Washington County’s Copycat Recycling Program Hits First Hitch—Before Its Launch

The county crafted its program after it ousted Ridwell, a hard-to-recycle subscription company.

Takeout containers like clamshells have become more popular in the pandemic. (Thomas Teal)

Earlier this year, a Seattle-based subscription company called Ridwell that picks up hard-to-recycle items from people’s doorsteps withdrew from Washington County after being threatened with civil penalties if it continued operations.

The county argued Ridwell was intruding on the turf of the county’s franchised trash haulers, which have exclusive rights to trash and recycling pickup. Ridwell argued, for nearly a year, that because it picks up items the haulers currently cannot, it was instead filling a niche recycling market that Oregonians craved. Ridwell is suing Washington County in federal court after getting the boot in January.

After ousting Ridwell, the county worked to craft its own Ridwell-style program: essentially a copycat, with a few minor adjustments. It’s set to launch July 1 of this year.

But now it appears the county’s intended end market for clamshells wasn’t aware it would be the recipient of such materials.

As of early Saturday morning, the county website claimed that clamshells collected by its exclusive program would be sent to a California-headquartered company called Green Impact that recycles clamshell containers into pellets and flakes that are then sold as building materials.

But the CEO of that company, Octavio Victal, tells WW the company was not aware of the partnership. He emailed county officials on the morning of May 28, asking them to remove his company’s name from the website as a partner.

“This is untrue, and I am writing to request that you immediately remove any reference to Green Impact from your website,” Victal wrote. “The implication that Green Impact is in any way connected with or endorsing this new program is untrue and entirely inappropriate. Needless to say, I was surprised and alarmed to see my company used on an official government website in such a misleading and inaccurate manner.”

Green Impact recycles all of Ridwell’s clamshells, and he says the bales that arrive from Ridwell contain “beautiful material” with little to no contaminating material.

The recycling of plastic clamshells is one of the primary draws for Ridwell subscribers, as they’ve become ubiquitous with takeout food and grocery stores.

On Saturday morning, the county told WW it had removed Green Impact from its website, and that it was under the impression that once its program was up and running, that the county would send its clamshells to Green Impact through an intermediary sorting company called Far West Recycling, a company based in Oregon.

Thomas Egleston, manager of the solid waste and recycling program for Washington County, says the county will reevaluate potential end markets and determine if recycling clamshells is still a feasible part of its program.

“If a material cannot be collected and delivered to a viable end market, then it would be removed from the Recycle+ program,” Egleston said. “We were also just alerted of this and will be investigating further.”

After WW reached out to the county and Victal, Far West outreach manager Vinod Singh called WW to say that he had just spoken with Victal and that he was under the impression that “everyone is on the same page now.”

Before Singh called, Victal was upset at his company being listed on the site. “First, they gotta call me. Second, I need to know the intentions, and third, why they kicked out Ridwell if it’s such a phenomenal program” and added that “nobody called me about this program.”

After his conversation with Singh, Victal tells WW he’s open to accepting materials from a new program. He does not have a direct relationship with Far West, he says, but has processed some of the companies bales through another partnership. He estimates those bales, which are supposed to contain only clamshells, have close to 30% non-clamshell material.

“[They’ve] sent us a couple of truck loads from Far West, and we’ve done the waste composition analyses, and there’s so much crap in there,” Victal says.

He’s skeptical of the haulers’ ability to separate clamshells sufficiently.

“If they can do what Ridwell is doing, I’ll take it. I will not take trash from Oregon or Washington and bring it down to my facility,” Victal says. “I know the haulers. I’ve been trying to get the haulers to do a good job for the last three years, and they don’t seem likely to...I am very skeptical.”

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