© Konstantin L / stock.adobe.com

Any time Utah-based Recyclops, which offers “convenient and affordable” recycling in rural areas across the United States, launches a program in a new city, the business does a sign-up campaign. When 150 residents signed up for the recycling program in two days in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona, Ryan Smith, Recyclops CEO, hopped on a plane to launch the program.

“If someone lives in a community that doesn’t have recycling, we will come,” Smith says. “All it takes for us to come is for people to get the word out, and the reason we’ve launched in the communities we’ve launched in is because someone from that community reached out to us and got things rolling.”

Smith started Recyclops while studying business strategy at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. He lived in an apartment building that didn’t offer recycling.

“In the U.S., I just expected I would be able to recycle,” says Smith, who grew up as an avid recycler in Utah. “I was surprised and shocked when I didn’t have access to recycling in my apartment.”

Smith founded the business by building small recycling sheds with bulk bags inside to capture recyclables at apartment complexes. The sheds were successful because “they looked really different from a dumpster, so we saw low contamination rates, about 5 percent,” he says. But the business wasn’t growing as fast as he wanted.

Smith shifted Recyclops’ business model to focus on recycling cardboard from businesses in Utah. He partnered with a local material recovery facility (MRF) as a buyer. Recyclops also acquired a small family-owned recycling company in Mapleton, Utah, and provided curbside pickup to 2,000 residents.

Providing recycling solutions

When China stopped accepting certain postconsumer recyclables in 2017, Smith says, “We needed to look where our business was healthy [and] saw the business was working places where we were charging a service fee and not just making money from the material.”

Smith says he didn’t have the finances to purchase plastic recycling bins, so the company has residents bag their recyclables instead.

“We worked with the MRF to make sure we could do that,” Smith says. “They charge us a contamination fee, but still break open the bags and recycle what’s inside. At the same time, the bags made us more efficient because we can just grab and go.”

“In the U.S., I just expected I would be able to recycle. I was surprised and shocked when I didn’t have access to recycling in my apartment.” – Ryan Smith, CEO, Recyclops

Smith also didn’t have money to buy a collection truck, so he created an Uber-style business model where a driver drops pins on a map using the RoadWarrior app to pick up recyclables.

The success of the recycling program in Mapleton led Smith to conduct a study in 2017 of 1,000 cities in the U.S. The study showed that nearly one-third of households didn’t have access to convenient recycling. Upon further research, Smith estimated 34 million single-family homes in the U.S. didn’t have access to convenient recycling in addition to the 16 million to 20 million apartment units that lacked recycling services.

“As I started doing more research, it became clear it was a national issue with apartments and rural areas,” Smith says. “One of the biggest shockers for me was even rural areas in the greenest states—California, Washington—don’t have recycling. They might have a public drop-off, but that leaves a lot of people out who would recycle if it was more convenient to them.”

By the end of 2018, Recyclops launched in its second rural market, Vernal, Utah, where Greene Recycling, a small recycling business, had just shut down.

The company now operates in 40 cities across five states and collects 50,000 tons of material per month. In Vernal, the closest MRF is three hours away. In that case, Recyclops loads a trailer and transports the material for processing.

“We never make money from recycling, even if we could be selling recycling for rates that recyclables used to go for,” Smith says. “It costs more to transport the recycling, and we don’t have the scale that enables us to use the most efficient transportation methods, so we do this.”

Growing reach

A Recyclops employee.

Recyclables collected through the program vary from city to city, depending on what the nearest MRF or drop-off center accepts, Smith says. Most programs in Utah accept paper, plastic and cardboard, but the company works to add materials to the stream. In Pinetop-Lakeside, Recyclops is partnering with the city to use its drop-off center, which accepts glass.

In Utah, glass isn’t accepted at the local MRF, but because a local glass processor accepts glass, Recyclops launched a pilot add-on program that charges residents an extra $2.50 for a monthly glass pickup, which 25 percent of residents in Utah “immediately” signed up for, he says.

“We make sure our pricing model keeps the business sustainable without being able to make money on recycling,” Smith says. “Of the $10 we charge for the program, we’re going to spend $2 to $3 getting recycling to the MRF and paying the tip fee.”

Recyclops has started several early sign-up campaigns in Texas communities, including River Oaks and Kaufman. Typically, Recyclops needs 100 households to sign up before starting service in a new area. The company is in the process of signing a contract with Kaufman.

“They put out a request for proposal,” Smith says. “We bid on it, and we’re the only bidder, which is pretty normal in most cities we operate in.”

In addition, Smith is in the process of designing an app to track and capture data to increase transparency in the recycling industry.

“We want them to know where their recycling is going and what it’s becoming instead of them putting it into the blue bin and having no idea,” Smith says. “We want people to know their water bottle became a new bottle or their cardboard box went to Mexico and became a new box.”

The author is the Recycling Today Media Group’s digital editor and can be reached at kmaile@gie.net.