Behind the recycling scenes at Ridwell: Seattle startup growing as fast as piles of plastic and more

Ridwell co-founder and CEO Ryan Metzger shows off bags full of plastic film in the startup’s warehouse in Seattle’s SoDo area. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In a warehouse south of downtown Seattle, Ridwell co-founder and CEO Ryan Metzger stands amid the garbage that has turned his 4-year-old startup into a growing business. There are huge bags of plastic film and Styrofoam, buckets full of batteries and lightbulbs, and boxes of clothing and other miscellaneous items picked up from houses around the region.

But Metzger would just as soon see all of it, and his business, disappear if it meant that the need for such a service had disappeared, too.

“If we could solve climate change and our business would go out of business, I would take that in a heartbeat,” Metzger said from Ridwell’s sorting facility on Occidental Avenue South.

The business of recycling and environmentally friendly disposal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon judging by Ridwell’s growth. The company operates in more than 40 cities and municipalities across the Pacific Northwest, has had strong growth in Portland and just added Denver. There are now more than 35,000 members, including 23,000 in the Seattle area, paying as much as $14 a month to have Ridwell make household pickups every other week.

Ridwell expansion manager Dan Fair shows off one of the company’s vans. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Ridwell collects items from customers’ homes in metal containers bearing the company logo. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Ridwell now employs more than 100 people, including van drivers, warehouse workers and tech developers who work on such things as the Ridwell app. The startup is eyeing expansion into several additional markets, but Metzger wouldn’t name the cities. He did say the company is hiring across the board and he’d like to have 300 employees a year from now.

“At each level of scale you continue to do things differently. It’s a puzzle that continues to grow,” Metzger said. “And it won’t stop until there’s no garbage around.”

Metzger, who previously worked at Microsoft, Zulily, and Madrona Venture Group, among other places, launched Ridwell after he and his then-7-year-old son were trying to get rid of dead batteries and realized it wasn’t that easy. The company has moved several times since starting in Metzger’s Queen Anne garage.

At the warehouse on Monday, workers sorted through carts and garbage cans stuffed with everything from bread bags to Amazon mailers. They sorted Styrofoam into various categories and tossed clothes into giant boxes headed for Goodwill. Contractors driving their personal cars parked by the loading dock to unload dozens of cloth bags full of the items Ridwell collects from metal boxes at the homes of customers every day.

At each household stop, drivers input data into the Ridwell app, marking down if they picked up plastic film, batteries and so on.

“We can learn what categories are used most often and we can sum up all of that by cities, legislative districts and whatever,” Metzger said, adding that plastic film — such as grocery bags or bubble wrap — is far and away the most popular item by usage. By weight it’s clothing, shoes and more in the “threads” category.

Ridwell says it has kept more than 2 million pounds of materials out of landfills. Since COVID-19 started in March 2020, members in Seattle diverted:

  • Over 330,000 pounds of clothing, shoes, and fabrics.
  • Over 325,000 pounds of plastic film.
  • Over 80,000 pounds of batteries.
  • Over 25,000 pounds of light bulbs.
Bags of plastic are compressed in a bailing machine at Ridwell. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Workers sort clothing and shoes into boxes headed to Goodwill. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Styrofoam goes to a partner called Styro Recycle in Kent, Wash. Plastic film is compressed into large bundles and sent to Trex, makers of composite decking materials. Ridwell also partners with a variety of local organizations and non-profits to collect specialty items for those in need. Last March during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company collected such things as hygiene products to aid vulnerable citizens and pet supplies to help people avoid having to surrender animals due to economic instability.

Ridwell has also collected diapers to help in its partnership with a regional diaper bank and jeans and other clothing for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Ridwell CEO Ryan Metzger and sorted Styrofoam in the company’s warehouse. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Washington state Reps. Liz Berry and Davina Duerr — both Ridwell customers — were among those touring the warehouse on Monday. Berry helped shepherd Senate Bill 5022 through the House during the spring. The law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee will ban the use of polystyrene foam in Washington food service containers, as well as in packaging peanuts and coolers; require a percentage of recycled material in certain plastics; and set opt-in requirements for single-use foodware.

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“I have two little kids, I live in Queen Anne, I’m like the poster girl for Ridwell,” Berry said. “I realized there were all these products in my house I was just throwing in the trash and something could be done with them. I love it. I’m a huge fan.

“One of my biggest reasons for running for office was to tackle climate change,” Berry added.

And climate change is on everyone’s mind, Metzger said.

“People are wanting to do something positive to help create a better future,” he said, noting that yearly wildfire smoke in the region and the recent extreme heat wave are unfortunate reminders for people. “People see climate change around them. Keeping things from landfills is something they can do.”

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