Recycling At Your Fingertips with Ryan Smith

March 11, 2021

Ryan Smith is the Founder and CEO of Recyclops. A Recycling company that has diverted over 8 Million pounds from landfills to date. He was also a Forbes 30 under 30 award recipient in 2020.  Ryan is  the father to two little girls who keep life exciting. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in business strategy in 2016. In his “free” time he likes to hike, rock climb, and backpack with his dad and brothers. 

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I an John Shegerian, and I am so honored to have with us today the CEO of Recyclops, Ryan Smith. Welcome to Impact, Ryan.

Ryan Smith: Hey. Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

John: It is just great having you. I feel like we are in the same room. We had a little chat before we went live here, and you are sitting in Utah and I am sitting in Fresno because we are still living through this COVID-19 tragic period in world history. It is so nice to be able to be together, and share your journey with our listeners and viewers today. Before we get talking about your great company Recyclops, can you share a little bit about your background leading up to founding and growing this great company of yours?

Ryan: Yes. I have always been environmentally conscious and cared about this. I grew up here in Utah and Utah is one of the most gorgeous states in my opinion.

John: It is.

Ryan: I think that kind of lends you towards that. I am an eagle scout, and so that kind of also… Done a lot of camping and hiking. The truth of the matter is I had not thought that much about recycling. I had lived here in Utah and then, I had lived internationally a little bit and kind of seen recycling in different states across the world. I had not thought that much about it, and that changed when I was in college. What really changed was the fact that I moved into an apartment complex that did not have recycling. Suddenly, it was like this thing that has always been just there… It is like I never think about running water because I have running water, but it is like when you are in a place where you do not have running water, it is like “Wait a minute. Well, this is a pain.” That is how I felt, like suddenly I could not recycle.

I remember I bought on campus through a vending machine. I bought like a Sprite, Coke or something. I went back to my apartment and when I was done with it, I was like going to put in the recycling and I just moved in. It was like, “Oh, we do not have recycling in this apartment.” It is like, “Okay, so let me go outside to the dumpster. I am sure there is recycling.” I did not even consider that there could not be. I get out there, no recycling. I put the bottle in the trash can and I still feel guilty about it. I did not realize that was inside me, that I know this inherent desire to do the right thing. I really felt strongly that that is the right thing to do and that really got my mind thinking, “Hey, what? Am I living in the most ghetto apartment complex?” I was not that far off, to be honest, but I looked around. I went to friends’ apartments and I was not alone. None of them recycled.

John: What college did you go to? I just want to see what college you are talking about.

Ryan: No. Here is the thing. It does not matter what college I went to, and this is what blew me away. I went to BYU. Love BYU. Super glad I went there. Awesome. At first, that is what I thought. I thought like Provo, Utah sucks. Like what the heck. And then I thought, well, maybe it is just Utah. Maybe Utah is not good at the environmental thing. I started doing more research and it was like, “Oh man. This is not a Provo thing. This is not a Utah thing. This is not that United States thing. It is an apartment thing. Apartments struggled to recycle.” The more and more research I did, the more I saw that across the globe, apartments really struggled to recycle. That to me is like man, that is a huge problem. There are so many apartments in the United States. There is very little data on what recycling is and is not happening in apartments. Based on the data that we have been able to gather, we estimate that about at least sixty percent of apartments in the US do not have access to recycling. Maybe there is a park nearby that they could go take it to, but convenient access for residents. That was really the beginning of my journey into the recycling space. I saw that and thought, “Man, that is a problem that needs to be solved.”

John: It is important that we go step by step. We have lots of young people or other people that want to be the next Ryan Smith, want to be an entrepreneur. For our friends and our viewers and our listeners out there that want to find Ryan and the great work that he is doing with Recyclops, please go to www.recyclops.com. So you see the problem, but also, now, it is time to figure out can you come up with a solution? Is the solution profitable, and therefore, is the solution also scalable? Walk us through how long that process takes before you start to figure out how to launch Recyclops.

Ryan: Funny enough, I called right after this experience that I shared with you where I threw this bottle away. I walked through and saw some other apartments did not recycle. I called my dad, and my dad works in facilities management. He has had a good amount of exposure to recycling with that. I called him and I was like, “Dad, I am going to start a recycling company.” He was like, “Horrible idea. Do not do it.”

John: Horrible idea. What kind of encouragement was that?

Ryan: Do not know. What the heck. What he had seen was the… He had actually supervised a small recycling facility. In that, he saw that the facility was burning money. It was not making any money and he said, “Hey, there is not money to be made in this.” The funny thing that happened was for two years, I did not do anything. I did not do the recycling thing. I did not start a business. Nothing. I mean at this point, I was twenty-one years old. At twenty-three, I was actually still in school. I took a two-year hiatus from school. I served a mission for my church in Russia. All of this kind of started right after I got back from Russia. I did a semester of school, lived on-campus and on-campus had recycling. Off-campus did not. I decided a couple of years in or after this experience, I was like, “Okay, I want to start a business.” I decided I wanted to give entrepreneurship a real go. Recycling, I had a bunch of different ideas and decided that recycling was the thing I wanted to do.

With that, I started looking at how to make this work. I have been giving the advice like “Hey, there is no money to be made in this.” I realized very quickly that the money to be made in it is not what most people think and that is like, “Oh, I am going to sell this plastic bottle and make a buck.” It is like no, the plastic bottle costs a lot to transport, sort, all of that. Generally, more than that bottle’s worth is not getting you to the point where you are making any sort of decent income on that. I saw that you can charge a service fee. That is how trash is handled. You charge a service fee to pick something up and you do that. Recycling handled that the same way. That is what I need to do. This needs to be a business that is not making money from a material. We are making money from a service fee. That right there kind of got me over that hump of like, “Oh man, I should not start something.” No, I can financially make this viable. And then, it came down to trying to understand why do not apartments recycle. Why is it not happening? I talked to tons of apartment owners trying to get an understanding of it. I got like a petition with like thousands of students saying they wanted recycling at their apartments. Did all this, went to apartment owners and they were like, “Oh, cool that students want that. We do not really care.”

John: When did you launch it officially? When did the Recyclops won?

Ryan: I launched Recyclops in 2014.

John: How has the journey gone? Is it gone as you expected or talk about the zigs and zags? What is the real Mission? How are you trying to democratize recycling for the consumers that want to really be part of the solution and not the problem anymore?

Ryan: Yes. I love that you said democratize, because that is something that we are really focused on. I kind of opened this rabbit hole with apartment. I saw apartments are not having recycling. It is solvable. We solved it on a local scale. Did not really build a solution that could scale up. It was really good on micro, but as you got into macro, it did not quite work. I started looking around and discovered there were some other places in the economy were recycling just was not happening. One of the ones that still today surprises me. We had a family-run business reach out in a small City about twenty to forty minutes from where I was operating my small business. They reached out and said, “Hey, our municipality does not have recycling. Ten years ago, we started a little program. We signed up some neighbors. They pay us ten bucks a month. We have a suburban and a trailer that we go pick up the recycling with the three young boys who had kind of done the labor force for it. Kind of like a paper route type job. The kids have all grown up and now, it is like we want the recycling to go on but we do not want to necessarily do it.” We ended up taking over that operation.

It opened my mind to this world of like how is there a municipality… Like an apartment that is privately owned by some investor, okay, I can understand. But a municipality? What? Did some digging, did a random sample of a thousand cities in the US and saw that recycling was not happening in a ton of cities. As you got to the outskirts of Suburbia, recycling just starts disappearing, and as you get into rural, it is gone. That was about thirty-four million households. On top of that, you have the sixteen million apartments that we were already looking at. Suddenly, we are talking fifty million households, thirty-eight to forty percent of households in the US. That moment right there is when it is like, “Okay, I need to stop thinking around the apartments in Provo and take this to the next level, because this problem is huge. Our mission kind of stemmed around that saying, “Okay. We want to bring environmental solutions to places that do not have them, starting with recycling. This can be done because this little family-run business in Mapleton, they were doing it. Mapleton, Utah, just a small town. I thought if they can do it there, I can do it anywhere. It is just trying to figure out how and that is when I started thinking about how do we make this model work and started looking at different things that I had seen.

My sister lives in New York City. I saw in New York, all the recycling is bagged and cardboards put to the side. That worked way better for this kind of hands-on solution that they we were doing in this city already. We switched to that so that the plastic usage from bags was equivalent to the life of a bin. Over twenty years of plastic bags, it was equal to how much plastic is in one bin. We were like plastic-neutral on that front. We feel okay about that as long as we are making sure the bags are being handled properly and this, logistically, is way easier for us. What that really changed for us was that, suddenly, instead of having to own a trailer and a suburban in Mapleton, Utah, I could hire anyone and any vehicle help pick up this recycling because it was self-contained in a bag. You did not need any specialized equipment. We kind of took an Uber approach to it and said, “Hey, I am going to hire local independent contractors. I am going to find cities that do not have recycling programs. I am going to hire local independent contractors to go pick up the recycling. I am going to find the customers. Connect those two together, and then, I will make sure that the recycling gets from that community to the nearest recycling facility, which sometimes is twenty minutes away. Sometimes, it is four hours away.

John: What was the number one thing you decided that you were going to focus on recycling?

Ryan: The number one part of recycling or?

John: What items were you going to recycle?

Ryan: The focus was kind of the traditional paper, plastic, cardboard, and metal. Super focused on traditional household recycling. The intention of, eventually, starting to look at some of these other things like e-waste, food waste, textile and whatnot.

John: Now, right now, on your website for our listeners out there that want to find Ryan and his great company Recyclops, go to www.recyclops.com. You are in Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. In seven short years, you have grown quite a lot. How is that growth trajectory looking and where can our listeners or viewers, if they want to become part of the Recyclops community, how can they get involved?

Ryan: Yes, we are growing super rapidly. Ohio is on that list on our website. We actually launched in Ohio tomorrow. Woo-hoo. That is exciting.

John: During a pandemic, you are growing.

Ryan: Oh, yes. We have actually doubled between March and November. March and April were a little bit tough, but then we got our bearings, adapted some.

John: If anyone does not say March and April 20 20 was not tough for them, they are just not telling the truth here. Let us be honest. [inaudible] we were headed in March and April. That is to be expected. But you are saying between March and November, you doubled in size. That is incredible. My hat is off to you, man.

Ryan: Yes, it has been a blast and the thing that is so exciting for me is we are bringing recycling to places that it has never been. You think about who does not have recycling, I mentioned it is kind of some of these more rural communities and man, you look at who lives in more rural communities and who lives in apartments and it is not, generally speaking, the upper class. These are middle class, lower middle class. It is funny that you look at who does not have access to recycling and it is like that population like man. So, we really do feel like we are democratizing it and creating accessibility to people who just do not have a habit and everyone wants to recycle. If you are in a community and you do not have recycling in your community, or maybe you have recycling but you cannot recycle glass.

In February, we are launching in Alexandria, Virginia and Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri and in Nashville, Tennessee, because none of those communities have glass with their city program. We are launching a glass-only program in those areas. If you are in a city that does not have anything or you are lacking something, let us know. I mean, we have the ability where you can sign up and request the location anywhere in the country. I will tell you what. That is how we get started. I had a random lady call me up from Beaumont or actually from Orange, Texas. Orange County, Texas is at Southeastern Texas, but two hours from Houston on the Louisiana border. No recycling there. She calls me up and says, “Hey, I want recycling in my community. I heard that you guys could help.” We said, “Yes, if you can get a few hundred households to sign up in Orange County, we are there.” Two weeks later, she is reaching out and saying, “Hey, you have gone viral locally. You are on both deal in the front page of both local newspapers.” Literally, within a month of her reaching out, we were picking up thousands of pounds of recycling from homes in her city.

John: How do people contact you though if they want to bring Recyclops to their community? Is that something you want people to reach out to you?

Ryan: Reach out. Actually, on our website, you can sign up. There is a request form where you can just asked us to come to your community. We have people requesting that everyday and I will tell you, most of the places that were operating in today were because people requested it. That is for us the lowest hanging fruit is people are asking us to come, we will come.

John: Explain how Recyclops works for people who want to mechanically understand your what goes on really in Recyclops. How does your system work?

Ryan: You sign up on our website. From there, you are put into the system, you are put onto a route and our driver has the smart routing app. Your first pick up, you will put out recycling and bags from your home so that we can still pick up your recycling. Immediately, we will deliver roll of Recyclops bags that are more uniform and a lot easier for us to make sure they get recycled. We will drop those off at your home, and from there, you get charged on the first of every month. We pick up the recycling. It is anywhere from twelve to twenty-five dollars depending on where you are at or if you are sign up for weekly or every other week. If you want glass service, kind of different levels there. It is simple. I mean you sign up once, we come every week or every other week. You put your recycling in these bags. It is really easy. You have your recycling rate in your kitchen. You put it straight in. Bags has drawstrings. Pull it out. Put it there and off you go.

John: That is awesome. I love entrepreneurs like you, Ryan, that not only disrupt old models or change the world or make the world a better place, but you are doing all of the above. This is also a job creation business. Talk about people who want to become drivers for you around the country. How does that work?

Ryan: Yes, that is something that is super important to me. I love the environmental impact. I am definitely environmentalist. It is hard to beat the human impact. That is really cool about driving for a cyclops. We have some drivers who would have a hard time getting a job elsewhere, whether they are autistic or they are disabled in some way. Even like you look at some of these kind of low skilled jobs, they are just tough still. Like working at a fast food restaurant, some of these are hard. It does not matter if you are kind of in that category or if you are on the other side and you are saying, “No, I could work anywhere and I just need some side hustle. I am trying to earn some extra money.” All of that fits for us and our average drivers are making twenty-five dollars an hour. They are using their own vehicle, and so there is some expenses associated with that, but people are netting seventeen to twenty dollars an hour, which is pretty dang good.

John: It is a great wage to start with.

Ryan: No, that is exactly right, and you can do better. We will have drivers who buy a trailer or they borrow trailer from their uncle or whatever. Suddenly, they are picking up a lot more at a time and they are making forty bucks an hour. It is pretty fun to see.

John: For our listeners and viewers who have just joined us, we got Ryan Smith with us today. He is the CEO and founder of Recyclops. You can find Recyclops and Ryan’s great work and colleagues at www.recyclops.com. Ryan, when you go to bed at night and now you know, you have a business that works. You have crossed over. Where do you dream about how big this could be in the next three to five years ahead? How big can this really get? You are a young guy. You have tons of runway in front of you. Is this a big idea that can really be national in almost every zip code across America one day?

Ryan: Yes, I very much believe it is. I look at this and say we want to be servicing at least a million homes in the next three to five years. We are kind of we are well on our way there. I already mentioned that there is thirty-four million kind of rural, semi-urban homes and sixteen million apartments. I think the potential is much bigger than that. Another piece of something that I cannot help but think about. We look at where environmental services are lacking and one, that is not just recycling. I look at a city, almost any city in the country and you see, “Hey, what do you do with your Styrofoam?” Chances are you cannot put it in your bin. What do you do with your old computer? Your old cell phone? Chances are you cannot put them in the bin. We look at this and say, “Cool. There is all the households who have nothing.”

That is target number one, but then we all have all the households who do not know what to do with their plastic bag that their bread comes in. They do not know what to do with the lid or all these small plastics. We call it hard-to-recycle plastics. Most city programs are only accepting bottles, milk jugs and laundry detergent jugs and maybe a yogurt container. Everything else, your city probably does not want it. It means it is going to the landfill. We are saying, “Hey, we want to launch hard-to-recycle plastic programs all over the country.” We want to partner with top brands and help them recycle better, so that things are being truly circular. I had a meeting today with a package manufacturer. We are working on a program to try and get their packaging from consumers households straight back to them, so they can turn it straight back into that packaging. It is fully circular. That is what I am excited about.

John: If we had a conversation, you are always welcome back on the Impact Podcast, to talk about your growth and your success because it is so inspiring. Three to five years from now, you can literally be in every state and be much bigger than you are today.

Ryan: Yes, we fully expect it. I mean, like I said, we are launching in Ohio tomorrow, I guess. Tomorrow, we launch in Ohio. We are launching in Virginia. We are launching at three new states next month. We are going for it, and we really feel like we are onto something and there is an opportunity here to make a huge impact and to be a profitable business while we are at it.

John: Hey, there is no you cannot save the world. I say this to all young entrepreneurs that come to me all the time for advice and guidance. There is no shame in saying you cannot go save the world unless you make a profit along the way until you created your own sustainable venture. If you are not sustainable, you are not going to go make an impact. You are not going to make the world a better place. I think it is wonderful that you are profitable and growing.

Ryan: Amen. For me, that is the thing is that it is great. I love nonprofits. Nonprofits are wonderful. We chose not to be a non-profit because I wanted to make sure that my business did not need charity to thrive, that we could thrive on our own and we have been able to do that.

John: Hey, Ryan, you have been able to do a lot more than just that. For our listeners out there to find Ryan to sign up as a driver, to ask Ryan to come to your community, go to www.recyclops.com. Ryan Smith, you are making a big impact. You are making the world a better place. I wish you continued success and thank you for being a guest today on the Impact Podcast.

Ryan: Thanks for having me. Super enjoyed chatting with you.

John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users, and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. For more information on how Trajectory is leading the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.