At 7, this boy runs a company and saves for college

Ryan Hickman, now 7, began his recycling business at age 3½.

Story highlights

  • Ryan Hickman started recycling at 3½ years old and hasn't stopped since
  • He's saving for his college education, though he claims it's actually for a full-size trash truck

(CNN)It's never too early to start a business.

When he was 3½ years old, Ryan Hickman visited the rePlanet recycling center in California, and found his life's mission.
    The next day, as he greeted his dad, Damion, at their San Juan Capistrano driveway, he pointed down the street and made an announcement: "My new business! I'm going to pick up all the cans and bottles from everyone in the neighborhood."
    Today, at the ripe old age of 7, he is the CEO, manager and employee of Ryan's Recycling Company. He has 50 customers and over 200,000 bottles and cans in his recycling credit.
    Ryan Hickman's project won the attention of Ellen DeGeneres.
    Though Ryan says he doesn't remember what made it all start (It was over half his life ago!) he remains passionate about the reason. "It's because bottles get to the ocean and then animals get sick and die," he says.
    According to Damion Hickman, Ryan has saved over $11,000, which was matched by "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" last January. The money is going toward a college account, though Ryan says he wants to buy a full-size trash truck and eventually become a garbage man. In a joint interview with CNN, his father says they've designated it for college for the time being and by 18 Ryan can make the decision himself. "Yeah, but I want to buy a truck," Ryan insists.
    Ryan Hickman, age  3½, in his early recycling years.
    One of Ryan's favorite places is the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, to which he donates all his brand's T-shirt proceedings -- over $3,700 thus far. "I like to go there and look at sea lions, and the money that we donate to them gives them medicine and food," he says.
    Four years into the venture, neighbors have grown accustomed to the little boy who comes knocking for their recyclables, and the more enthusiastic ones call to ask for a pickup or even drop off bags at the Hickmans' door.
    At school, Ryan's favorite activity is helping the janitor, Mr. Jose, separate the trash.
    "My wife and I support him doing it and we told him that whenever he wants to stop he can," Hickman says. "I want to see him with friends but the recycling just makes him happy. He's actually recruited his friends now so it's Ryan and five of his friends helping Mr. Jose."
    Ryan and his classmates with Ryan's Recycling Company T-shirts.
    Hickman, a graphic designer and no more than an average recycler himself, emphasizes that it has all been "100% Ryan, though of course I'm the driver -- every three weeks or so we go to the recycling center -- and I also help him sort into glass, aluminum and plastic when it's a big pile."
    Despite the outpouring of support and gratitude, Hickman remains slightly cautious. "I try to discourage direct donations, I don't want people to think we're trying to make money off the kid," he says. "We certainly appreciate it and I realize it makes people feel good; 99% of the comments say how inspiring it is. But a fraction of the comments say 'the kid is a marketing tool for a mom and dad business' and we just try not to read them. I started typing a response once and stopped. I feel it's not worth it."