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Who’s Afraid of a Ridwell Box?

Jul 18, 2023Jul 18, 2023

A year ago, Beth Fischer was serving blueberry pancakes at Elmer's.

Today, she is the spear tip of an assault on the clubby Portland trash hauling industry, a fight that's giving local government regulators nightmares.

Fischer, 33, is an unlikely revolutionary. She drives a white van through Portland neighborhoods, picking up used light bulbs.

She appears on Portland porches every two weeks to carry off junk from inside a box. Clad in a bright orange jacket and patterned leggings, and sporting purple ends in a bun of brown hair, she's hard to miss.

"Sometimes people look at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing on my property?’" she says with a chuckle. "And I’m like, ‘You paid for this.’"

Her task: Go to Portlanders’ homes and pick up light bulbs, batteries, plastic film used to wrap produce, plastic foam packaging, and old clothes. It's the kind of refuse that Portland's residential garbage haulers do not recycle, but with extra effort can be reused or recycled instead of dumped in landfills.

Until now, Portlanders could drive such items to specialty recyclers on the city's fringes—but in reality, most people just toss plastic packaging and light bulbs into their garbage bins.

Fischer's employer sees a business in this junk.

Ridwell is a Seattle-based, venture capital-backed startup that late last year started asking Portlanders to pay $12 to $16 a month. In return, Ridwell supplies customers with a 2-foot-square metal box that includes a bag for light bulbs, another for batteries, and others for threads and plastic film. For a dollar extra, you can offload the clamshell containers that hold takeout meals. For another $9, Ridwell will pick up plastic foam.

Beth Fischer left an Elmer's diner after nine years to drive for Ridwell.

In 11 months, the company says, it has signed up 18,600 households in 50 ZIP codes in the Portland area.

Portland trash haulers complained to the city shortly after Ridwell launched, arguing the company was skirting regulations that garbage companies must follow to keep their city contracts.

Since then, residential haulers have lobbied city bureaucrats, elected officials and staffers through emails and letters. Haulers in the suburban towns and counties ringing Portland have done the same.

"It just didn't sit right with us," says Dave Cargni, who operates Portland Disposal & Recycling, one of the city's nine franchised residential haulers. "The fact that the city allowed it to happen was, I don't want to say, a slap in the face—but we abide by all these rules, and they’re there for a reason."

In the coming months, government regulators that oversee Portland's recycling system will decide whether Ridwell can continue storing its haul at a Northeast Portland warehouse. But that's unlikely to end the conflict.

A review of public records, plus interviews with trash haulers, Ridwell representatives and customers, and recycling experts, paints a portrait of a battle for trash—one that evokes the fractious beginnings of other disruptive tech companies, like Airbnb and Uber, that fundamentally changed the industries they entered.

Little wonder the haulers are raising a stink.

"Right now, it's like taking a sledgehammer to swat at a gnat," says Jerry Powell, who ran a recycling publication for 38 years and also advised recycling companies. "Ridwell is not a threat to them. But what they’re really fighting now is someone who could handle a lot more services."

No one believes in Ridwell's potential more than William Musser IV, a stay-at-home dad who has become Ridwell's unpaid ambassador in Portland.

Musser, 49, is an environmental advocate, former financial adviser, and serial obsessive. He was instrumental in bringing Ridwell to Portland.

He sent emails to neighbors and canvassed the streets of his Grant Park neighborhood in Northeast Portland. (Ridwell will only bring service to ZIP codes where a threshold number of residents have expressed interest in buying subscriptions—anywhere from 150 to 1,000.) He placed ads in his kids’ school newsletters. He volunteers at Ridwell pop-up booths outside New Seasons.

"Nearly every house between Fremont and Knott streets, just about everyone has [a box]," Musser says—he's responsible for that.

Musser feels a kinship with Ridwell CEO Ryan Metzger: Both are dads who were eager to recycle items like batteries, light bulbs and plastic foam, but who didn't want to make the mileslong drive to a transfer station on the edge of town.

William Musser IV helped bring Ridwell to his neighborhood in Northeast Portland.

Ridwell was co-founded in Seattle in 2018 by Metzger, a 42-year-old venture capitalist who previously worked for Zulily, Microsoft and Alaska Airlines. The company now has 24,000 Seattle customers.

Ridwell makes nearly all of its money from a single source: subscribers and their median $14 monthly fees. (Multiply that by 18,600 homes, and you’re looking at more than $3 million in annual revenues from Portland alone.) Ridwell sells two products—used clamshells and plastic film—to manufacturers who turn them into new clamshells and composite lumber, but Ridwell says its transportation costs to such factories consume any profit.

It hopes to someday find more lucrative markets. But it pledges that nearly all of the junk it collects gets sent to recyclers or community partners for reuse.

Clamshells go to Texas. Plastic film to Nevada. Batteries and light bulbs stay in Seattle, where a company called EcoLights makes new ones.

"They did the research and found places to ship [items]," says Musser. "Ridwell is filling in the gaps of what's not able to be collected."

In October 2020, Ridwell asked the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for permission to operate in Portland. On Dec. 8, the industry association that represents Portland's nine franchised trash haulers emailed the bureau to object.

"It just came to my attention that Ridwell, a company performing collection of residential recycling materials, is currently operating in Portland," wrote Beth Vargas Duncan, regional director of the Oregon Refuse & Recycling Association. "This appears to be a franchise violation."

What she meant by that: Ridwell was doing work regulated by the city's existing contracts with its residential garbage haulers.

Bruce Walker, who for 34 years oversaw Portland's garbage and recycling systems, disagreed. He told Vargas Duncan that Ridwell wasn't collecting any products that fell under existing contracts.

On Dec. 16, Walker emailed a bureau colleague, expressing annoyance at the friction. "We probably should [debrief] but right now my G.A.S. [give a shit] meter is running low," he wrote. "Do the haulers really care? How big of a deal is this? Anyway, if we need to clean up our code, we’ll do so."

And that's exactly what the city did.

The Portland City Council approved an exemption to city code that allowed Ridwell and similar companies to operate legally in the future. It was adopted in October by a unanimous vote.

Walker, who retired from BPS in August, says the haulers’ opposition to Ridwell caught him by surprise.

"I’m still dumbfounded. What's the big issue here?" Walker says. "I’ve asked point blank, and I haven't gotten clear answers. [The haulers] just want to read me city code."

In the suburbs, Ridwell has gotten a chillier reception.

Over the past year, after trash haulers complained, both Clackamas and Washington counties sent Ridwell cease-and-desist letters demanding that it halt pickup in unincorporated portions of the counties. Tualatin and Lake Oswego sent letters telling Ridwell to halt operations, and Beaverton officials say they’ve also told Ridwell to stop.

Caleb Weaver, Ridwell's vice president of public affairs, who previously had a similar job for Uber, says suburban officials are placing loyalty to trash haulers above environmental goals.

"Many local officials have acknowledged that our service can help achieve their waste reduction goals," Weaver says, "but they also appear to be feeling pressure from forces that seek to protect the status quo."

Weaver says Ridwell still operates in those cities and counties (though Ridwell never started service in unincorporated Clackamas County, he says), and does not believe the municipalities have the authority to stop it. "We believe it's inconsistent with both state and public policy and state law," he says, "to use the franchise monopoly power to outright prohibit the collecting of items for reuse and recycling that aren't included in the curbside recycling service."

Tualatin Mayor Frank Bubenik knows Ridwell is still operating in his city despite telling the company not to. "We’re trying to handle it nicely without going to court," Bubenik says.

By spring of next year, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the regional government Metro, which sets recycling policy for the Portland area, will decide whether to give Ridwell a permit for its Northeast Portland warehouse (see "The Treasure Room," page 17).

For Kari Walker McCullough, trash is a birthright.

Walker McCullough, 57, co-owns Walker Garbage—one of the city's nine contracted residential haulers. A fourth-generation garbage hauler, she learned at a young age the smell of garbage and the squeaking of spring-loaded seats as her grandfather's truck rolled across a landfill, seagulls swooping low to the mounds of trash.

She sees Ridwell as an interloper that can pluck whatever customers it likes, without following any of the rules that apply to her company.

"They’re like DoorDash drivers, just walking up to our customers," she says. "It's not regulated in any way to make sure that it's collected safely or disposed of responsibly."

Kari Walker McCullough is a fourth-generation trash hauler in Portland. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

Residential trash hauling is a $70 million industry in Portland. The 255 trash haulers that operated in the city in 1955 have shrunk to nine—each set up with a contract with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The city sets the rates for four different sizes of garbage can, anywhere from $29.85 to $45.30 a month. (That price includes recycling and compost bin pickup.) The city takes 5% of revenue, while the haulers get 95%.

Each year, the city reevaluates rates based on changes in the market.

The city's target is to have haulers operate at a 9.5% profit margin. (Last year's margin was 7.6%).

Of the nine haulers that have contracts with the city for residential garbage, six of them are based in Portland; three are national, including Waste Management and Republic Services, which have a combined market capitalization of more than $100 billion.

The items Ridwell recycles make up 0.0006% of the city's waste stream, according to BPS officials. As a result, it's hard to see how Ridwell's success could lead customers to shift to smaller garbage cans, thus affecting haulers’ income.

But the haulers see Ridwell as a threat to that system and instead want the city to expand recycling options for all residential customers and give the haulers the work and revenue of picking up the material.

"We support expanding recycling options for all Portland's residential customers at reasonable rates," the Portland Haulers Association wrote to the City Council in September.

Recycling policy for Portland is set by both Metro and City Hall—which writes the contracts for the haulers.

The recyclable items that Portland's trash haulers pick up go to recovery centers that sort and then find buyers for the materials. For decades, the primary market for most of those items was China—but when China stopped buying U.S. recyclables in 2018, recovery centers started sending paper and plastics to domestic markets, like the paper mill in Longview, and plastics to California recyclers. All plastic bottles under Oregon's bottle bill go to a recycler in St. Helens. ("You’re Doing It Wrong," WW, June 6, 2018).

Dylan de Thomas, public affairs and policy director for national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership, says the city had valid reasons for not picking up light bulbs or plastic wrap—mostly because it couldn't find enough destinations for them.

"The reason things are on the recycling list is because there's a home for those things," says de Thomas. "For other materials, the end markets are still developing."

The logistics of recycling plastic film and batteries are too complex for Portland to make the project feasible citywide. (That may be changing: See "Catching Up," page 19.) And perhaps more importantly, local officials fear a backlash if customers discover a new fee added to their monthly bills.

"The city hasn't provided it yet because of the cost of the service," says de Thomas. "That cost is borne by all of us—we all pay the same rate for our services."

In 1995, then-Mayor Vera Katz's administration tried to add batteries and clamshells to the city's list of recyclables. Her chief of staff at the time, current mayoral aide Sam Adams, tells WW that two major hurdles killed the plan.

"There weren't obvious markets for them, and there were sorting issues," Adams says. "They were really hard to sort out of what's in the blue bins."

BPS says it has no intention to roll out collection of such items citywide. "If these items could easily be collected in the blue bin, they would be," says Eden Dabbs, a spokeswoman for the bureau. "The cost is high because the collection costs are high—and a significant barrier to a citywide service mandate."

Jerry Powell, the recycling expert, says the haulers have always been territorial.

"When there's a little bit of unique competition, they go ballistic," Powell says. "If the city can only have five restaurants, and you have one of them, why compete?"

If an upstart can walk in and start recycling an item that currently goes into a trash bin—and no government steps in to stop them or regulate their activity and pricing—that threatens the haulers’ exclusive arrangement.

"The haulers believe that if you let in one operation that can charge and provide a service to only select customers, that we’ll see a whole series of these handling different materials," says Powell.

4805 Cover Image Subscribers load up their Ridwell boxes for bi-monthly pickups.

There's another reason the haulers oppose Ridwell. In correspondence with WW, all the haulers worried that without regulation, no one knows what Ridwell is actually doing with the materials it collects.

"Hard-to-recycle items are, by definition, hard to recycle," says Kristan Mitchell, executive director of the Oregon Refuse & Recycling Association. "They do not have well-established markets yet. [They] should have more regulation, not less—if they are not properly regulated, they could end up as pollutants in someone else's community or waters, most often in marginalized communities."

Taylor Loewen, Ridwell's Portland manager, says the company prides itself on its transparency. She says it's currently recycling 93% of the clamshells it collects, and 88.5% of the plastic film.

"We’re setting a new standard in the industry for showing people how much is going to be recycled versus is going to be residual," she says. "I couldn't say that about my curbside recycling."

What makes Ridwell's business model work is the same thing that makes haulers irate: Ridwell only provides its white boxes to people who want to pay for them.

Every Ridwell customer is willing to pay extra for a service they now get for free when they throw light bulbs, plastic, foam and batteries in their trash bins.

Haulers’ rates and routes are set by the city. They have to serve everyone, not just customers who voluntarily subscribe. Their profit margin is regulated by the city.

Ridwell suffers no such limitations.

"They’re targeting people that really want to recycle that can pay an extra $14 a month," says Cargni of Portland Disposal, one of the city's franchised haulers. "It's not reaching out to everyone in our system, and that's what the franchise was set up to do."

Ridwell argues it isn't just seeking a profit—it's prodding the state into a greater effort to recycle. Powell says that result would be a good thing.

"If the mayor said tomorrow the trucks need to be painted the city's color, they’d be painted the next day," he says. "If you tell a hauler to jump 6 feet, they nail it. But nobody is asking them to jump 6 and a half feet."

Some of the clothing at Ridwell's Northeast warehouse goes to community organizations like Rose Haven.

The Ridwell warehouse in Northeast Portland is a bustling place.

Stacks of pallets filled with thousands of crushed clamshells line one wall, repeatedly crunched together by one of the warehouse's two balers to maximize space. On another wall, condensed plastic film is stacked 20 feet high.

In industrial-sized laundry baskets are clothing and rags. Batteries in Home Depot buckets and fluorescent light tubes in large cardboard drums are stored in an enclosed room—which doubles as an office.

Two workers toss used shirts and sweatshirts into a big bin as alternative rock comes out of speakers.

This warehouse is now the focal point of government regulators’ inquiries into what Ridwell does.

Metro is deciding whether Ridwell should get a solid waste facility permit for its warehouse. One of Metro's requirements for approving such a permit is for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to grant Ridwell a solid waste disposal site permit.

Every place where trash haulers drop off materials to be sorted and consolidated—whether it's a materials recovery center, transfer station or landfill—must be permitted by Metro.

When Ridwell first entered the Portland market, DEQ determined the company didn't need a permit. But in the spring, Metro told DEQ it had toured Ridwell's warehouse and urged the department to reconsider, says DEQ spokesman Harry Esteve.

Inspectors toured Ridwell's warehouse in June and gave it until Nov. 15 to submit an application for a solid waste disposal site permit. (Ridwell initially challenged DEQ's determination, arguing it collected "hard to recycle" items and not "solid waste." But on Nov. 29, Ridwell submitted the application.)

Why? "To ensure environmental compliance, and to make sure the materials they’re handling are handled in the right way so they don't have an impact on public health or the environment," says Esteve. "We put stipulations on how they store, handle and dispose of materials."

Metro echoes that sentiment: Pam Peck, a policy and compliance program director for Metro, says her agency issues permits for such facilities to "be sure that the materials are being handled responsibly and how people have said they’re handling them."

Decisions from DEQ and Metro are expected by spring. Those decisions won't resolve disputes about whether the company should be allowed operate in garbage haulers’ territory—but they will mean Ridwell is accountable to a government agency for what it does with the junk it collects.

Ridwell may soon face competition from the recycling system it eclipsed.

This year, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 582, which could expand the list of items that the recycling system will accept by 2025 and will also work to create stronger processing facilities for unwanted materials. (Much of the funding for bolstering existing sorting facilities and building more access to recycling will be paid for by the manufacturers of recyclable items.)

Some of the items that could be added to the bins or in separate containers—such as clamshells—could be materials Ridwell now picks up.

Such changes could make Portland less attractive for Ridwell, depending on how the bill is implemented and which new materials may be added to curbside service.

"If we pull [those items] into the franchise system, Ridwell can't collect them," says Donnie Oliveira, deputy director the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. "[If] we add those to the franchise or our own machinations, that would be removed from their flow."

Ridwell insists that would be a victory. "If things [we do] become more widely available through the franchise-provided service, we see that as a win," says Ridwell's Caleb Weaver. "It would force us to make a shift in the direction we’re going, just maybe a little faster, which is reusables."

Haulers don't want to wait and see if state legislation siphons business away from Ridwell.

But the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability tells WW the city has no intention of setting up a subscription service similar to Ridwell's for their haulers.

"From the city's perspective,’ says bureau spokeswoman Eden Dabbs, "we do not see a benefit—in terms of efficiency gains or cost savings—to restricting the provision of this boutique service to only the franchised haulers at this time."