Is the future of recycling subscription-based?
Recyclers have had an increasingly difficult time turning a profit, even though underlying raw materials in recycled goods continue to be valued. Indeed, Wall St. is bullish on commodities, particularly metals. In some cases, amateur retail traders are driving up prices, using middlemen to place options bets or, as we saw in the recent silver squeeze, buying up the physical metal from retail outlets.
Because the recycling industry is having difficulty capturing this underlying value, much of the industry is moving toward a subscription-based model. What are the implications of this new recycling paradigm for consumers, businesses, and the environment?
The problem with recycling availability
Most people in cities and suburbs have curbside pickup of recycling, but those who live in rural areas may not enjoy such conveniences. Some may have trouble finding a place to bring their recyclables. A 2018 study of 1,000 US towns found that 34 million households — mostly in rural and suburban communities — didn’t have access to affordable or convenient recycling.
For communities like these, subscription-based recycling services make sense. In some cases, these businesses are even flourishing.
What are subscription-based recycling services?
In the subscription-based recycling model, customers pay a recurring fee, typically monthly, in exchange for someone coming to their home to pick up their recyclable materials on a regular basis. Sometimes this cost is bundled in with their regular garbage collection service fee.
How is subscription recycling working in various places already?
Subscription-based recycling programs are already making inroads in towns across America.
A good example of an innovative company is Coyuchi. They recycle bed sheets across more than two dozen states plus Canada. They replace them with brand new sheets for a $5-per-month subscription fee. They even have pop-ups to expand their reach to places too far from physical stores.
SCRaP, in Billings, Montana, recycles glass using a subscription model. But there are many general-purpose subscription recyclers.
Utah, Colorado, and Arizona
One of the largest subscription-based recycling companies in the US is Utah-based Recyclops, serving over 3,000 homes across that state plus Arizona and Colorado. Recyclops pays independent contractors to retrieve recycling in pickup trucks by way of a smart routing app. Customers pay $10 twice per month. According to a recent article in Forbes, the company intends to double its business and expand into Texas shortly. Since 2014, the article reports, Recyclops has diverted four million pounds of waste from landfills.
The Colorado Sun reports that, in 2017 alone, a company called Clean Valley Recycling collected over 520 tonnes of recyclables. The company services 65 businesses and three towns along with several drop-off areas it offers throughout its region.
A start-up known as Ridwell charges customers between $10 and $14 each month for biweekly subscription-based recycling pickup. Among the items it collects:
- Plastic film
- Light bulbs
Since launching in 2018, the company has accumulated approximately 350 customers.
According to a Pew study of Centralized Availability of Recycling, 20% of US homes already pay for their recycling pickup services through a subscription model. This accounts for an estimated 14% of the US population, or 41,716 individuals, at the time of the 2015-16 study.
Six percent more homes in the US have no recycling programs whatsoever. This suggests room for the subscription-model to spread and grow.
Many rural locales with their own recycling centers have started refusing certain recyclable materials they no longer find cost-effective to handle. In these areas, as well, subscription-based recycling is gaining traction.
Many more towns throughout the nation are considering or planning a move to a subscription-based recycling model, including Chesterfield County, Virginia as well as the entire state of Oregon.
The proposed plan in Oregon is for an $11-per-month subscription fee, plus the cost of required-use recycling bags, for a yearlong commitment per household. As demand increases, the plan is to change contractors and raise prices in order to expand services to more county communities in need.
In Chesterfield, residents already participate in subscription recycling under their current program, paying a $20 fee per household twice per year that is wrapped into their stormwater assessment on their real estate tax bills.
Notably, the program is an opt-out program rather than an opt-in one. This means homeowners in the county are automatically subscribed to the recycling program and must specifically decide not to be part of it, should they not wish to pay for or participate in it.
The county’s waste management authority serves around 72,000 households and, between July 2019 and June 2020, collected and processed 9,935 tons of recycled materials with their current contractor.
Other towns and counties, from Nag’s Head, North Carolina to Silver City, New Mexico to Oberlin, Ohio are making moves towards a possible switch to subscription recycling, by surveying and appealing to local residents to gauge and build interest.
If you live in an area where curbside recycling or a nearby recycling facility are not available, you may have access to subscription recycling already and not even know it. A simple online search will reveal whether or not that is the case.
If there isn’t a subscription-based recycling program serving your area, consider contacting your town’s board of supervisors to petition for one. Or contact your county’s waste management authority to see how they might help get one started.