Since her usual hazardoussite closed last year, Dashiel St. Damien has accumulated 20 pounds of batteries and a bag full of lightbulbs.
St. Damien, 46, a designer who lives in Mount Washington, knows these items shouldn’t go into her usual curbside bins, but has struggled to find a new, convenient place to drop them off. So the months ticked by, and the bulbs kept piling up.
This week, for a small fee, her mess will finally be cleared. St. Damien has scheduled her first pickup with Ridwell, a subscription service that picks up and disposes of. For $18 a month, a driver will come to her home biweekly and collect her batteries, light bulbs, plastic mailers and even clothes.
Paying for the service on top of her usual trash collection, she said, is worth it for the positive environmental impact — plus her own feelings of relief. “It’s such an easy thing to do,” St. Damien said. “There are so many big problems that I feel so helpless about, but this is just one small thing.”
Ridwell is part of a new class of businesses, catering to environmentally-conscious consumers, that position themselves as middlemen that can help keep waste out of landfills, and — as a positive side effect — make consumers feel better about the junk they generate.
Ridwell is expanding its services across L.A. as the country is emerging from its, where shipping boxes and their foam innards are filling trash bins and unwanted holiday gifts clutter homes.
A Ridwell subscription starts at $14 a month for biweekly pickups, and the company promises that goods get “sustainably reused or recycled.” Tricky trash finds its way to specialized plants for safe disposal, while items with the potential to be reused are donated to organizations that need them. There are more expensive tiers for those with more waste and complicated materials to recycle; the plan that recycles foam costs $24 a month.
“People are starting to ask more questions, like, ‘Where did the stuff come from to produce my stuff?’” said Ryan Metzger, Ridwell’s CEO.
Metzger had the idea for Ridwell in 2018 after he initiated a modest “recycling carpool” with neighbors in Seattle. Faced with the challenge of finding disposal options for batteries, Metzger took the initiative to gather batteries from neighbors and call around to find a facility that could safely get rid of them. That first pickup quickly expanded to include trips to recycle light bulbs, electronics, plastic bags and Halloween candy. Word spread beyond the neighborhood.
“It’s often up to consumers to drive change in a positive way,” Metzger said.
Ridwell now has more than 90,000 members and offers its services in the Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Austin, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland and Los Angeles metro areas. The company is expanding into a dozen more Los Angeles neighborhoods this week, including West Hollywood, Studio City and Central L.A.
The company finds community partners for goods that have the potential to be reused, like toys, clothes and pet supplies. In Los Angeles, these partners include Wags & Walks, Out of the Closet and Baby2Baby, among others. “Our model is to seek out partners that have specific needs,” Metzger said.
Hard-to-break-down plastics — think Amazon mailers, chip bags and pet food bags — usually have to travel farther to special plants .
There is growing consumer awareness that not every plastic with the chasing arrows symbol on it is created equal. Many plastics put into citywide recycling bins go to landfills. St. Damien said subscribing to a service like Ridwell can help curb the common practice of what she calls “wishcycling,” or tossing something into the recycling that might not actually be recyclable. (“I fret about these things terribly,” she said.)
Linda Sanoff, 69, who lives in Hancock Park, has noticed her fair share of wishcyling in her neighborhood. “The city doesn’t take Styrofoam and I know people are putting Styrofoam in their blue bins and it doesn’t get recycled.”
January is a big month for trash. Waste haulers for the city of Los Angeles collected 2.04 tons of cardboard in December 2022; in January 2023 that number soared to 16.42 tons,. In the weeks after Christmas, Ridwell sees a spike in its collection of batteries, holiday lights and many types of plastics.
Eco-conscious consumers know that the ideal way to deal with waste is to generate less of it to begin with, but most have a hard time reaching a true net-zero lifestyle. Some subscribers said Ridwell is helping them close that gap.
“I think we just owe it to our children’s future to just keep as much out of the landfills as possible,” said Bonnie Zucker, 52, who lives in Pacific Palisades. “In some ways, it’s unfortunate that companies like Ridwell have to exist, because we do have so much waste.”
Zucker prioritizes making eco-conscious choices in her everyday life. Outside of her day job as a psychologist, she volunteers with Resilient Palisades, a local environmental group. Most of her Ridwell pickups so far have consisted of multilayer plastics from packaging, plastic film and empty bags of the Pirate’s Booty her teenage son likes to snack on.
She has been impressed with the range of items that Ridwell will rehome. “They’ll do old eyeglasses and give them to, say, veterans organizations, or old pet supplies to give to animal shelters,” she said.
Although California is a national leader in its efforts, experts agree there is more to be done. The state banned single-use plastic grocery bags in 2014 and will go further with a starting next year. But in 2021, Californians still generated 76.7 million tons of trash, 46 million of which ended up in a landfill, according to estimates from CalRecycle.
Similar waste disposal businesses are cropping up nationwide in response to consumers’ growing awareness, and guilt, about their own consumption habits and the shortcomings of our current systems. Rabbit Recycling, which works in the Philadelphia metro area, operates similarly to Ridwell and also offers one-time pickups.
TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company, uses an a-la-carte business model. The company sends its customers boxes they can fill with certain types of waste for a fee. These boxes can either be left at a company drop-off point or shipped back to TerraCycle to dispose of.
Perhaps the best selling point of all is the convenience of a door-to-door service. “I mean, the city, thank goodness, has a recycling program, but it doesn’t take so much stuff that Ridwell does,” said Sanoff. “And now I don’t have to drive to UCLA to recycle batteries.”