Growing a grassroots composting movement

Growing a grassroots composting movement

What started with two men on bicycles, Rust Belt Riders has grown its composting services company into a communitywide movement.

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July 2, 2018
Megan Workman
Association news Commercial Waste Organics Zero Waste to Landfill

What started as two guys on two wheels picking up commercial compost in Cleveland has grown into a communitywide movement.

Rust Belt Riders picked up its first load of compost from Spice Kitchen & Bar in northeast Ohio’s Gordon Square Arts District on June 1, 2014. Since that first haul, Rust Belt Riders has diverted more than 2.5 million pounds of organics from landfills.

The company also has upgraded its mode of transportation: Co-founders Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson initially manned their routes on bicycles with customized trailers, riding from one business to the next to collect bins of old food.

Today the team of five employees travels between the 80 different locations Rust Belt Riders services using one of three trucks: a cargo van with a lift gate, an 18-foot box truck with a lift gate and a small truck for lighter loads.

Loading logistics

Collection services, which can include one-time or multiple pickups in a week, include swapping out the food waste-filled bin with a clean one and weighing, recording and eventually processing the organics into compost. Brown says the company tracks data “as meticulously as possible.” From weighing every load and reporting back to clients, to route optimization and ensuring they are driving the tightest routes, collecting data is critical to Rust Belt Riders.

Jesse Williams, the company’s first hire and third employee, serves as director of operations. Nathan Rutz is the director of soil and Jeff Thaler also helps with hauling when he isn’t working on his own startup, Lettuce Tree.

Photo: Jacob Koestler

“We have to think of this like a logistics company,” Brown says.

“We try to provide the whole services suite to make using our services as easy as possible,” Brown continues. “We’ve continually refined and improved things over time and that process will never stop.”

In addition to collection services, the company offers workshops and education opportunities, zero waste events and soil consultations.

Brown credits the Cleveland community and its interest in local food and farm-to-table measures for part of the company’s initial success.

“We saw the emergence in local food and the farm-to-table movement and asked, ‘Why aren’t they equally concerned where the food goes after they interact with it?’” Brown says of Rust Belt Rider’s beginnings. “Let us manage your food waste.”

He adds, “I realized both the struggles and the opportunities that a city like Cleveland has.”

In the four years since its first pickup, Rust Belt Riders has experienced those struggles and opportunities and continues to grow from what the team learns as it goes.

Photo: Jacob Koestler

Traceable supply chain

Brown and Robinson met in Chicago while in college. Equipped with a community service scholarship at DePaul University (Robinson graduated from Loyola University Chicago), Brown says he worked with numerous nonprofit organizations in and around Chicago, familiarizing himself with the different issues related to food waste. After learning about everything from food access and climate change to public health, landfills and waste, Brown set out to change how organics were being processed in his home state.

The two brought their new knowledge to Cleveland and began their grassroots work in winter 2013. Rust Belt Riders reached out to family and friends for fundraising, helping the company to purchase boxes for housing businesses’ compost and a customized trailer to transport them via bicycles.

“We didn’t have a business plan yet, but we had the goal,” Brown says. “We started on bikes because it was our primary mode of transportation. We didn’t have a couple thousand dollars to buy a truck or cargo van, so we made do with that we had.”

With workers riding bicycles, and weight as the biggest limiting factor, transporting 300 pounds was the maximum capacity that could be moved at one time. Therefore, the fee structure initially was by the pound. The limiting factor for the composting company today is space in its vehicles. Businesses now are charged each time their bin is emptied. Bin sizes vary based on individual business’s needs.

The companies Rust Belt Riders services vary as well. The list includes the Cleveland ClinicUniversity HospitalsCleveland Metroparks, the Jewish Federation of ClevelandAvon Lake City School District and other schools and many restaurants, among other businesses.

Their interest in Rust Belt Riders’ services also differ. Brown says University Hospitals has “the most sophisticated reason” for using this waste management service, saying, “When food waste goes to landfill, it produces methane and methane contributes to climate change, and one way they can invest in public health is ensuring their material is not going to landfill and instead goes to compost, which grows more food and feeds communities—that’s preventive medicine.”

For Phoenix Coffee Co., being able to trace the company’s entire supply chain is most important. Brown explains, “They can tell you the name of the farmer growing their coffee, and after they put all that time and energy into sourcing, they’re equally concerned of where their material ends up,” he says. “All of that is baked into the price of a cup of coffee. You’re not just buying a cup of coffee, you’re buying the values and supply chain that is traceable. We get to be an extension of that.”

“Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, food waste is something you really should be concerned about.” Daniel Brown, co-founder, Rust Belt Riders

For every new business, Rust Belt Riders performs a waste audit. The audit lasts either one week or until the Rust Belt Riders bin is full. The process starts with a staff training and introduction to the importance of food waste diversion. The company explains what can and cannot go inside the bin, the significance of contributing to the community and where the food goes after it is collected, among other concerns. Rust Belt Riders already has profiles put together for schools, cafés, hospitals and other types of businesses as a blueprint to go off of to determine what size bin to use—which factors in variables such as the number of people the business serves, equipment and location. Its first customers were coffee shops and restaurants the owners’ friends worked at across Cleveland, which helped influence their business model.

“Within nine months, the interest in our services kind of eclipsed any of our wildest dreams,” Brown says. “More and more people were trying to buy organic and local and it seemed like the logical next step in the food ecosystem was to take the food back to where you’re growing the local produce.”

Photo: Jacob Koestler

Stepping stones

Brown tells how community gardens served as “stepping stones” for Rust Belt Riders. The Cleveland area is dotted with community gardens, most of which are in place of former building structures and lack healthy soil due to the compacted ground beneath them. Since Rust Belt Riders needed somewhere to store the hundreds of pounds of food waste it collected weekly, the community gardens were ideal. Not only did they provide a place for the company to house its collected food waste, workers didn’t have to travel very far to get to their final destination, and the gardens could now create compost.

“Community gardens just happened to be situated in the communities we were serving,” Brown says. “We made agreements with those gardens that if they gave us access to the gardens, all of the compost we create is theirs to use.”

Brown says it also was a good selling point to restaurants: Pay us to pick up your food waste and you can outsource a sustainability initiative—composting your food scraps—to us.

In addition, Brown says it helped to build the community’s interest in composting due to the quirky nature of its business model. “I think the way we delivered our service was eye-catching: A handful of guys riding around on bikes pulling a trailer. The way that we started to deliver our service was sort of out of left field for some people and that was attention grabbing,” Brown says.

He adds, “We struck on something that was of interest even if it wasn’t expressly stated.”

The company moved into a 300,000-square-foot building in the last year called the Hamilton Collaborative, an outward-facing creative and economic hub near downtown Cleveland. Rust Belt Riders occupies 10,000 square feet of this space and shares a quarter-acre outside. This outdoor space is where Rust Belt Riders now processes its compost.

“We work collaboratively to support each other’s work and outsource things to people who are better,” Brown says of the Hamilton Collaborative.

Photo: Jacob Koestler

Working together

Working collaboratively and learning as they go is not new to the owners of Rust Belt Riders. Brown and Robinson have taken the top prizes in a couple of initiatives, helping them to invest more in their company.

For one, Rust Belt Riders won a $20,000 grant from SEA Change in March 2015. The social enterprise accelerator (SEA) program pairs business professionals with startups. Brown says this 12-week incubator pitch event helped him and Robinson to realize what their idea of waste management and composting services would look like as a business.

“It was from that we received our first substantial funding of $20,000,” Brown says. “That catapulted us in the first phase of growth.”

Rust Belt Riders also participated in the 12-week business incubator Core City Cleveland Impact Program through JumpStart Inc. The $10,000 prize garnered from this program helped the company build out its financial modeling tools, Brown says.

With this support in hand and increasing backing from the community, Rust Belt Riders already is preparing for what’s to come. Brown says the team is looking to incorporate worms into its compost to help enrich and more quickly break down the organics, sell its compost by the bag, and expand to residential services in the near future.

“Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, food waste is something you really should be concerned about,” Brown says.

The author is associate editor of the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at mworkman@gie.net.