Portland loves to reduce, reuse and, of course, recycle. But even here there are some things that just cannot be recycled.
Take the plastic clamshell box, ubiquitous at grocery stores, full of blueberries, spinach or whatever produce needs to be contained. Up until now, those plastic containers, recyclable in some markets, have been considered trash in Portland.
Ridwell, a Seattle-based recycling start-up, is changing that for its members.
Ryan Metzger founded Ridwell with one of his sons, the then-6-year-old Owen, in 2018.
The idea began as “a little project in my home,” Metzger said Thursday. He and his son would look for ways to recycle things that couldn’t get picked up curbside. Then, they started posting on neighborhood groups and recycling things for their neighbors.
The company grew out of that idea, Metzger said, and Ridwell boxes have been on porches in the Seattle metro area for a couple years. Since late 2020, they have been on about 6,000 porches in Portland and Beaverton too.
Members pay $12 to $16 a month for biweekly pick-up of hard-to-recycle and reuse items, including batteries, plastic film, clothes and shoes and lightbulbs.
Now they are adding clamshell boxes to the mix, for an extra $1.
“It’s an interesting business model,” said Eden Dabbs, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, “filling a gap that our solid waste and recycling system doesn’t serve.”
Ridwell approached the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability late last year about its program, said Bruce Walker, the bureau’s waste collections manager, and it was approved.
“Ridwell is not allowed to collect the recyclable items in the city’s curbside recycling program and does not pick up items at the curb,” Walker added.
Metzger said Ridwell worked because members are essentially the first step in the recycling stream, sorting items and making sure they are actually recyclable.
Members put each type of item into a specific bag, unlike the co-mingled recycling you find in Portland.
“We help guide them through the questions they might have,” he said, “so that when they put stuff in that bag, it’s stuff that we can do something with.”
If something they can’t process ends up in the box, the member gets a text to tell them why.
“There’s not a need for massive machines,” Metzger said, which big recyclers use to sort items.
It’s this sorting that has made clamshell boxes a no-go for Portland.
Ridwell is able to take those pre-sorted boxes and give them to a company called Green Impact, which recycles the boxes into new clamshell boxes for companies like Driscoll’s, Metzger said.
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability supports Ridwell’s effort to recycle the clamshells, which, Dabbs said, can sometimes end up in recycling bins, because people forget they aren’t recyclable or maybe because they just wish they were.
If Ridwell can do something with that plastic, Dabbs said, “more power to them.”
— Lizzy Acker