The composting and soil company Rust Belt Riders recently added Heinen’s grocery as a customer, adding to its growth during the pandemic. Now, it’s converting to a worker-owned cooperative to give its employees a stronger voice and a share of the profits.
This summer, Rust Belt Riders started composting food scraps at 19 Heinen’s grocery store locations in Cleveland. The firm also expanded its residential food scrap pick-up and drop-off services during the pandemic to serve a growing market of people cooking at home.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said co-founder Daniel Brown, who started RBR as a bicycle-driven composting service in 2014. “Covid pushed us to offer more services for residents. With restaurants closing, we needed to meet people where they were, which was at home, cooking.”
Benjamin Justham, manager of facilities for Heinen’s, said the partnership with RBR allows the company to not only keep food scraps out of the landfill, but also to fuel the growth of the circular economy here in Cleveland.
What you can do: In addition to Rust Belt Riders, learn about backyard composting at cuyahogarecycles.org/composting_and_yard_waste
Rust Belt Riders composts food scraps into its own unique soil brand, Tilth Soil, which it sells to home gardeners and small farmers. Those farmers turn the soil into more vegetables. Hence the “circular” in “circular economy.”
Now, with the help of Heinen’s food scraps, RBR will be able to create more soil. Heinen’s hopes that RBR can sell that Tilth Soil to some of its small farmers, including Amish farmers in Northeast Ohio, with whom the grocery chain already works.
“We’re excited that the veggies we get to sell at the store could be grown in compost that’s made from scraps we produce at the store,” Justham said. “That full cycle is what we’re super excited about.”
A worker-owned cooperative
This month, Rust Belt Riders also finalized its transformation into a worker-owned cooperative, meaning that all employees who have logged more than 3,000 hours with the company – about a year and a half of full-time work – are eligible to become worker-owners. These worker-owners can participate in decision-making and earn a dividend or share of the profits the company makes.
Michael Robinson, who co-founded RBR with Daniel Brown, said on the one hand, the recently-signed co-op agreement is the culmination of years of hard work, but in other ways it isn’t new at all.
“We put a lot of effort into creating a culture of ownership,” he said. “We were already walking like a co-op, talking like a co-op.”
All employees are currently paid the same hourly wage, and they’ve been part of transparent financial decision-making for years, he said.
Brown said the transition is partially about ensuring that workers are treated fairly and earn a living wage, points to which the company is committed. RBR has a goal of increasing wages to as high as $35 per hour, and all employees receive health care benefits. The company does not currently have a 401(k) or retirement program.
“We could pay minimum wage [to our employees] … but it’s just as important how you do the work as what you do,” Brown said.
The co-op model also allows RBR to raise money from investors, Robinson said, who become Class B owners in the company.
Nathan Rutz, director of soil with RBR and a new worker-owner, said the co-op model reflects how the company is already run. “We don’t have bosses here, we really don’t,” said Rutz, who was hired in 2017. “It rules. There’s a sense of responsibility and buy-in from creating this sort of horizontally-organized organization.”
Although the firm’s racial diversity does not yet reflect the community at large, Robinson wants to change that. “We’re committed to being an anti-racist organization,” he said.
Growth through COVID
Rust Belt Riders has grown during Covid, despite the downturn in business from struggling restaurants. RBR has expanded its drop-off and pick-up services as far east as Cleveland Heights and as far west as Rocky River.
Today, the company has 20 full-time and part-time employees, up from 16 before the pandemic. That’s a long way from the days when it was a small composter hauling food scraps by bicycle. That growth has been fueled in part by an increase in residential customers – which have grown to about 2,000 – as well as the addition of clients like University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University.
Rust Belt Riders is one of Northeast Ohio’s circular economy success stories. The circular economy – as opposed to the linear economy – aims to keep materials in circulation as long as possible and out of the waste stream. Recently, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and the city of Cleveland launched Circular Cleveland to advance the circular economy locally.
Christopher Feran, director of coffee with Phoenix Coffee Company, which is also an employee-owned company, said RBR helped Phoenix compost 74,000 pounds of food waste in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available. Although the cost of composting is slightly higher than traditional trash pick-up, it’s an investment that aligns with the company’s commitment to sustainability.
Anthony Verona, Sodexo culinary director at University Hospitals, also sang the praises of Rust Belt Riders, saying the company visits three times a week and hauls away thousands of pounds of waste in large totes.
Heinen’s has also already composted more than one million pounds of food scraps since it hired Rust Belt Riders to haul away food scraps this summer.
“Composting is an expense, but it’s a conscious decision Heinen’s has made,” Justham said. “It’s the drive to not fill our landfills. That’s why we do it. We have to get rid of the waste, so why not do it in the right way?”
This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, La Mega Media, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.