Ryan Hickman, age eleven, enjoys collecting coins, riding his bike, and playing the violin. But unlike most middle schoolers, he’s also been running a business for eight and a half years.
Ryan Means Business
After visiting a recycling center with his dad at three and half years old and taking home some cash, Ryan decided recycling was pretty fun. He began by asking his neighbors and friends to save their cans and bottles for him to collect, and Ryan’s Recycling began growing.
On how his business got its start, Ryan recalls, “It just kept growing and growing, [my neighbor] would tell their sister, then their sister’s neighbor, then their sister’s neighbors work, and it would just keep growing.” Now Ryan’s Recycling has over 200 customers, and Ryan has recycled 1.2 million cans and bottles. His story blew up across social media and news outlets quickly, turning Ryan into a recycling icon and inspiration for kids around the world.
Tricks of the Trade
Ryan is quite the recycling expert. One thing he thinks everyone should know about recycling: “It’s kind of a trick. If in doubt, throw it out. Because, if you don’t know if it’s recyclable or not and let’s say it’s not, like a plastic bag, and you throw it into the recycling bin, it contaminates it. So it’s always safer to throw it away if you don’t know.”
After being in the business for eight years, Ryan has seen and learned a lot about what is recyclable and what is not. We get on the topic of commonly mis-recycled materials, and he says exasperatedly, “Everybody gets confused with Styrofoam. There’s a recycling symbol on it, but styrofoam, no, it needs to go in the trash.”
Having started at such a young age, Ryan wasn’t initially motivated by helping the environment. Despite now being very focused on keeping recycling out of landfills and trash out of the ocean, Ryan tells me, “I was just recycling for the money when I first started. That was when I was three and a half. When I was five-ish I saw that it was helping the environment, and then I was doing it for the environment.”
From Land to Seas (and Seals)
Since becoming a dedicated environmentalist, in addition to his recycling runs, Ryan also organizes weekend beach clean-ups. Talking to Ryan, it is obvious that he has fun with what he is doing. He tells me about all the strange things he finds on the beach, from shotgun shells to Barbie dolls and flip phones. It’s this spirit that Ryan exudes that makes his work so inspirational; he seeks to show people that recycling is fun, easy, and good for the planet.
To do more good for the oceans, Ryan has started selling Ryan’s Recycling T-shirts, from which he donates all the proceeds to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. “I wanted to donate to them because I saw they were doing good things for the ocean”, Ryan said. “I saw they were rescuing seals and sea lions, and I found out that every dollar I donate equals one pound of fish, or it will go towards medicine, or cleaning supplies to clean up after them, or new bowls to hold their fish.” His motivation behind running beach clean-ups and from recycling is driven by his desire to care for the ocean and the life within it.
One of Ryan’s fondest memories in his recycling career so far, took place at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center where Ryan is a youth ambassador. He tries to visit the center two or three times a month, and really cares about the animals they are rehabilitating. “There was a Northern Fur Seal there named Heartbreaker, which is really rare down here. Southern California is not really where Northern Fur Seals will be. She was my favorite animal there. After a couple months they release the animals, and they let me release her personally, like opening a cage on the beach.”
Ryan goes International!
Ryan’s message for caring about cleaning the environment and our oceans has gone global. Ryan gets letters and emails from classrooms all over the world asking him questions about recycling and how they, as kids, can make a difference in the environment. But Ryan realizes it’s not always easy, “We get a lot of emails from Africa saying like, Okay, I’ve collected 6,000 bottles, what should I do now? And we ask, Do you have a recycling center? And they’ll say, What’s that?”
A lack of access to recycling centers and education about recycling is one of the reasons Ryan has now started a non-profit called Project 3R. One of his goals with Project 3R is being able to visit Nigeria to teach about the importance of recycling, and potentially help set up a recycling center. Donations to Project 3R will also help Ryan with organizing and providing supplies for big beach clean-ups.
Ryan’s been hard at work cleaning up the environment for as long as he can remember, with no signs of stopping. When asked if he ever gets tired or thinks about doing something else, he said, “I’m still super focused on recycling, I just want to keep recycling, and recycling, and recycling.” In the end, what Ryan wants people to know from his story as a kid business owner, is that it’s easy. Anyone can do it. His best advice? “Keep trying, I started when I was three and a half; you guys can start right now.”
Learn more about Ryan at: https://ryansrecycling.com/