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Building a better, more sustainable world starts with attainable goals. Recycling superhero Ryan Hickman set his at age 10.
By Mario Passera, Contributor | Posted: December 12, 2022
If you appreciate the great outdoors and everything in it, you’ll appreciate the Herculean efforts of Ryan Hickman, who has gone viral for his mission to protect the planet by recycling cans and bottles.
Among many other awards, Ryan was named one of the “40 Kids Who Have Changed the World ” by Good Housekeeping Magazine in 2019 and 2020.
Ryan recently hung out with us at the 2022 Cat® WasteExpo booth, where we spoke to him about ways to recycle and clean up the environment.
During his visit to our booth, Ryan also got to remotely operate a Cat excavator—not to mention stand in the wheel of a giant Cat machine being used to help reduce landfill space across the planet.
Something clicked in Ryan Hickman when he was three. After going with his dad to a recycling center to drop off empty cans and bottles, he knew he had found his thing.
“I loved it,” he says, “and I just wanted to keep doing it because it was helping the environment and just so much fun.”
The next day, Ryan told his parents that he wanted to collect recyclables from their neighbors. Not only did he do that, but he also started collecting cans and bottles from his friends, family, and even his parents’ coworkers. He was hooked!
Ryan is passionate about keeping plastic bottles out of the ocean. For a good reason…
Bottles and cans that don’t make it into landfills have a huge impact on the places we live, work, and play. As plastic bottles accumulate, they can devastate ecosystems in the oceans, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. They can even clog our important infrastructure as sewers and storm drains.
If nothing is done over the next two decades, the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year could grow from 11 million metric tons to 29 million metric tons by 2040. And that’s on top of what would already have accumulated—around 600 million metric tons circulating in the world’s oceans.
Ryan refuses to let that happen.
Today, Ryan recycles cans and bottles that he collects from customers all over the county he lives in.
Each week, Ryan sorts these recyclables and prepares them to take to a nearby recycling center.
How big of a difference has he made? You can check out the Ryan's Recycling website for the latest numbers, but as of the writing of this blog, Ryan has achieved the following results:
Talk about doing the work that matters! All of that collecting and sorting takes a lot of effort, and it’s just a portion of what Ryan does to make a positive impact on the planet.
When Ryan was seven years old, people worldwide started noticing his incredible commitment to recycling.
“My story went viral,” says Ryan simply. It sure did, Ryan! After getting a lot of attention online, Ryan began getting invited to appear on national news and talk shows.
“I was lucky enough that people noticed how hard I was working at recycling, and they sent me encouraging words online. That’s when I knew it was working. What I was doing could make a big difference.”
Ryan quickly became a role model for people looking to make a difference in recycling or get their kids interested in it. And he wasn’t even a middle schooler yet!
“I’ve seen a way bigger interest in recycling in recent years,” says Ryan. “More people are wanting to do more to help the environment. And I think when people see a little kid like me talking about it on TV shows and in articles like this, they listen a little closer.”
So, what are some good ways to recycle? Ryan’s got some suggestions that can even be fun recycling activities for kids:
Enjoy being outside while recycling cans and bottles. Go to beaches, riverbanks, and parks to pick up plastic bottles, glass bottles, and metal cans. Bring friends or family to make it even more fun. Bring your whole community to make it an event!
If you’re looking for something fun and different to do while on vacation, you can look for a community pickup near your travel destination.
For example, Ryan recently participated in a community cleanup of the Rhine riverbank in Germany. A lot of plastic bottles got recycled that day, and a lot of great memories were made.
If you have any neighbors who may have difficulty recycling (be it age, physical challenges—or even time constraints) — you can offer to help.
You can sort their recyclables, take the recycling bin out to the curb, or even driving them to a recycling center. This is one of the most impactful ways you can help recycle.
“A lot of towns, like mine, don’t have a recycling program,” says Ryan. “But there might be a recycling center in a nearby town. I need to take mine to one that’s twenty minutes away. I just make sure I save up as much recyclables as I can before the trip.”
One great way to recycle is to support companies that are doing it on a large scale. These days, countless startups and established businesses are making products out of recycled plastic bottles.
Some of Ryan’s favorite companies that are recycling plastic bottles include:
Ryan is a huge fan of these companies making a global impact. “I really think it’s important that not only people like you and me, but also companies help the planet,” he says.
“Because, yes, we can each recycle as little as one bottle to make a difference, but if you add thousands of people doing that, a company’s employees or customers doing it, it takes things to an even higher level.”
You never know who you’ll meet at WasteExpo, or what you’ll learn.
“I was so excited to go to WasteExpo and see all the vendors,” he said. “I had so much fun at the different booths.”
“Some of the coolest things I saw were sorting machines that used lasers to sort different recyclables, a fish tank made out of a Rehrig recycle bin, remote fire system controls, and the Cat landfill compactor.”
Clay Layne, Sales Support Consultant for Waste Applications at Caterpillar, was thrilled to spend time with Ryan at the Caterpillar booth, where the two chatted about reducing landfill waste.
“I enjoyed Ryan’s visit because of his enthusiasm and energy about recycling, waste reduction and the Caterpillar equipment we had there,” says Clay. “Seeing Ryan’s passion for the Industry and the environment at such a young age was inspiring.”
Clay enjoyed showing Ryan an 836K landfill compactor while discussing the importance of conserving space in landfills.
“I liked seeing the big compacter—I’d never seen anything like that before,” says Ryan.
The fewer recyclables that end up in landfills, the better. But it’s important to make sure that the waste that does end up in landfills is managed responsibly. Part of that mission includes landfill compaction.
“Caterpillar is helping to reduce waste and increase landfill densities by educating and working with our customers,” says Clay. This includes landfill best practices for achieving higher densities and helping landfill managers set up site for efficient operations.
When it comes to helping customers conserve landfill space, the massive Cat 836K landfill compactor has led the industry for over two decades.
It’s also designed with environmentally responsible built into it, including engineered to use Cat Reman remanufactured parts. This extends its lifespan and reduces manufacturing waste.
Bottom line? It’s just a cool machine. “It’s humongous,” exclaims Ryan. “The wheels are bigger than me. I stood in a wheel and still had two feet above me!”
Cat Command is a remote-control console used on Cat excavators that help develop landfill cells and load the dirt used as landfill cover soil. Cat Command will be used to help dig new landfill cells and load cover soil on trucks for daily cover.
One of the things Clay enjoyed most about Ryan’s visit was allowing him to remotely operate a Cat landfill excavator.
“Ryan did fantastic operating a Cat excavator remotely from our booth,” says Clay. “He had a great sense of understanding of what he was doing—even though that Excavator was 500 miles away.”
“I did something probably no kid has gotten to do before,” says Ryan with a big smile. “I got to control a landfill excavator remotely. It was in a different state, and I controlled it online. They said I did a good job. Hope so!”
Well, Clay did offer you a job on the spot, Ryan! Fun aside, Ryan does see his future revolving around environmental stewardship.
“I don’t know if this counts as a profession,” he says, “but what I’m doing now is what I plan on still doing, expanding my recycling business as much as I can.”
The simplest way you can support Ryan’s mission is by picking up any trash you see on the ground—especially plastic bottles, bags, straws, and containers.
“It’s tough when you’re busy or in the middle of something,” Ryan acknowledges, “but every little bit can help. It’s essential to me, and it’s awesome when it is to other people, too.”
You can also follow Ryan on Facebook and Instagram @RyansRecycling to learn about different ways to recycle the right way.
Ryan also started a helpful non-profit you can donate to called Project 3R, which educates kids and adults worldwide about the importance of recycling and organizes community cleanups across the planet.
Mario is living the dream working as a writer and brand storyteller for one of the most iconic and impactful companies in the world, Caterpillar. Raised in the Motor City (Detroit, Michigan), he appreciates solidly built, well-engineered vehicles and enjoys sharing his passion for classic cars and modern Cat machines with his equally enthusiastic wife and son.
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