less waste.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
While being a leader in transparency and ease-of-use, Ridwell is making it easier for communities to reduce, reuse, and recycle responsibly.
(Note: This fireside chat took place in 2020. Any content below does not reflect any recent changes with Ridwell.)
How do you encourage members to be more conscious about their waste, especially when there aren’t any monetary incentives?
Generally, trash and recycling cost money. For example, the trash service in Seattle charges per volume. If you have 20 gallons of trash, you pay $32. If you have 40 gallons, you pay $64. It’s expensive on a monthly basis to throw things away.
We found that many Ridwell members are able to reduce the size of their trash and offset the costs of trash services. By joining Ridwell, they were able to shrink the size of their trash in places that are volume priced (eg., Portland, Seattle, Bellingham).
Our members aren’t driven by the monetary direction. They’re more driven by their desire to reduce their footprint and their impact on the planet.
As a company, our vision is a future without waste that will go beyond just recycling and reuse. It requires a reduction of what we bring into our homes, smarter purchasing of materials, more producer responsibility, and more government and community awareness.
We see this as the beginning of building a future without waste. So, we hope our members feel that joining Ridwell is a first step to that journey.
Why is there such a lack of transparency in the waste world?
There’s a lot of confounding reasons why it’s not clear where materials go. It’s partly due to the realities of a commodity market where things change really quickly.
For example, there is an initiative in China called Operation National Sword. They said they needed to greatly reduce the amount of contaminants in the recyclable materials taken from the US and other Western countries. For every bale of material they’re receiving, 10-15% of the material was not what was expected in the bale. For instance, a bale of metal would have 10-15% plastic, for example, or different types of plastic.
The US built municipal recycling systems called mercs (ie. sorting facilities), where we put all of our recyclables into one big bin. We do this because we have facilities that manually sort the materials into metal, glass, plastic, paper, etc.
There’s billions of dollars invested into this infrastructure. They even designed these systems to have that level of contamination (10-15%) for the market level. When those contamination requirements changed, people were scrambling because of sorting constraints. Regardless, we still need to continue recycling. Recycling is still important, even though there are still risks to that system.
I wish there was more transparency. I wish we could email our trash and recycling companies and ask where our plastics should go.
We, as a company, want to continue to champion this sort of transparency and show where things are going directly. We want to make information such as how much we collect and divert publicly facing. It’s a challenge I want to see other trash and waste companies embrace.
How does Ridwell remove the ambiguity of sorting?
We’ve built our system in a way that allows it to adapt to those sorts of changes. When there have been changes, we discuss the situation with our partners. We’ve been able to quickly adapt because we manual screenings in our warehouse. We go through every bag of plastic and pull out materials that our partners cannot take. There is inevitably stuff that doesn’t make it to our partners.
For example, our partner wants high density and low density polyethylene (numbers 2 and 4), and HTTP and LDP. They can still process other plastic materials, but it reduces the quality of output of their recycling process. On their end, there’s this constant balancing act of what’s in mix and how much contamination can there be without ruining the quality of what they’re putting out.
We’ve always followed well within the boundaries of the mix threshold and we’re giving them 98% post-consumer high quality plastic. Because of our screening process and how our members educate themselves, we’re able to keep that quality level high for our partners.
How do you work with partners?
We pay some partners to recycle the materials. For other partners, they pay us. For example, one of our partners does 30-50 cents per hundred pounds. Since it’s commodity level pricing, it’s very minute and so we don’t make money on anything we’re collecting.
Do you contract directly with composters? Have other partners been receptive to programs like Ridwell?
We don’t contract with anyone directly at this time. We do have partners, but it’s not a contract relationship. We give them material and they accept it.
But, there’s an opportunity to work with those composters and other recyclers. For the time being, we’ve gone directly to members and individual households to see if they’re interested in our services as opposed to the municipal approach.
Do you accept compostable plastics in your program?
We don’t. Since they’re compostable, our partner cannot accept those materials. However, they’re still accepted in Seattle. It’s definitely a questionable space and, overall, the industry has to reckon with new modern plastics and these new types of packaging.
Does Ridwell get involved in policy pushes?
Yes, but we’ve mostly been focusing on our member experiences and growing the business.
There’s a recent ban in Washington State around the use of styrofoam and food products. We’re very supportive of that program. The more we can work as a community holistically to reduce, reuse, recycle, and put together these policies, the more we can reduce the amount of material that goes ito households in the first place.
There’s been a lot of pressure to put the responsibility on individuals to recycle and reuse materials that come into their homes. I think there’s a lot more effort we can do on the production side legally—either with initiatives or bans that put more responsibility on producers. Ideally, we want to partner with producers to help them reduce the impact of their packaging and their materials.
Has Ridwell advocated for certain laws?
We haven’t yet, but there’s an opportunity to do so. I believe strongly in meeting people where they are. There’s certain legislation that we definitely want to support and we want to make aware of to our members. We recently hired a public affairs person who will help us navigate those things. Until we have more resources dedicated to supporting those causes, we want to make sure we know exactly what we’re doing first before putting anything out there.
We don’t want to degrade any trust with our members. It’s definitely an opportunity for us to surface those laws and help people become more knowledgeable. We believe member awareness is very important.
How can people be more conscious about waste?
Watching videos, or taking landfill or recycling facility tours can give you the full picture of what happens to your waste. We’re also exploring how we can do tours of our warehouse.
Regarding transparency, most municipal cities are quite proactive. Their Twitter or Instagram accounts are releasing content intended to educate people. They’re constantly looking for ways to tell the full story.
Also, make your voice heard. It’s difficult as a consumer to know where your stuff is going and what it’s made out of. I recommend that you keep asking material companies questions if you’re not sure how certain materials are made and how to properly dispose of them. Another way is to email the companies you’re purchasing from. I’ve gotten good and disappointing answers, but speaking out can be so impactful. It’s important to make your value known to companies that you’re consuming from.
How have you been able to fund your growth?
We started with investments from friends and family. We’re not a free service—in some ways, I wish we could be. In other ways, it’s helped us expand faster.
Since we have a membership and a community of people who are willing to pay for these services, we’re able to continue growing and funding our services without worrying about fundraising all the time.
A lot of it is about creating a sustainable business model, which can be a paradox to being a mission-driven company. But, I think it’s important to walk that line.
How is Ridwell expanding?
We’d like to believe there’s Ridwell members around the country who care about what we’re doing. We want to move our service to be just beyond a pickup service—we want to prioritize reducing, reusing, and recycling waste.
Right now, we do a lot of reuse and recycling, and we want to move into helping people reduce what they bring into their home. That might look like spreading community tips and tricks or giving product recommendations.
If we can get people down to zero waste, that would be the ultimate goal. But, we want to always ensure that it’s easy to make those changes. We’re trying to find ways for our members to be a hero on this journey of reducing their waste. So, we’re always looking for those opportunities to help people in that way.
If you’re curious to see where we’re expanding, you can sign up for our mailing list for updates.
How do you bootstrap a new city?
We do a lot of community engagement. Our big push is to be as local as possible, even though we’re headquartered in Seattle. We want to work with partners who are excited about what we’re doing for the community. Overall, we like to do engagement and community building from a grassroot perspective.
Have your customers experienced eco-anxiety? How is Ridwell empowering its members to overcome these feelings?
People in general are becoming more aware and knowledgeable of the climate crisis. People are becoming more anxious, but it’s also contributing to an awakening.
Our members have always been on the tip of the iceberg and are on the leading edge of people who care about climate change. There is anxiety, but the passion and care they hold is there. To help them navigate these areas, we’ve invested a lot in our member success team who’s the human face of Ridwell.
It’s been really important shepherding people along this journey and making people feel confident about the choices they’re making. We want to continue to inspire hope because I know it’s really easy to feel beaten down by these problems.
How does having climate-conscious members help with Ridwell’s impact?
The fact that our members are committed to this makes a huge impact. They want to know what goes on behind the scenes in the waste world and be more aware. We try to make that behavior change as simple as possible by giving them a feasible system to use.
How can we get involved with Ridwell’s work?
We’d love to have you as a member! If you’re already a member or if it’s not suitable for your home, you can continue educating your friends and talking about why it’s important to be conscious of your waste. It can go a long way in helping people recycle better.
For example, tell people they need to rinse recyclable materials, show them what’s not recyclable, or educate them on what goes into compost. Sharing these tips and tricks are really valuable in scaling action.
You can also vote with your wallet. Try to avoid organizations and companies that aren’t doing their part when it comes to packaging or sustainable materials.
People can also get in touch with their municipal recyclers to try and get more information and clarity. We definitely want to do more content around the state of the industry itself.
Ultimately, we’ve taken more hope and aspiration in helping individuals make choices as opposed to widespread educational campaigns about the state of recycling. We’re not experts here and we don’t work with municipal recycling companies. All we can do is help our audience and our members navigate their individual situations and the materials that go into their homes.
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