Ridwell recycles difficult items, is expanding East Bay service area
By Lou Fancher
About seven years ago, Ryan Metzger and his young son, Owen, wanted to toss out a small bag of used batteries without having them wind up in a landfill, but their curbside recycling company in Seattle didn’t pick up batteries.
The father-son team did the green, earth-friendly thing and not only took their batteries to a recycler but offered to dispose of others’ batteries. Carrying about 10 pounds of batteries from five households, they completed the delivery and took home pride in making one tiny, “skin-in-the-game” effort to save the environment.
During the following year, the one-time activity turned into a huge hobby for the Metzgers. They added other materials not allowed in curbside recycling bins: plastic film, like the flimsy envelopes, wraps, or bubbly stuff used in packaging; and clothing, lightbulbs and more. In 2018, the rapidly growing operation sparked the founding of Ridwell (ridwell.com), their company that works with local, regional and national partners to keep reusable or hard-to-recycle items out of landfills.
In 2022, Ridwell operated in Seattle, the Bay Area, Portland, Oregon; Denver, Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, and since 2018 has diverted 10 million pounds of material — including 270,000 pounds of batteries — from landfills. Marking a further expansion in the Bay Area, where the company already services Peninsula cities and Oakland (including Montclair), Berkeley and El Cerrito. Metzger plans this year to add Richmond, El Sobrante, San Francisco and San Jose to Ridwell’s coverage area.
Skip AdMetzger’s degrees are a bachelor of arts in economics and political science and a master’s of business administration, both from Northwestern University in Illinois, and he has held marketing positions Microsoft and e-commerce company Zulily. His son, Owen, now 11 and an unusually successful young entrepreneur, holds continued interest in Ridwell’s recycling mission, especially when it comes to cell phones and electronics. His younger brother, Grant, at age 7 is less involved but, his father says, tells friends without a Ridwell box for recycling to “get one, it’s better for the earth.”
Joining Ridwell is simple. Each household signs up to become a member and receives a sturdy metal bin and reusable cloth bags for sorting acceptable items in four categories — each month has a fifth, “special feature”— for pickups on a set day every other week. Drivers pick up the bags, leave new, empty bags and, using an app, send members tallies of the waste they’ve saved from landfills.
Monthly membership fees range from $14 to $18. Working with partners in the Bay Area such as East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, GreenCitizen, East Oakland Collective, East Bay Children’s Book Project and others, Ridwell ensures the goods are recycled, reused, repurposed or donated to nonprofits for the community’s good.
“We do best in places that have a strong community identity, where people are proud to be from a city and want to support each other,” Metzger said in an interview. “That their old things can help someone else or protect the environment appeals to them. In Oakland on a recent visit, I saw tons of people with shirts or bumper stickers with the skyline or oak tree roots or ‘Oakland’ showing (civic) pride.”
Metzger’s own roots for founding Ridwell began with a newspaper delivery route.
“I would walk and do the stops with my mom. She would point out large families with four or more kids. She’d say, ‘Look; they have the tiniest garbage can.’ We noticed through observation that some people were careful about the waste they created.”
While writing a college application essay five years later, his commitment to conscientious environmentalism was sealed.
“There was an outdoor mall proposed. It was going to be built on wetlands. I wondered, ‘Do we really need more of this kind of thing? Do we need this amount of consumption?’ I was thinking about what would be lost; the marshlands and the plants and insects that live there. It was eventually built, unfortunately. Now it’s struggling like many malls today.”
Ridwell boasts a substantial East Bay workforce: In addition to local drivers, there are Gerrine Pan, Ridwell’s partnership leader who lives in Danville and makes sure partnering organizations’ values align with the company’s mission and business practices; Oakland-based illustrator Sophie Tivona, who recently provided the design and artwork for a yard sign project; and Alli Eis, the company’s Bay Area operations manager who lives in Oakland’s Grand Lake area.
Eis said her family in the Bay Area dates back three generations in Oakland and six in Richmond. She said the biggest “pulls” to joining Ridwell were the overall mission, the opportunity to contribute daily to her community and its multifaceted approach to sustainability that she said is rare for the diversity of stakeholders that includes individuals, nonprofits, civic institutions, small and large businesses and educational outlets.
“The thing about sustainability is that we’ve all got a dog in the fight,” Eis said. “Ridwell is focusing on waste management, but that’s just one element in this complex issue. For the cash-strapped family of six, they’ll see cheaper utility bills if their local recycler has less contaminated materials.
“For the avid recycler, they’ll lower their carbon emissions if we can pick up light bulbs from their front porch. For most of us, who fall somewhere in the middle, Ridwell offers a convenient way to do the right thing with household goods, even if you don’t have the resources to figure out what the right thing is.”
Company illustrator Tivona said Ridwell approached her via Instagram last October. Meeting on Zoom, a rapid schedule had her delivering final digital files four weeks after the initial contact. The artwork features the Bay Bridge (which she calls “our hardest-working bridge”), seagulls (“because they are ubiquitous in our skies”) and California poppies (“because who doesn’t love those little dots of sunshine on the side of the road?”).
Delight for Tivona has come in people commenting on the signs and increased awareness about Ridwell. Ridwell offers what Metzger calls “not like Netflix” options for households or neighborhood blocks to share memberships or community support memberships that pool donated account balances of people who relocate to households with limited incomes who wish to participate.
“That’s a win for us,” Metzger says. “Basically, we offer a way to live with less waste. Small things add up. If you and your neighbor do something, that can have a big impact.”
In the future, beyond the standards and themed specials, such as surplus Halloween candy that goes to a nonprofit in Seattle for kids parties or a cannabis vaping cartridge pickup slated for April 20 in Portland that will turn them into flake used in plastic products — Metzger and his son are always looking for new items. However, discarded mattresses, an item often abandoned on city streets, will require major restructuring to provide two drivers instead of one.
“We’re working on it,” says the undaunted Metzger.