Plastic Tree

Lara Ilao, Plastic Tree founder, picks up some reusable goods. Photo: C. Plume

Ever wonder where those goods you put in the recycling bin actually go? With all the news about China restricting US recycling imports and cities across the country downsizing their recycling programs, you certainly aren’t alone.

DC resident Lara Ilao decided to take this matter into her own hands. “Like many others, I was aware of the waste I produced. But, frankly, it’s difficult to reduce waste when you need to run an errand after work but before you pick up your kids from school, and you’re multitasking homework and meal prep among other things. I realized I was throwing items in my recycling bin – jars, cardboard boxes, flower planters – things that could be reused in their current state. Instead, these goods were being compacted and broken down into supposedly recyclable elements. I suspected others shared my frustrations. I decided to find out if there was a way to collect and actually reuse these items. In January 2019, I established Plastic Tree LLC” (

With a Plastic Tree subscription, customers receive a 32-gallon heavy duty “REUSE!” bin. Anything that can be reused for its original purpose – think empty beer and wine bottles, takeout containers, bubble-wrap – can be placed in the bin.

Plastic Tree collects the goods weekly and seeks end markets for them. In a further commitment to the environment, Plastic Tree operates a 100% zero-emission fleet for its waste collection services.

Ilao notes, “We had a soft launch in September 2019 and began our REUSE collection in October. Currently we’re servicing single-family homes as well as apartment and condo buildings across nine DC neighborhoods.”

So far, Plastic Tree has recovered a lot of padded envelopes, beer bottles, icepacks and polystyrene (Styrofoam) coolers. But it also receives some unusual items. According to Ilao, “One customer gave us a box of plastic reels left over from an architectural firm project. It’s fun to get these sort of items as it forces us to be creative as we think about reuse opportunities. We’re still noodling on how to reuse those reels! A STEM class project? A local artist?”

Plastic Tree is storing collected goods in a 1,200-square-foot warehouse, accumulating inventory and determining what products and volume it has to offer. A partner in the food service industry has provided access to commercial dishwashers to sanitize materials.

Ilao is beginning to reach out to local businesses about the products they have available. “Plastic Tree is focused on a reverse logistics supply chain,” she explains. “We also want our service to encourage more circular schemes for reuse across the District – and elsewhere. We’re focused on collecting used materials and getting them from point A to point B so they can be reused.”

In response to COVID-19, Plastic Tree is also collecting medical supplies – face masks, plastic gloves, soap, paper towels, disinfectant wipes and dishwasher and laundry detergent pods, which it will donate to hospitals and clinics, shelters and food kitchens across DC. “Plastic Tree is coordinating pick-up and drop-off of donated items to minimize face-to-face interaction.”

Waste reduction has long been a part of Ilao’s DNA. “I’ve cared about the environment from an early age. In high school, I started and ran our aluminum can recycling program for four years. I organized a group of grade 7-12 students to crush cans after school every Thursday, and found parent volunteers to drive the cans to the recycling center. The money we earned went back to the school.”

Ilao wanted to show her children her commitment to the environment and her gumption to start her own business. She notes, “Prior to Plastic Tree, I worked in emergency management law. We touched on environmental issues such as climate change and rising sea levels, but I always wanted to focus on waste. When China announced its recycling import restrictions policy in July 2018, I started thinking more seriously about my business idea. When China officially stopped accepting our waste, I launched my company.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Plastic Tree and perhaps even signing up for a subscription or becoming a business partner, drop a line at Earth Day is turning 50 this year, and maybe this is your way to celebrate!

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer and a blogger for the DC Recycler:; Twitter: @DC_Recycler. She is also the chair of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, but the perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.