Practicing resurrection: Clevelanders turn food waste into soil

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A man stands in front of a composting facility.
Nathan Rutz stands at the composting facility Rust Belt Riders leases and operates, in Independence, Ohio, Nov. 18. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Rust Belt Riders started with two people on bikes, picking up food waste to compost for community gardens and small farms, in 2014. The company now composts at a nearly 2-acre site in Independence, Ohio, collecting about 125 tons of food scraps per month and making its own soil blends to sell under its subsidiary, Tilth.

Co-founders Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson were inspired partly by their work in the food service industry. Brown was fascinated by the amount of food that goes in and out of grocery stores. While he worked in food service, Brown also worked or interned in fields including education and community development. He views Rust Belt Riders as a merging of all of those interests.

“I think that there’s something to be said about urban planning when it comes to food waste and how cities are designed,” he said. “It’s really hard to look at what we do in a narrow lens.”

The company offers pick up and drop off memberships, which allow people to either have food waste picked up or drop it off at a bin, as well as commercial services for organizations and businesses.

“Over time, we saw a business opportunity and then turned an odd hobby into a business,” Brown said.

While they used to work with community gardens and small farms to compost on site, the amount of material they needed to drop off at those sites soon became too much. So, they began working on their own composting site, and to create soil blends, they turned to Nathan Rutz.

Soil

Rutz, director of soil for the company, first started learning about composting after he bought a house in Cleveland, in 2013. He wanted to garden — his family had always gardened — so he had a soil test done. It came back with high lead content.

He tried buying some soil from a landscaping company, but wasn’t happy with the quality. So, he decided to make his own. He started picking up coffee grounds from coffee shops by bicycle.

Rutz thought that with the coffee grounds and coffee filters, he had all he needed to create good soil. But when he looked into his compost pile and found a blue, weird-smelling material, he realized it was more complicated than that.

So, he started taking online classes with Dr. Elaine Ingham, then a scientist with the Rodale Institute. Then, he went down the rabbit hole.

“I just fell in love with the process,” he explained.

Resurrection

For Rutz, composting is an almost religious experience. He referenced the last line of “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” a poem by Wendell Berry: “Practice resurrection.”

“I’ve never felt a more sanctified moment than in the literal witness of practicing resurrection there, with the cast-off food scraps of society becoming a foundation for good life in the future,” Rutz explained.

Rutz studied philosophy, with minors in physics and chemistry. Before getting involved with composting, he worked for several nonprofits, many of them focused on the environment. The founders for Rust Belt Riders approached him about joining them not long after the 2016 election. Rutz had been working on voter registration for a nonprofit, so it was good timing.

While he enjoyed his work with nonprofits, he likes working with soil better. He gets to work outside. And, Rutz said, he felt like much of his work at nonprofits involved preventing bad things from happening. With soil, he feels like he’s more focused on making good things happen, as he helps turn food waste into soil to grow more food.

A man wearing a mask stands next to a stack of bags of soil in a warehouse.
Daniel Brown, one of the co-founders of Rust Belt Riders, shows off some of the bagged soil blends the company sells through its subsidiary, Tilth. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Compost

But composting involves more than just food waste. In addition to that, Rutz uses materials like peat moss, bone meal and leaves. At the composting site, there is a pile of leaves the size of a small house that comes mainly from yards in the nearby city Rocky River.

“A walk in the woods this time of year reminds you that the trees mulch themselves and recycle from year to year,” Rutz explained.

Growth

The company has come a long way from a few people on bikes collecting food waste. It now employs 10 people, and, Brown said, is likely to add another five in the next six months.

For a while, the company composted on a 500 square foot site in Cleveland. But no matter how efficiently Rutz and others worked, it wasn’t enough space.

So, this summer, it started leasing a larger composting facility and a pole barn for storing and packaging soil blends from Kurtz Bros., a landscaping supply company that Rust Belt Riders has long worked with.

At its office site, in Cleveland, Rust Belt Riders also has a room to test soil blends and a warehouse for the bagged soil.

There are plans to turn the business into a worker cooperative in January 2021. They’ve always done open bookkeeping and given employees opportunities to voice opinions and help make decisions, Brown said. This change will give full time employees more ownership.

“We think that how we do the work is just as important as what it is that we’re doing,” Brown said. “You could be paying minimum wage and exploiting your workers, while doing really amazing, inspiring work.”

Collaboration

The focus on collaboration goes further than within the business. Brown believes their growth is a testament to their community. Connections in the food and hospitality industry, and later in healthcare and higher education, have allowed them to expand.

They will never be as big as the waste management industry. But, because of their connections, they don’t have to be.

“In order to compete with economies of scale, you need economies of collaboration,” Brown said. “Collaborating with everyone allows us to compete and outwork more traditional business models, like waste management.”

He doesn’t expect to expand the area they collect food waste — about a 25 mile radius from the main office. But he wants to work with more municipalities and residents’ groups on collecting food waste. And he wants to expand the soil side of the business, adding more retail partners and selling in a wider area.

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