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Ryan Hickman of Ryan’s Recycling: “Spread the word to get others involved”

Define the problem or what you’d like to see changed. Determine what you can do to help — don’t feel like you have to do too much. Spread the word to get others involved. Don’t give up. It’s not a race or a competition. As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I […]

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Define the problem or what you’d like to see changed.

Determine what you can do to help — don’t feel like you have to do too much.

Spread the word to get others involved.

Don’t give up.

It’s not a race or a competition.


As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Hickman.

Eleven-year-old Ryan Hickman has become an international icon for recycling and environmental awareness. Ryan started Ryan’s Recycling when he was just three years old and has since recycled over 1.2 million bottles and cans (over 67 tons) over the past eight years in his effort to clean up the planet and to keep pollution out of our oceans and landfills. Ryan leads and organizes weekly beach clean-up events in his community and he travels internationally speaking about recycling and saving our planet from plastic pollution. Ryan started a recycling program within his elementary school and Ryan also volunteers his time recording educational videos for schools and inspiring others all across the world through his recycling education events and his passion to make the world a cleaner place.

Ryan’s story of recycling went viral in December of 2016 and since that time, has had an amazing 200+ million people watching his videos on social media. He’s a proud supporter of The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, CA and he donates proceeds from his Ryan’s Recycling branded apparel to help with sea lion and seal rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts.

Ryan is a proud recipient of the CNN Young Wonder award and he’s been named one of the top 100 Most Influential People of Orange County, CA and one of the top ten kids changing the world by MSN. Ryan’s been listed as one of Reader’s Digest Top Kids of the Decade Changing the World List, he’s been featured in TIME for KIDS and National Geographic magazines as well as being a guest on The Ellen Show, Little Big Shots and The Today Show. Ryan is also a top 20 finalist for TIME magazine’s 2020 Kid of the Year.

Ryan is a youth ambassador for Recycle Across America and has volunteered his time to be featured in publication ads and videos for their organization to raise awareness about recycling.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

Well, I’m only 11 so I guess I’m still growing up! I live in San Juan Capistrano, California and I’m an only child. We live near the beach so it’s been important to me to take care of the ocean however I can. I’ve been doing beach clean ups with my dad since I can remember. My story went viral a few years ago and since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the country and to a few places out of our country to speak about recycling and taking care of our environment. I’ve probably experienced a little more travel than your average eleven-year-old but I’m still a kid and I love riding my bike and collecting coins when I’m at home.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Probably the organization that has made an impact on me the most is the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California. I’ve been going there since I was a baby and helping their organization is important to me. I think what they do is amazing. They rescue seals and sea lions that need help surviving and they get them healthy and then release them. Sometimes the animals are caught in fishing lines or injured in some way and sometimes it’s little babies that for whatever reason don’t have their mom with them. My favorite memory of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center is being awarded their Philanthropist of the Year Award in 2017. I’ve also been at many seal and sea lion releases so it’s always special to me to see the animals who are rehabilitated get back to their natural environment. I donate proceeds from the shirt sales on my web site and encourage people to support them at my clean up events.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

I started Ryan’s Recycling just by picking up our neighborhood recyclables from all the houses. It quickly turned into many more neighborhoods by just word of mouth. Over the years since I started, I’ve been able to lead recycling awareness and educational events at schools and speak about what I do to thousands of people around the world. I think that when all of us do our best to recycle and pick-up trash when we see it, it makes a huge difference. I’m just trying to get everyone to recycle what they can each day. I get a lot of emails and messages from social media asking me how to recycle in places like Africa and India. Because of that, I started a non-profit organization called Project3R. It’s just getting off the ground but it will help educate and support recycling around the world. Hopefully I’ll get to go to some of the countries that need help and I can teach them how to recycle in their communities too!

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

I’ve been recycling since I was three but it really inspired me to do more when I would see trash at the beach or in the ocean. I watched a video on YouTube of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. It really bothered me to see that and I realized then that if I could teach people how to do better with our environment, then maybe I could make a difference and less trash would be going in our ocean and our landfills. Did you know that it takes 600+ years for a plastic bottle to break down? Crazy right? That means all the plastic ever created that isn’t being recycled is either laying around, buried in a landfill or in the ocean. I find so many little pieces of plastic and those little juice pouch straw wrappers (and the straws too) on my weekly beach clean ups. Those are the type of items that birds and turtles and other animals eat because they think it’s food. Their stomachs get filled up with our trash and then they die of starvation. I always think that even just one more piece of trash picked up is making a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It’s hard to pick a favorite. I’ve got to do some amazing things like speak to 23,000 kids at Vancouver WE DAY in Rogers Arena about recycling. I’ve had people recognize me in airports and other cities around the world and tell me that they recycle now because they saw one of my videos. I got to be a guest on the Ellen Show. That was pretty cool. I took over Lebron James Instagram page for a day.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Actually, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they started recycling because they saw me doing it. I’ve heard from dozens of kids and their parents who tell me that they recycle now and help other organizations with donations from the proceeds they receive from recycling. One person is a 13-year-old boy named Tyler who started recycling with his organization CANS4CURES to save money to donate to JDRF for Diabetes research. I thought that was amazing. He and his dad are amazing.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think making a difference means doing something that impacts something or somebody else in a positive way. I know so many kids and adults that make a difference in so many different ways. My friends Khloe and Jahkil help the homeless and my friend Sammie focuses on her Kindness campaign and Buddy Benches in schools. My friend Afroz leads beach clean ups in India and now baby turtles are hatching on the beaches again after many years where it looked like a garbage dump. It’s pretty cool when people see somebody doing something positive and they start doing it too or support it because they see it is making the world a better place. Making a difference can be just giving a new pair of shoes to a homeless person that needs them or picking up a piece of trash from the ground instead of walking past it. You never know when it will have a ripple effect and make more of a difference than you see.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Define the problem or what you’d like to see changed.
  2. Determine what you can do to help — don’t feel like you have to do too much.
  3. Spread the word to get others involved.
  4. Don’t give up.
  5. It’s not a race or a competition.

I started out in my neighborhood wanting to recycle so cans and bottles didn’t go in the landfill or ocean. I wasn’t thinking about changing the world but I knew I could make a difference even in a small way close to home. I started doing beach clean ups and my parents have always supported me and have never made me do anything I didn’t want to do. I pass out postcards all the time explaining how people can help make a difference by recycling and I love talking to schools around the world. I always tell kids that they can follow their heart and sometimes it’s hard work and sometimes it seems like they might be the only one caring but you never know when another person sees you and wants to join your mission. I also tell people that it’s not a race or a competition. Do what you do because you love it and love making changes in the world. It doesn’t matter if someone else does more or less than you.

What are the values that drive your work?

I value having a clean planet and I also value animals lives not being affected by our pollution. I believe that anyone can make a difference and I value anyone’s efforts to try to be a changemaker.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

I’m pretty lucky that I get daily reminders in emails and social media messages. I have a lot of people telling me they appreciate what I do and urge me to keep up the good work. My dad says my superpower is my ability to focus.

I guess I would tell people to just remember what got them excited to make a difference in the first place and don’t try to do too much at once. Some days I don’t feel like recycling and that’s ok. I take a break and do it when I have time. I’m still a kid so there are days I’d rather ride my bike or watch tv. I would suggest setting a goal to reach so you have something to reach to. It’s ok to change your goal too. My original goal was to recycle twelve houses worth of cans and bottles every Friday and maybe someday recycle 50,000 cans and bottles. I’ve recycled 1.2 million now so I’ve had to adjust some goals along the way. I’m going to reach 1 billion someday.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

I would like to have a world where nobody litters, there isn’t any trash going in the ocean, single use plastic isn’t available and everyone realizes that what we do in our day to day lives affects the environment, the animals and basically the whole planet. I imagine a world where we have sustainability and we aren’t using up all the earth natural resources.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I would want to have all 50 of our states implement a bottle bill program (instead of just 11 of them) so that people could bring their plastic bottles to redemption centers. I know this would really make a big difference.

I would also love to build recycling processing centers all over the world. I get a lot of email from Africa and India specifically. They (and other areas) need help establishing places to recycle plastic so it’s not piling up in the environment. I’d love to have single use plastic eliminated and replaced with some sort of biodegradable material. I speak to so many companies that are making alternatives to plastic. I think we’re going to see a lot of great alternatives become available.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

That’s a tough one. I think maybe if kids are taught there are no limits to what they can do and their ideas are important, it goes a long way. I’ve been super lucky to have amazing teachers that have supported me the whole way through my journey. My first-grade teacher was the one who got me interviewed for the first time by our local newspaper. Thank you to Mrs. Devaney!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If an eleven-year-old kid like me can make a positive impact, you can too. I started out wanting to make a difference in my community and it’s spread to the entire world because people saw a kid doing his best to change the world. Even if you can make one other person consider duplicating your actions to make a difference, it’s worth it. When all of us just do a little bit each day to make the world better, it adds up to a huge difference.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Can I list two and double my chances?

  1. President Obama
  2. Apple CEO, Tim Cook

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Everyone can follow me on Instagram at @ryans_recycling or on Facebook at @ryansrecycling or on my web site at www.ryansrecycling.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you!


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