On certain mornings, Ryan Metzger, or one of his fellow Ridwell drivers, may cruise through a half-dozen Seattle neighborhoods, picking up used clothing and shoes, batteries, and lightbulbs from designated white bins on people’s porches. Also plastic that should look wincingly familiar to anybody with access to Prime delivery. “Nearly every Amazon package [that] has plastic film in it,” says Metzger—white-and-blue bubble mailers or air pillows or any scrunchable type of thin plastic—“shouldn’t go in your main recycling bin, but can come through us.”
Any time we plunk empty La Croix cans and spent pasta jars into a blue bin instead of the trash can, we feel that we’re doing our part in delaying earth’s downward spiral into pollution purgatory. It’s true, properly recycling is a better option than the garbage. But as that simple task grows ever complicated, we’re more likely to deposit something into the recycle container in the sincere hope that it belongs there, even when it truly doesn’t.
This disposal-related optimism is termed “aspirational recycling.” Seattle Public Utilities calls it “wishful” recycling. Metzger knows it as the impetus for his startup. It began as a side project—he and his seven-year-old son, Owen, would pick a category, say Styrofoam, and learn how to discard it correctly. Then last fall Metzger founded Ridwell, which transports stuff that would’ve been landfill-bound to specialized recycle centers or to nonprofits that give unwanted items a second life.
Ridwell, which has about 1,000 customers across Seattle, positions itself as the intermediary for those who recycle and “hope for the best,” says Metzger. “They really have this genuine desire to do right.”
Jack Johnson, a Burke Museum staff member who examined the anthropological impacts of waste as a doctoral student at the University of Washington, posits the way we consume is emotional as much as it is rational, and that same behavior follows when it’s time to get rid of something. “We don’t always have all the information that we need to navigate how to properly dispose of something,” says Johnson. When we’re unsure, then, we do what we feel is right.
So far Seattle’s much further ahead than most U.S. cities. The latest assessment clocks the national recycling rate at 25.8 percent, while Seattle hits the 56.7 percent mark. “[Recycling] is really strongly embedded in the ethic here,” says Hans Van Dusen from Seattle Public Utilities. “It’s something that [Seattle] residents insist on.” SPU wants to reach a 70 percent diversion rate by 2022. But as materials continue to evolve and have multiple layers of different components—food packaging with plastic, paper, and compostable parts—recycling them is an ongoing challenge.
“In many ways, our largest archaeological contribution to the world is our dumps,” says Johnson. “It’s something we’re going to have to reckon with…in a much more robust way than we have.” For now, small-scale agents like Metzger and his son are literally picking up the pieces.