Hard-to-recycle items and Ridwell in Washington County

ridwell box

by Virginia Bruce

In 2018, a new company began offering a recycling service to 60 homes in the Seattle area. By November 2020 they expanded to Portland. We’re not exactly sure when they started offering their service in our area, but it quickly became popular. Ads regularly popped up on the neighborhood NextDoor social media feed.

Subscribers paid a monthly fee ($12 on the yearly plan) to have a variety of items picked up from a box on their porch. Regular collection included clear plastic “clamshell” packaging, solid styrofoam, and plastic film (bags, shipping material etc.), batteries, fabric/clothing, and light bulbs. Monthly “featured items” could be anything from eyeglasses to electronics.

ridwell box

Last February, Washington County received a complaint (from one of the haulers) that Ridwell was operating in violation of the county requirement for garbage haulers to have a certificate. In April the Washington County Haulers Association (WCHA) wrote to the county to propose that they begin collecting the type of materials that Ridwell had been picking up.

The question was referred to the Garbage and Recycling Advisory Committee (GRAC). At its June 10 meeting the committee began to study a proposal from Ridwell to grant an exemption to the requirement to have a certificate. (Meeting agendas, minutes, recordings, staff report etc. are on this page.)

The committee met frequently during the summer to continue the discussion. They voted (four in favor and two opposed) to deny the exemption request at the September 23 meeting. Two of the four who voted in favor were industry members. One member who voted in favor was attending after their term had expired but was allowed to vote because the Board of Commissioners (BCC) hadn’t appointed a new member. The BCC had also not filled two additional vacant positions until after the vote. There will be another opening on the committee this spring.

Early in January 2022, Washington County told Ridwell to stop its operations in unincorporated Washington County as of January 15. The company sent out a notice and invited customers to write to the county, offering a form-letter link. The county responded with a “Hot Topics” post explaining their position and assuring those affected that they are working to expand service. It will ultimately be decided by a vote of the BCC, after staff prepares a proposal.

The scheduled January 13 GRAC meeting was canceled. Committee members were told it was because the agency was planning to attend the January 18 BCC Work Session to “receive guidance” about expanded recycling.

The company’s customers became fans. Many are very upset at the way things have gone. Some rightly point out that even if the county works to offer increased recycling options, it will take some time to design a system and implement it. They also point to the junk haulers who operate without objection from the county. 

We spoke to Thomas Egleston, Manager of Solid Waste and Recycling for WashCo Health & Human Services. He confirmed that the county’s interest in considering an expansion grew out of the Ridwell situation. He said, “There would certainly be a cost if the haulers were to provide an expanded recycling service—that cost would need to be paid for somehow, presumably through rates—either for only those that take the service or spread out to the entire customer base. Whether it would be available to all customers also depends on how its structured, for example yard debris collection service is not available to rural (outside the metropolitan service district (MSD)) community members but is available to urban (inside the MSD) community members.”

A similar conversation has been happening around the region. Clackamas County has also banned Ridwell. Metro is considering their proposal to site a new collection facility in north Portland, while the state Department of Environmental Quality required a permit application for the existing recycling center. 

Concerns about “wishcycling” where things are collected but never actually sent to a facility that turns the material into a new product also play into the controversy. Ridwell has a “Transparency” page that details what they do with the materials, but there is no official oversight at this time.

Ridwell spokesman Caleb Weaver told us that regulated haulers taking over the collection of the items they pick up has always been a possibility. They have been working to offer extended services that will never be available from the licensed companies and want to continue to offer these services.

Something to remember is that while recycling makes us feel good, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to bigger environmental concerns. We could recycle everything that comes into our homes and it wouldn’t stop climate change. We used to learn the “3 Rs” of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The fourth “R” is Refuse, asking us not to buy anything with non-reusable packaging. Oregon has plans to require manufacturers to take back the materials they produce.

There is so much interest in this topic, it’s likely that CPO1 will schedule a conversation at an upcoming meeting. If you don’t already get the CPO 1 news, sign up here.