Cleveland State teams up with Rust Belt Riders to divert food from landfills

Cleveland State University teamed up with Rust Belt Riders to divert its food waste from going to landfills. The company started in 2014 to provide Northeast Ohio with a clean and timely alternative to landfills.

The university’s Viking Food Company has made it a priority to minimize food waste. They have done so in multiple ways: reducing waste before it’s generated and implementing composting programs in places that are possible.

“We reduce food waste across our operations with the dual goals of conserving resources and keeping food out of landfills,” a statement reads on their website. “Across our operations, we have established practices from initial purchase to final waste disposal that decrease the overall cost of waste both environmentally and financially.”

That partnership has worked with Rust Belt Riders, announcing that they have diverted 10,600 pounds of food scraps from entering the landfill in 2022.

“We are huge believers in education and are proud to be composting with Cleveland State University,” Rust Belt Riders released in a statement on Instagram. “This year, we have collectively diverted 10,600 {pounds} of food scraps from the landfill.”

Rust Belt Riders

Daniel Brown, a co-founder of Rust Belt Riders, said the idea originally started as a community garden at East 40th and St. Clair named Rust Belt Garden. He soon realized that he wanted to get involved in the local food community somehow and make a difference in the world. 

Reconnecting with Michael Robinson, co-founder, they talked about the kind of world they wanted to see and how they could help make that happen.

“I wanted to get involved in the local food community in some way,” Brown said in an interview. “We got to chatting about the kind of world we wanted to see, the kind of work that we wanted to do, how we wanted to do it.”

Brown and Robinson would eventually realize that there was a missing connection in the farm-to-table movement. Their solution was to ensure food scraps returned to gardens and farms in the form of compost.

Both were working at a farm and table restaurant called Spice Kitchen and Bar, located on the corner of West 58th Street and Detroit Avenue at the time, and asked if the company would pay for the service. They agreed, and soon Brown and Robinson would-be business partners, though they weren’t though they were not sure of where this new endeavor would take them.

“We cobbled together a few thousand dollars,” Brown said. “We bought a mountain bike and had a trailer welded to the back of the mountain bike, and we started taking out food scraps like 300 pounds at a time, first from {Spice Kitchen and Bar} and then from other cafes and restaurants that we had friends working at.”

In the early years, Brown said they learned a lot about composting, how to run a business, and most importantly, what they were doing. Was it business, a nonprofit, or just a strange side gig?

“We landed on the idea of, we really want to be an organization that not only is doing good environmental work but is a model of how we think businesses should operate,” Brown said. “From our very inception, we had intended to become a workaround cooperative so that the people that are participating in the creation of the company and the operation of the company had a say in how we grew and the directions in which we grew.”

Rust Belt Riders would formally start in 2014.

The Process

Now, Rust Belt Riders collect food scraps from businesses, organizations, schools, offices, healthcare facilities, cafes, grocery stores, residences, and much more.

Brown said that over 250-300 businesses and that 2500-3000 households are using their services.

They offer two programs for residents, a drop-off program and a pickup program.

You pay a monthly membership for the drop-off program, and you take your food scraps to a drop-off location. The pickup program provides you with a bin for your food scraps, and then Rust Belt Riders come and pick up the bin.

“So anything that a human can eat can go into our bins that we provide you with,” Brown said. “We aggregate all of that material to a composting facility.”

The composting facility mixes the food scraps with wood chips and other carbon-heavy materials like leaves.

The composting sites that Rust Belt Riders use follow the national organic program standards, which are the most rigorous set standards to create high-quality compost.

“That compost is full of nutrients that plants can access,” Brown said. “Really high-quality compost that you’d want to use in your own backyard.”

Can more be done?

According to Brown, Rust Belt Riders picked up four and a half million pounds of food scraps in 2021, but the company doesn’t want to stop there.

“Four and a half million is a big, big number that we’re really, really proud of. It’s barely scraping the surface in terms of the total amount of food waste being generated in our region,” Brown said. “The most environmentally friendly business that we could possibly work with is one that puts us out of business.”

Right now, Rust Belt Riders are only working with the Viking Food Company. Brown wants to encourage students to get involved, and they would be willing to develop a solution for dorms to divert their food scraps in partnership with CSU.

“If there are any students that are reading this that do want to see a student drop-off service. Let’s talk. Let’s get it figured out how we can make that work because it’s definitely a thing that we can and should be doing,” Brown said.