Washington County's legal battle with Ridwell explained
The ramifications of Washington County's spat with regional recycler Ridwell might be felt across the state, and both sides are preparing for a legal battle.
Both sides of the debate say they are fighting for the same things: keeping recyclables out of landfills and ensuring a level playing field for recycling businesses in Oregon.
But where they differ on these issues reveals larger complexities with Oregon's recycling laws and in Washington County's enforcement of the decades-old franchised waste hauling system.
In December, the county sent a letter to Seattle-based Ridwell saying that it was violating the county charter by operating without a license issued by the county, despite providing recycling services in their jurisdictions.
Ridwell countered that because it was collecting materials that weren't picked up by regional haulers — materials that cannot be added to regular commingled bins — it wasn't stepping on anyone's toes and was instead providing an entirely separate service.
Washington County appeared to give a little ground this year, issuing a temporary rule that says outside companies can operate so long as they're only taking and recycling materials that aren't picked up through the publicly funded service.
But Ridwell says the allowance was made moot because the county simultaneously took steps to create its own Recycle+ program, which now seeks to collect many of the same kinds of recyclables that Ridwell had been collecting for months.
For decades, Oregon's trash and recycling services have been operated by companies who have sole domain over designated regions of counties. Cities and counties themselves establish the regions and the prices, as well as oversee the system.
Officials say this is to ensure that everyone in Oregon has access to garbage and recycling services at the same rates. The regulated monopoly averages the cost of the service throughout the system.
County officials say they're simply trying to expand its existing franchise system to meet a known demand.
Ridwell has filed suit, arguing the county government is protecting the monopoly system by barring it from doing business in Washington County.
County officials stated that they first began pursuing an expanded recycling program in April 2021, months before it warned Ridwell to cease collecting materials. However, Ridwell first moved into the Portland area in late 2020, and the company contends the county's advisory committee and the franchised haulers copied Ridwell's service model and are now working to squeeze out a potential competitor.
Solid waste haulers like Pride Disposal & Recycling say that they aren't opposed to competition from companies like Ridwell, so long as they jump through the same regulatory hoops they have to.
"The solid waste system in Oregon is ultimately to protect the health and safety of Oregonians," said Pride Disposal & Recycling president Kristen Leichner. "Part of that is that we have to do very detailed reporting, not only on our expenses for local government to do rate-setting, but also … on where every single material goes."
"I think the way to ensure that public trust is maintained … and that the public health and safety is maintained, it's important that all material is regulated," she added.
While Leichner stopped short of alleging Ridwell isn't recycling all of the materials it collects, she and others who represent regional haulers stress that the regulations are in place to protect the public and the environment.
In general, haulers say it makes more sense to have local service providers incorporate an extra recycling program into their existing residential routes.
Customers of Ridwell pay the private company a monthly fee for a small container, stored on their property, into which they can put batteries, linens, plastic film bags, compact fluorescent bulbs, bubble wrap, Amazon shipping envelopes, and other materials deemed "hard-to-recycle."
Ridwell says it has 1,600 customers in Washington County who were affected by the county's order to cease operations, amounting to about $200,000 in lost subscription revenue. It's suing the county in federal court for damages.
"We firmly reject this argument that the presence of an optional, supplemental service … somehow undermines the franchise system," Ridwell vice president Caleb Weaver said. "The franchise system still exists … it still ensures everybody has access to the baseline garbage and recycling service."
Ridwell asserts that Washington County's reading of state law and of its own charter is too narrow, citing statutes that say the intent of Oregon's recycling system is to encourage and expand recycling, not to limit it. Weaver also said that, if the county was to expand its entire program to include these hard-to-recycle materials — like the county did by including batteries as part of its regular recycling service to all customers — it would see no issue.
The Recycle+ program won't serve all residents of Washington County. It won't operate in rural areas, for instance, and large multi-family buildings will not be a part of the Recycle+ program for at least a year, based on the county's timeline.
Ridwell argues that given those limitations, even if the county launches Recycle+ as planned, it shouldn't block Ridwell from being able to offer its services in Washington County.
Ridwell's service makes no distinction between housing types, though Weaver did state that the company tries to concentrate its service routes in areas where there is the largest demonstrated interest in its service — in other words, cities and urban unincorporated areas.
Ridwell officials paint the concerns about the company being unregulated as fear-mongering, saying that it has been open and transparent about where all of its materials go after being stored at is Northeast Portland warehouse.
"We list all of our partners on our website," Weaver said. "And we don't offer to take anything from anybody that we don't have a partner or an end market for."
He points to certificates issued by both the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Metro that cleared Ridwell's operations in Portland after inspections earlier this year.
County officials retorted that those permits do not clear what Ridwell does with the materials it collects, just what happens at the warehouse.
The DEQ says as much on its website, which has an entire section dedicated to frequently asked questions about Ridwell's service.
"DEQ regulates the facility but has limited information about where materials go," the website states.
Despite being told by DEQ it needed to apply for this permit, Ridwell was not served with a notice of non-compliance by Multnomah County nor Portland. Weaver says Washington County has taken a more contentious approach than Ridwell has experienced in other areas.
"We actually believe we should be partnering with the haulers," Weaver said. "We hope we can get past this moment of fighting and get to the point where we are working together to help the customers and to get to those environmental goals that are a stated goal of the program. We do not have this contentious relationship with the haulers in other areas that we operate."
Ridwell provides service in other metro areas as well, including Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, and Austin, Texas.
Washington County insists that its service is different than what Ridwell offers.
For one, officials point to lower pricing than Ridwell's service. But the math doesn't necessarily support that.
Recycle+ requires a $2.50 base fee, in addition to a $9.25 pickup fee every time the waste haulers empty the purple lidded bin. That is if the bin is right there by the curb. If the haulers have to go onto your property to get the bin — which Ridwell does at no extra charge — it's an $11.70 pickup fee. If they have to walk more than 150 feet from the curb to collect the bin, it's slightly more.
At those rates, Recycle+ is only cheaper than Ridwell if customers opt for one pickup per month. However, Ridwell's service covers at least two pickups for $16 — or $12 per month, if customers pay for the whole year in advance.
County officials pointed out that the 20-gallon Recycle+ bin is about twice the size of Ridwell's bin, meaning less need for additional pickups.
"The service is designed to meet the needs of the customers, and county staff believe that for most community members, it can be utilized in a manner that would cost less than Ridwell's contractual subscription service," said county spokesperson Wendy Gordon.
County officials are also adamant that the franchise model-based Recycle+ is also more equitable, since it's being offered to all customers in urban unincorporated areas of Washington County at the same rates.
Weaver disagrees, because Recycle+ isn't available to everyone in unincorporated Washington County.
"There is no doubt that including these items in the standard service would be more equitable," Weaver said. "But that is not what (the county) is doing."
He added, "We are not making the claim that Ridwell is the most equitable option. Our point is that we are more equitable than the alternative that they are trying to use to displace our business."
County officials said that the government's approach has been dictated by state laws and the county charter, that it didn't have an alternative.
"The county's order for Ridwell to cease operations in unincorporated Washington County was issued in December 2021 because their services were in violation of longstanding county code and rules," Gordon said. "It is important to distinguish that the county never moved to bar Ridwell from operating; they were never authorized to operate in the first place but did so anyway."
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