Subscription-based model brings recycling to rural communities lacking municipal services

Ryan Smith grew up recycling.

“I didn’t ever think much about it,” he said. “Then, when I went to college, I moved into an apartment complex, and I was surprised that there wasn’t recycling at my apartment.

“As I did more research, I saw that my apartment wasn’t unique. And so, I started a business that focused on recycling at apartments, and as I continued to expand the business and expand my knowledge of problems with recycling, the problem of recycling in rural areas became apparent to me.”

Smith is the founder and CEO of Utah-based Recyclops, a subscription-based recycling services that caters to rural and remote communities as well as urban apartment complexes.

The company currently operates in Pinetop-Lakeside and the greater Phoenix area, but it is expanding. Smith said Recyclops will soon be in Globe and Payson, and he hopes to continue growing his business in Arizona.

“We specialize in recycling where others can’t,” he said. “When you look at places that typically struggle to recycle, rural [communities] are on the top of the list.”

Recycling is a challenge for rural areas primarily because the traditional waste management model in the United States relies on population density to afford the trucks and material processing, Smith said.

“When you’re in an area that’s kind of off the beaten path, and there aren’t that many homes — they aren’t that close together — suddenly, it just doesn’t work,” he said.

With Recyclops, Smith created a new model for modern customers.

“Rather than using garbage trucks, we hire local, independent contractors so we can support the local economy while also providing this service,” he said.

Recyclops uses traditional advertising methods such as Craigslist, Facebook and other job sites to find drivers with pickup trucks or other large vehicles in the communities it serves.

Hired as independent contractors, drivers travel around on a designated day and pick up specially-marked bags of recycling that customers place in front of their homes. Once the truck bed or trailer is full, the driver offloads the bags at a drop site where material is aggregated before being shipped to a processing facility by another Recyclops driver in a larger vehicle.

Smith said Recyclops drivers are paid about $25 per hour on average, but they are paying for their own vehicles so the real number is closer to $20 per hour.

“That’s huge and can have a profound impact,” he said.

Recyclops is open to hiring any type of person, as long as they can drive. Smith said he is excited to bring more job opportunities to rural communities.

“It’s a system that can work anywhere,” Smith said. “You definitely need some amount of critical mass to make it functional, but it doesn’t take a lot.”

Recyclops only needs to capture a small percentage of households in a community to be effective — the company usually shoots for 10 percent within the first couple of years, but it can get started with just 2 or 3 percent.

“You have the people who live in the most beautiful parts of our country, who care about the environment, care about where they live, and… they’re unable to recycle,” Smith said. “It just seemed backwards to me.”

There are 34 million rural households and 16 to 20 million apartment households in the U.S., he said. That means rural receives a lot of attention from Recyclops.

Municipal models, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing… which makes it hard, because you go into a community that has never had recycling and you’re not going to get all-or-nothing support, because people don’t have the experience,” Smith said. “Once a community has had recycling for a number of years, you can always transition into a program like that, but starting out that way, it just doesn’t work.”

That makes it hard to get a new program started, but Recyclops is not looking for full community support, he said.

“We’re trying to capture 10 percent of households — just a small percentage,” he said. “And we can do that, because we’re not having to spend $300,000 on a garbage truck. We can make it work with a smaller population, whereas when you’re investing a third of a million dollars on equipment, you need everyone involved.”

Recyclops sets goals for different communities, which can vary based on population size, density and proximity to a recycling center, but in most communities the goal is to reach between 100 and 300 houses, Smith said.

“For every seven households that sign up for recycling with us, it creates an hour of work a month for someone in the local economy,” he said. “We hire local drivers; we always hire from within, and for us it’s great because it means that if there are ever issues, we have boots on the ground there to take care of things.”

Supporting local economies is a key aim in Smith’s business model, and the other aspect of that is keeping things local. For example, Pinetop-Lakeside has a cardboard composting facility, so cardboard collected in the area stays local.

“Usually we can’t sell it, really, because we’re dealing with mixed material, and it doesn’t have a lot of value in and of itself,” Smith said. “The value’s definitely there, but the cost to sort the material usually outweighs the cost of the material. We often have to pay someone to take it, but that doesn’t diminish the environmental impact that it has.”

Recyclops partners with local organizations, including material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort material, bail it into bundles and ship it to manufacturers and processors throughout the U.S. and the world.

MRFs are a practical choice because they are in the business of marketing recyclable materials, Smith said. This ensures that recyclable materials do not end up in landfills, which can happen often with municipal collection.

“The MRFs’ primary source of business is marketing recyclable materials, and so it’s economically backwards for them to pay someone to throw it in the landfill,” he said. “Their business is to make money from this material, and they specialize in that.”

MRFs also have the advantage of being able to process materials that cannot always be recycled, such as plastic bags or Styrofoam.

Smith said municipal recycling services typically have a contamination rate of about 20 to 30 percent, based on his research and discussions with community members. That means 20 to 30 percent of material that is collected by recycling services is too dirty or does not fit the bill in some other way, and it goes to the landfill.

Meanwhile, Recyclops sees just 5 percent of the material it collects end up in landfills.

The company currently operates in about 40 cities or communities in Utah, Texas, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona, and Smith said he expects that number to more than double in the next year.

“We want to bring recycling to a million homes,” he said. “That’s a big goal for us. By bringing recycling to a million homes, we’ll be recycling tens of millions of pounds each month, and that’s obviously really exciting.”

Recyclops is about providing people something they want, he said, and having a national presence is part of that mission.

One hour of work per seven homes out of a million means nearly 143,000 hours of work in rural communities each month, Smith said.

“It’s good money, and that is a lot of hours to have in a community like this,” he said. “When you look at the economic impact of that, that’s $3.5 million that’s being put back into rural communities each month.”

The biggest thing that brings Recyclops to new communities is outreach from the communities themselves, Smith said.

“If you want recycling in your community, and you live in a rural community, the way to bring recycling there is to reach out to us, and we’ll come up with a plan together,” he said.

Graham Bosch

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