Organics recycler talks hardships during COVID-19 pandemic

Organics recycler talks hardships during COVID-19 pandemic

Rust Belt Riders co-founder Daniel Brown sheds some light on the reality many food waste collection services face in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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April 8, 2020

Organics recyclers are facing tense times as measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 begin to impact community composting efforts. With many of these small-scale companies depending on universities and restaurants for a majority of their collection volumes, mass closings across the U.S. have left collection services in a tight spot.

Cleveland-based Rust Belt Riders has seen these effects firsthand, making the difficult decision to temporarily pause services until further notice on March 30.

“We decided it was best to suspend as many services as we could without putting ourselves in too dire of a financial predicament,” says Daniel Brown, co-founder of Rust Belt Riders. While waste pickup and disposal are considered an essential service under Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home-order, the Rust Belt Riders team wanted to figure out how to responsibly support its clients and community.

Since 2014, Rust Belt Riders has been working with individuals and organizations across northeast Ohio to provide a clean and timely alternative to landfills for their food waste. The company collects organics from both businesses and residential customers and converts this material to compost, which it sells. Partnering with clients such as Cuyahoga Community College, Chipotle and the Cleveland Clinic, the business has seen a sharp decline in collections amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ohio was among the first states to close all schools and restaurants,” says Brown. “We service a few dozen school buildings and a dozen more restaurants, so as the restaurants moved to takeout only, their volumes were almost immediately cut in half, if not a fourth [of what it was originally]. In addition, schools were shifting from traditional food service operations to preparing meals for students to be later delivered.”

Prior to closing, the company reached out to its clients to ask how the implications of COVID-19 would impact their operations and what changes would be made. Rust Belt Riders then used this information as a base point to modify and adapt their service delivery schedule to better fit the needs of their customers.

“The sobering reality is that, I think that a lot of the restaurants that were forced to close have seen the reports [that] anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of restaurants won’t reopen [following the pandemic], and when they do, it’s going to be a very different sort of service offering and [change[ the way that restaurants function,” says Brown.

With residential collection being the only revenue supporting the business currently, Brown says he has been blown away by the level of support that its members have shown despite not receiving a service. Although subscription members were given the opportunity to be refunded or cancel their membership, many have continued to pay their monthly fees. “It’s their dollars that our allowing us to continue to pay rent, our debt obligation and things like that,” Brown adds.

In order to make the best of this unexpected change in its business, Brown says Rust Belt Riders plans to use this opportunity to ensure they’re being more thoughtful and intentional about how they provide organics collection.

“We didn’t make this decision lightly, we view ourselves as essential, we view ourselves and our services as core to the kind of society we want to see emerge and develop, and so to not provide the service at this time is one that is sort of painstakingly arrived at,” he says. “The life of a cook, or a chef or a small-business owner has never been easy … but I’m excited to see what comes out after this.”