Composting with the Rust Belt Riders

Michael Robinson is probably one of the happiest trash guys in Cleveland. Or anywhere, for that matter. When I meet him outside Spice Restaurant, he’s just hopped out of a white cargo van and is sorting through a plastic bin of vegetable scraps.

Michael: Grapefruit rinds, this looks like cilantro. Back ends of onions.

Sorting through stuff like this is his job. For a company he co-created last summer: Rust Belt Riders Composting. So, yes, he’s a garbageman, in a sense. But he and his partner, Dan Brown, have much grander ambitions than just clearing waste away and turning it into compost.

Dan: Forty percent of all food grown in this country is thrown away, and one in six people are food insecure in this country. Those are numbers that shouldn’t sit well with anyone.

Forty percent of all food works out to about 20 pounds of perfectly good food per person, per month, thrown away. And that’s not all.

Dan: Compostables are the number one thing going to landfills, period. If you could take that out of landfills you get a lot smaller carbon footprint, community health is improved, access to nutrition is improved.

Dan’s composting education started at a community garden he was running. The soil quality wasn’t great, so he started collecting kitchen scraps and coffee grounds from some of his neighbors. Then one of the big commercial composting outfits in town went out of business. Dan and Michael scooped up the clients who’d been left behind — mostly grocery stores and restaurants.

A year and a half later, they’re growing exponentially. To date, they’ve taken in a total of about 250,000 pounds of food waste. But by this time next year, they’ll be picking up that same amount monthly. It all goes to Rid-All Green Partnership on Cleveland’s East Side, where it’s processed into soil for local farms.

Josh Woo: It’s like the end and the beginning.

That’s Josh Woo, Spice’s chef.

Josh: We have our own farm, so those things that were grown there are going to become compost at the farm.

Ben Bebenroth, who owns Spice, is supportive too, even if he also has fun busting the guys’ chops from time to time.

Dan: I remember him saying the first few times we serviced them, “There’s Dan Brown and Michael Robinson with the shittiest job in Cleveland! And they made it themselves!”

But these guys don’t view their jobs as shitty. Far from it. That’s because they feel like they’re doing so much good, on their own terms. During the twice-weekly pickup at Spice, Michael takes a break to play some tunes on a keyboard in the shape of a cat face. He works as a bartender at the restaurant on weekends, so this is his home away from home. Dan says that’s another part of Rust Belt’s mission — to stay rooted where they are.

Dan: Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and start their own business. But so many of these people are starting businesses hoping to be bought by Amazon or Apple. That doesn’t create any benefit for the community that the company is operating in. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re low-tech, neighborhood based, we don’t want to be bought by some bigger version of us.

Michael: The stuff we pick up goes back toward food production. And I think that really completes the food cycle we talk about. It solidifies the mission of the restaurant. The stuff that can’t be used goes back to grow more food.