Compost With a Meaning: Why the Rust Belt Riders Turned Table Scraps Into a Business

Written by: Howard Sinclair

A growing concern of American food consumers is how they can get fresh, nutritious food from local farms to their plates. However, an equally concerning matter that receives less attention is what happens to that food once it leaves those plates because it is likely that food will be disposed of in a landfill. In the United States, 103 million tons of food, approximately 40% of the nation’s food supply, is wasted every year. While some of this food waste is diverted into feeding farm livestock or recycled into compost, much of it is sent to landfills where it decays and creates a variety of economic and environmental problems. One problem is the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on watering and transporting crops that are sent to landfills. Another is the creation of methane gas, a greenhouse gas nearly 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, from decomposing food. 

In an effort to combat food waste in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014, Dan Brown and Michael Robinson co-founded Rust Belt Riders, a composting service based in Northeast Ohio. Brown and Robinson collected food scraps from commercial businesses and delivered them to local gardens and composting sites on their bikes. As of 2021, Rust Belt Riders has greatly expanded their operations by employing 16 people, cooperating with 250 commercial organizations, and offering pick-up and drop off services to 1,500 residential households. Rust Belt Riders has also furthered their capacity to process food waste into compost by licensing their own composting facility where they add organic material to the food waste before following a rigorous set of procedures set by the National Organic Program. The final product is their signature Tilth Soil compost that is purchased by farmers, gardens, and individuals alike.

In addition to combating food waste, Rust Belt Riders was also started with the intention of providing direct benefits to the local communities of Northeast Ohio. In an interview with co-founder Dan Brown, he explains how his passion for food preservation began at home as family meals were a gathering place that strengthened his familial bonds and illustrated the community-building potential of food. With a desire to gain a better understanding of the communal benefits of food and the issues related to implementing them, Brown engaged in a variety of food waste related disciplines. These included participating in community gardens, concentrating in food studies during college, and, of course, co-founding Rust Belt Riders. The most apparent services Rust Belt Riders provides to the NEO community are making environmentally sustainable food disposal methods more accessible, cautioning against the danger of food decomposing in landfills, and demonstrating the nourishment that food can still provide even when discarded. Brown also explains that by being a for-profit business, Rust Belt Riders can act as a wealth building agent in a community, which they put into practice by providing satisfactory starting wages of $20 an hour and health care and benefits for full-time employees. 

The successful growth of Rust Belt Riders illustrates the potential for innovation and economic growth in the Northeast Ohio agriculture sector as it has established a strong market for sustainable food waste disposal. Rust Belt Riders also demonstrates the innovations that can take place in the practice of business itself. In addition to the wages and benefits mentioned earlier, every employee of Rust Belt Riders has the opportunity to become a worker-owner of the company, challenging the conventional hierarchical structure of business. Furthermore, by being a business rather than a non-profit, Rust Belt Riders can provide unique services such as creating wealth in communities and receiving donations and grants that can and have gone toward researching more efficient methods to reduce food waste. Most importantly, Rust Belt Riders illustrates the capacity that individuals have in positively impacting their community. Rust Belt Riders was started by two individuals who took the initiative in addressing an issue they found concerning and as a result created a successful business that increases their capacity to fight food waste and support their community through sustainable services and providing valuable income. 

Dan of Rust Belt Riders hopes to continue making alternatives to food disposal in landfills more accessible to the communities of Northeast Ohio and beyond. Rust Belt Riders is currently looking toward collaborating with local communities and governments in an effort to further expand their composting infrastructure and increase their capacity to convert food waste into compost. For more information about Rust Belt Riders, you can explore their services and soils on their website.

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