Scraps nourish Cleveland through Rust Belt Riders

Grounded by the pandemic, we’ve been gardening and cooking more than usual. That means laying down more soil and tossing out more scraps.

Story and photos by Grant Segall

Partner Daniel Brown at Rust Belt Riders' new composting yard

Partner Daniel Brown at Rust Belt Riders’ new composting yard

By Grant Segall

Grounded by the pandemic, we’ve been gardening and cooking more than usual. That means laying down more soil and tossing out more scraps.

So it’s good timing that Rust Belt Riders, a leading Cleveland compost business, has just expanded its quarters and services.

In May, the six-year-old company left its space in the Osborn Industrial Complex at Hamilton Avenue and East 55th Street. It opened an office and depot at 2701 St. Clair Ave. and a composting yard on two acres of Kurtz Bros. land in Independence. The yard has room for Rust Belt to grow from making 30 cubic yards of compost per month to 750.

“When the pandemic hit,” says Daniel Brown, who owns Rust Belt Riders with Michael Robinson, “we were uniquely situated to weather that storm.”

Brown, who was raised in South Euclid and went to St. Ignatius High School and DePaul University, was originally drawn back to Cleveland partly by its big nonprofit sector and its resurgent farms. He also knew that while hunger is common in Cleveland and beyond, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the world’s food goes to waste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, America’s share in 2010 came to about 133 billion pounds, costing $161 billion to grow, process, ship and send to landfills. There it gives off methane, a big cause of climate change.

After working at St. Martin de Porres High, LAND Studio, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and the locally sourced Spice Kitchen and Bar, Brown started a community garden at St. Clair and East 40th Street. He promptly learned that city soil is too compacted and polluted to farm. Farmers need to lay lots of better soil on top.

Brown’s friend Michael Robinson came to visit from Chicago and soon fell for Cleveland. The friends started gathering scraps with a mountain bike welded to a trailer—hence the name Rust Belt Riders. Now they and their eight workers (six full-time, two part-time) use two trucks and two vans.

The Land recently caught up with Rust Belt to learn about its latest moves.

Home pickups: The shutdown slimmed Rust Belt’s collections of food waste from businesses but fattened them from homeowners. The company has grown from two drop-off sites for 150 customers at this time last year to eight sites for about 800. It started home pickups this winter and serves about 130 customers now.

Food has more appeal on a plate than in a compost heap. But Brown considers compost a great ingredient.

“We do the quiet, important, unglamorous work behind the scenes,” says Brown. “We try to make the farmers and chefs look good.”

The company’s slogan is, “Feed people, not landfills.”

Expanding their reach: Rust Belt collects all kinds of solid food and compostable tableware and cutlery at about 160 institutions, such as University Hospitals, the Chagrin Falls Heinen’s, Jones Day and the Flying Fig. They also collect the same from some 130 homes in parts of Lakewood, Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights, Beachwood, South Euclid, East Cleveland and Euclid.

Brown says he’ll add nearby routes and sites if enough residents fill out a survey on his website. He hopes eventually to cover the county.

All this growth has cultivated something else that Cleveland needs badly — jobs. Rust Belt’s employees earn $20 per hour to start, and full-timers get health care.

Plans to choose from: Residents bring food waste to Rust Belt’s headquarters or drop it off at Lakewood, Fairview Park, Detroit Shoreway, Tremont, Bainbridge or two sites in Shaker Heights. Drop-off privileges cost $10 per month and pickup ones $30 to $40, depending on the length of contract.

Why pay to stock a business with raw materials, especially if your town hauls your trash for free? Brown says you’re saving your town’s coffers and our planet’s health. He thinks your town should give you a rebate in thanks.

Making soil: Rust Belt crews combine one-part compost with three parts wood chips from local tree crews to make a brand called Tilth Soil. Brown says it’s more alive and nurturing than the usual soil from big-box stores.

Composting isn’t easy, especially in bulk. Rust Belt pours out the scraps in long rows and rotates each pile every day or two for 45 days, keeping the innards between 130 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, killing off seeds, weeds and pathogens. The crews combine 900 pounds of compost with wood to make a cubic yard of soil.

Rust Belt sells and delivers three blends of soil: Sprout for starting seeds, Grow for raising plants outdoors and Bloom for raising them indoors. The soil is approved by Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and by Certified Kind. Rust Belt has shipped it as far as Missouri.

Good to grow: Like many local farmers and chefs, Brown says that Greater Cleveland is a good size for the food business: small enough for cheap land and short drives but big enough for plenty of customers who appreciate local, healthy fare.

Brown says he helped persuade the Ohio EPA to raise its limit on composting from 300 square feet to 500 on any parcel. He also helped Cleveland apply in June for U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to collect food waste at the West Side Market.

Mayor Frank Jackson’s cover letter says, “This project hopes to divert material away from landfills while supporting and sustaining a local ‘circular economy.’” The city hopes to hear back in September.

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture picked Cleveland to start one of the first five urban agriculture committees around the country. The missions will include reducing food waste.

The company has a few local competitors and 94 fellow members of the Community Composter Coalition, which stretches from Alberta to Costa Rica. Brown says most coalition members either collect or compost, not both like Rust Belt.

The coalition was set to convene in Cleveland this fall before the pandemic hit. Now Brown’s hoping to host in 2021.

Feeding the circular economy: Inorganic recycling is struggling locally and beyond, with falling prices and changing rules. Cleveland secretly stopped recycling this year, while Cuyahoga County has delayed its enforcement of a plastic bag ban until January 1st.

Brown says composting is steadier and surer. “What’s compostable today will be compostable tomorrow, while the mess that is recycling tries to reinvent itself.”

Rust Belt gets good reviews from customers. It has picked up scraps from chef Joshua Ingraham at three of his workplaces, the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus, Progressive Field and now Go Buddha Meals in Rocky River. Says Ingraham, “Rust Belt Riders helps us make sure the food goes back into soil, and soil goes into the vegetables we’re using.”

Rust Belt has expanded in Lakewood to three dropoff spots. Tristan Rader, a Lakewood council member at large, says, “Our drivers were thrilled that this group was picking up some of the load.”

Brown hopes to turn Rust Belt into a workers’ co-op. Meanwhile, he’s asking supporters to contribute more than scraps and fees. As of last Friday, he’d raised $8,925 in a campaign for $10,000 for operations at the new yard. The campaign ends Sept. 4th.

“It’s investing in your values,” says Brown.

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