Subscription recycling in Isle of Wight?
Published 7:11 pm Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Aug. 25, 2022 with additional information on Recyclops and TerraCycle.
Isle of Wight County is still set to scale back its recycling program next month, but enough demand from those who don’t mind paying for the service could bring private alternatives to the area.
Starting in September, Isle of Wight residents will no longer be able to recycle glass, paper or plastics at any of the county’s eight refuse and recycling centers. County Administrator Randy Keaton, in July, said Isle of Wight would be “transitioning” the centers to accept only cardboard and steel or aluminum cans. Everything else, he contends, gets incinerated at the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant in Portsmouth.
Isle of Wight’s recycling reduction comes amid a string of similar actions across Hampton Roads. Smithfield and the city of Franklin both ended their recycling contracts with Bay Disposal in 2021, each also claiming their recyclables were being incinerated rather than repurposed. Bay disputed the assertion, claiming the company sends only 30% of what it collects throughout Hampton Roads to Wheelabrator and the rest to a processing facility. The city of Chesapeake followed suit in late June, ending its contract with Bay competitor TFC Recycling.
Katie Cullipher, principal environmental education planner with the regional public service initiative askHRgreen.org, is aware of two private companies attempting to fill the void.
Recyclops, a Utah-based 2014 startup, operates under an Uber-style business model — paying local pickup truck drivers in 32 states, including Virginia, to collect recyclables from curbside service subscribers and take the commingled recyclables to a recycling plant.
According to recyclops.com, paper gets sorted by grade and repurposed into cardboard, newsprint or office paper. Plastics get sorted, sifted for contaminants and melted into pellets or made into fibers used in fabrics, construction materials, furniture or insulation.
The company, Cullipher notes, states on its website that it’s now “proudly serving Chesapeake and surrounding areas.”
Recyclops’ website lists a cost of $15 per month, or $144 annually, for pickups every other week, with the option of adding glass collection for an extra $7 per month.
Currently, Chesapeake is the only Tidewater locality Recyclops services, but “as more and more of these locations decide to terminate their recycling program, we will be in consideration of offering service in other places,” said Dennis Wise, Recyclops’ vice president of sales and business development.
Wise said he’d reached out to Smithfield in April 2021, roughly three months after the town’s final recycling pickup, but “never got a response.”
Smithfield Town Manager Michael Stallings told the Times he didn’t recall receiving anything from Recyclops at the time.
“If there was a viable private alternative, I think we would be receptive to talking to them,” Stallings said.
Population density is a key factor Recyclops looks into when deciding whether to expand into a particular area, Wise said. Other factors are the distance drivers would have to travel to the nearest recycling plant, and the types of recyclables the plant will accept. The third and perhaps most important factor Recyclops examines is where the recyclables go after processing. The company, Wise explained, takes pains to ensure what its drivers collect is actually repurposed and not incinerated or put in a landfill.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at this model. … It’s really kicking off really well in Chesapeake,” Wise said
The other, more recent startup Cullipher suggests is Virginia Beach-based Happy Planet Recycling.
Founded in early 2021 by Aaron Brave, Happy Planet contracts with Portsmouth-based Recycling & Disposal Solutions (RDS) to repurpose what its drivers collect. According to RDS, the recyclables are then sold to a variety of buyers.
Speaking to the Times by phone on Aug. 17, Brave said the idea came to him while he was living in a condominium building, where the nearest recycling drop-off center was a 10-minute drive.
Happy Planet, which has also been working to offer solutions to Chesapeake residents disgruntled with their city’s decision to end recycling, would be “willing” to serve Isle of Wight too, but hasn’t received any service requests from county residents to date.
“Our main area of focus at the moment is the city of Chesapeake, but people that are from other areas of Virginia … they can give us a call,” Brave said.
Happy Planet – according to its website, happyplanetrw.com – offers a subscription plan for $15 per month for curbside pickup of commingled recyclables every other week. Annually, it’s $165. To add glass, it’s $20 per month, or $220 per year.
In 2018, China banned the import of most overseas recyclables, causing a “shift nationwide of the ability to get rid of recyclables,” Keaton told Isle of Wight’s supervisors at their Aug. 18 meeting. “It used to be we would be paid for recyclables. Now we’re paying virtually the same thing to get rid of recyclables that we pay to get rid of the trash.”
Tad Phillips – former vice president of business development for TFC, now an independent contractor for the Chesapeake-based company – told the Times in January when Isle of Wight first proposed reducing its recycling program that, in his view, the end market for recyclables was “very strong” and “recovering” from its 2021 low point.
A more localized reason so many recyclables are ending up in the incinerator locally may have more to do with non-recyclable items and contaminants being tossed in with recyclables, Brave speculates.
If glass, metal and plastic containers aren’t rinsed out before they’re tossed into recycling bins, “it contaminates their whole process,” Brave said.
“The beautiful thing about subscription-based recycling,” Brave added, is that people serious enough about recycling to be willing to pay for it are also “willing to clean out their plastic and jars.”
There’s also TerraCycle, which brands itself as “recycling the unrecyclable” and is free.
According to its website, the Trenton, New Jersey-headquartered business began in 2001 when Tom Szaky, then a freshman at Princeton University, came up with the idea of making plant food from cafeteria waste by feeding it to worms. By 2006, TerraCycle “Worm Poop Plant Food” was being sold by major retailers, including The Home Depot, Target and Walmart.
Since 2007, the business has offered nationwide recycling programs funded by brands, manufacturers and retailers around the world that allow consumers to recycle their hard-to-recycle products and packaging.
“This type of hard-to-recycle waste takes the form of virtually anything from cigarette butts to plastic packaging, and everything in between,” said Alex Payne, TerraCycle’s North American public relations manager.
TerraCycle has a drop-off location for its Bausch + Lomb recycling program, which takes all brands of contact lenses and blister packs, at Sight 2 See Optometry PLLC in Carrollton. For other products, residents can create an account on TerraCycle.com, download a free shipping label and package their waste in any reused cardboard box for processing, Payne said. For each valid shipment, the account holder will earn points that can be redeemed for a donation to a school, nonprofit organization or charity of that person’s choosing.
“Plastics are the largest category of material we collect through our programs,” Payne said.
Once the plastic arrives for processing, it’s turned back into raw material and sold to manufacturing companies who produce products such as outdoor furniture, decking, plastic shipping pallets, artificial turf for athletic fields and more. Organic materials get composted or used in industrial and commercial fertilizers.