How Composting Can Create a Regenerative Food System (Feat. Rust Belt Riders)

Date: 3 Oct 2019 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Welcome back to the Composting for Community podcast! On this episode, host Linda Bilsens Brolis is joined by Michael Robinson, Co-Founder of Rust Belt Riders. Michael (pictured, third from left) explains how Rust Belt Riders is closing the local food system loop in Cleveland by collecting food scraps from restaurants and creating compost and soil blends for local food production. They also discuss:

  • How Rust Belt Riders grew from small-scale bike hauler to hauling more than 160,000 pounds of food scraps per month
  • How the Rust Belt Riders team takes a systems thinking approach in its work 
  • How community composting is a tool for building regenerative food systems and urban revitalization
  • Rust Belt Riders’ plan for expanding their composting capacity to pursue larger food scrap generators in their region

Listen to this episode, then check out more episodes of the Composting for Community Podcast.

The city has land, the city has buildings and infrastructure that aren’t currently being used, and we really see that as an asset. Because now we can use a systems thinking approach to solve a number of issues. We’re using these assets to create a prefigurative model of what a regenerative food system looks like.

Linda Bilsens Brolis Across the country. The community composting movement is growing small scale composting provides communities immediate opportunities for reducing waste, improving local soil, creating jobs, and fighting climate change. You’re listening to the composting for community podcast. We’ll will bring you stories from the people doing this work on the ground and in the soil to support this burgeoning movement. ILSR’s composting initiative convenes a coalition of community composters from around the country and beyond. These next few episodes feature interviews from our sixth national cultivating community composting forum in New York city. We talked to attendees about why community composting matters, how they are transforming the way their communities manage their waste and advice they have for fellow composters.

We’re recording from the sixth national cultivating community composting forum in New York city. And I am joined now by Michael Robinson, who is the co founder of Rustbelt riders in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s also an active member of the community composter coalition, which ILSR convenes. And Michael has been a very valuable member of the coalition steering committee for a number of years. So it is our pleasure to introduce you to him today. So Michael, say hello. Hello. And Michael, tell, tell our listeners about vest belt riders and how composting fits into your work.

Michael Robinson Yeah, so, um, Rust Belt Riders started about five years ago, um, co founder Daniel and myself. Uh, we, uh, went to school together, uh, in Chicago and we kind of knew each other a little bit then. And we mostly had friends that had told us that we would be really good friends and should probably work together cause we had similar interests. Uh, but I never really got to know Daniel too well. And then, uh, I was on a bicycle trip from Chicago to Philadelphia was the end destination and we had some equipment issues outside of Cleveland. So I had a couple of friends that were staying there. He was staying with another friend of mine. Uh, they were living together in Cleveland and uh, after we both graduated. So Dan moved back to Cleveland. Uh, and I, I went on this bike trip after I graduated and when the equipment started to, you know, not, not come through for us just outside of Cleveland, I gave him a call and they came and picked us up and Dan gave me a tour of the city and I, I fell in love with, with Cleveland.

I fell in love with its food. Um, the, there was a really awesome community garden infrastructure there too. There’s a lot of, uh, properties that formerly had houses on them that now, uh, they demo the house and it’s a land bank property and a lot of those are being used for community gardens, um, supported by the OSU extension there. So seeing the support from institutions and also from the communities around taking, uh, this land, um, and turning it into a place to be able to provide healthy food for the communities was really sounded really awesome to me. So he made a half joke of an offer we had at the time. He was actually working on one of these community gardens and could use an extra set of hands. So he made kind of a half joke of an offer at the time. There were two people staying in a one bedroom apartment and there was an attic and he said, if you want to, you know, move back in the springtime cause I came through in the fall, he’s going to want to come back in the springtime.

We can, uh, you know, we could use a set of hands in their community garden and you can live in the attic. And a few months went by and I gave him a call and I said, Hey, that attic, is it still available? Can we still do that? And uh, it all worked out. I ended up moving to Cleveland and, um, it was through working on the community gardens. And then, uh, we both started philosophy. So naturally, uh, after graduating with philosophy degrees, we were working in the service industry. So we were working at restaurant and bar tending and saw the, uh, we were working on this really awesome restaurant called spice kitchen and bar. It’s a farmer table restaurant in Cleveland and they’ve got a seven acre farm out in the Cuyahoga national Valley, uh, in the national park. I mean, so working in that restaurant really inspired us to figure out other ways to close loops and also seeing how depleted the soil was.

Uh, it was basically a really tiny layer of topsoil that they’d put on top of the fill for these old vacant lots. So we saw an opportunity to start with a very tangible, very tangible thing that we could take action on to be able to help cultivate healthy soil for these gardens while also solving, uh, a whole bunch of other problems. Uh, we take a systems thinking approach to our work and in kind of considering the places that composting connects to food, it connects to, to water retention. Uh, it connects to community. It connects to a waste diversion from, or material diversion from landfills. So decreasing the greenhouse gases that are being given off by the, by the landfills. We saw this one really high leverage point in composting food scraps from, from these restaurants. And then making sure that those got back to the community gardens to cultivate food for the neighborhood.

So we raised some money on a Kickstarter campaign for, from some family and friends and we bought a bicycle and a trailer. And, uh, we started hauling material 300 pounds at a time from the cafes and restaurants to the closest community garden and then helped work with them to, to process that material into compost. Um, that was, we, we were on bicycles for only about a year or so and we needed to meet the demand that we saw in, in the city and in our region. So today we haul 160,000 pounds a month. We run two box trucks, so we’re no longer on bicycles. We’re, we’re running box trucks and, uh, we got a Bobcat last year, which was huge for us. Our backs much appreciate it and also helped us to increase our processing capacity. So yeah, that’s the, you know, the, in a nutshell, that kind of trajectory from starting small scale on bicycles.

And then scaling to meet that demand. There’s a number of programs that we went through. Um, incubators, uh, went through C changes, social entrepreneurship accelerator jumpstart as a business accelerator in our region. So we had gone through those programs, a Goldman Sachs, 10,000 small businesses program. Uh, we went through and it was going through those programs that really helped two people that started this without any lick of business background through the support of our community. And these, uh, these people in our communities, uh, really helped us take this idea and turn it into a, turn it into a business. So it was really the support of our region, its resources, our awesome advisory board that we pulled together immediately because we knew that we needed to have people smarter than us to be able to help us learn how to do the things that we needed to do to make sure that this had staying power. So now we’re doing compass production. We’ve got soil blends under, uh, the name Tilth. So Tilth is where the soil blends are. And then we’ve got rust belt riders, which is the hauling company.

Linda Bilsens Brolis So awesome. That’s a great overview of what Rust Belt Riders does. And it sounds like you’re, you are meant to be in Cleveland, uh, and, uh, your colleague Nathan, um, on the, it’s all about the soils panel today at before. I’m just talking about, uh, systems thinking when it comes to the soil food web. So it sounds like you guys are integrating that kind of thinking into all of your business. Definitely. That’s great.
Michael Robinson I think that the other thing that I think is really, that I’m really grateful for, and I think we’re really fortunate to have met the team that we have. It started out with just Daniel and myself and then Jesse, Jesse Williams was the first person crazy enough to jump on board to this thing that was back in the day where we had a, we had a 3,600 square foot warehouse that we moved to. So as we grew, we moved to a, it was a warehouse apartment loft. And, uh, we moved out of the one bedroom and we’re running this out of our apartment, you know, loft space, uh, in, uh, one of Cleveland’s old industrial buildings. It was no longer being used like that anymore. And it was, you know, bringing Jesse on. Jesse’s amazing and, and again brings that same perspective to the work. Nathan, same thing.

Uh, you know, he was doing similar work as we were around the town and as we continued to grow, he’s, he’s been just an awesome, awesome person to work with. And then Joe, uh, joined us, uh, most recently he’s a botanist. Uh, Nathan also has a philosophy degree and Jesse has an environmental studies degree. So I think scope and this kind of generalist approach and kind of systems thinking perspective and understanding the interconnected nature of all of these things, like our team all takes that to heart for share. And, uh, when you’re bringing that to, you know, a team meeting where you have everybody kind of plugged into this approach leads to some pretty remarkable solutions to really hear your problems.

Linda Bilsens Brolis Yeah, you guys seem like a great team. It’s very inspiring to see you all work together. For those listening that might not know what the rust belt refers to. Can you explain that?
Yeah. So the, our city has seen a massive population decrease since, Uh, a number of the jobs that were there, uh, aren’t there anymore. The, we actually drove by the Lordstown, uh, facility, which was making all the Chevy cruises in the world. They just shut that one down too. And it’s just, I don’t know how many people were employed there, but it was, had to have been near the whole city that was there that was either employed by the factory or as some ancillary service at the factory. So the city has, the city has land, the city has buildings and infrastructure that aren’t currently being used. And we really see that as an asset of our city because now we can take, uh, this infrastructure, this leftover and this land and think about how we can use a systems thinking approach to solve a number of, a number of issues.

Everything from food security to water retention to fight runoff, uh, you know, helping to mitigate. Some of the algae blooms. Um, we see that as a resource that, you know, can be leveraged. And with this new approach to be able to bring a lot of these positive outcomes to a city that, you know, this is actually the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga river catching on fire. That event that really spurred the Genesis of the EPA. So a city with this kind of like background, it’s, it really means a lot to us to kind of help to show that we’re trying to use the assets that it has and there are many to be able to create a prefigurative model of what a regenerative food system looks like.

Linda Bilsens Brolis Great. I mean this is something, a model that a, that a lot of cities around the country and probably the world could emulate, which I think is very inspiring. You know, closure, abandoned houses and vacant lots and lots of industry and food deserts unfortunately is, uh, are very, very prevalent in a lot of places around the world. So it’s inspiring to see that there are real solutions out there that you can just take action. You don’t have to wait for somebody else to do something.
Michael Robinson And you mentioned the housing. So the uh, we’ve seen large population decrease from jobs going elsewhere, but also I think it’s important to note that there’s one specific neighborhood in our city that is basically the epicenter for the 2008 housing, uh, mortgage crisis. So that happened on top of like all of this other stuff that was already happening there had been happening for a long time. So just compound it. Yeah.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Yeah. Well inspiring stuff. So this is obviously not your first time attending the cultivating community composting forum. What keeps you coming back and what keeps you involved in the steering committee?
Michael Robinson The energy that I always have after coming back from this event, it’s great because where, especially where we are, there aren’t a whole lot of people that do in our city. So it’s a, it’s really cool to see the communities that people, that, that uh, they have their communities in New York city, they have their communities in, in California, in LA, we get lonely I think. And it’s really great to be around a whole bunch of other people that, uh, do similar work. And, uh, so the energy is awesome. And I also think that what we’re doing is it’s an ecological imperative that we find solutions to these hairy problems. And I think that this group puts as much thought into what they’re doing as they do, how they’re doing, what they’re doing. And I think that that’s what puts, uh, one of the things that puts community composters makes them different from your traditional large scale composting industries is we have a big focus on working out workplace democracy worker cooperatives, what, you know, how, how we do the work and what that means to the people doing the work, uh, is just as important as the BMPs.

Just as important as, um, you know, the other technical aspects of the work that we do. Uh, so having all these people in one place, um, I really love the idea of emergent properties. One plus one equals a thousand. In this case, there’s something magical that we can’t even wrap our heads around. So if we can bring all of these people together from all over the U S Canada and Costa Rica, at least today, to be able to get all of those people in a room, the immersion properties from that are something that I think we all try to wrap our heads around and the weeks after this conference because there’s so many ideas and just evolving, uh, methods and approaches that come from everybody. Just being able to get together, share space, share time. And it’s, it’s really important that we continue to do that for our movement, but also because this work needs to be done if we want to continue to have a habitable planet.

Linda Bilsens Brolis Yeah, no big deal. Just a, just a little pressure. But yeah, it’s been pretty amazing just to see 140 plus community composters are people who support community composting in one room. Then been pretty cool to see people that continue to come back and just the new faces that show up as well. Um, and you sort of touched on this, uh, sort of in one of your answers, but what’s your elevator pitch sort of answer to what is community composting?
Michael Robinson I think the community composting distinguishes itself from a traditional composting in that we process the material as close to where it is generated as we can. It’s also very important that that material goes towards growing healthy food for the communities in which it is generated or as close to the communities in which it is generated as possible. I also think that community composters, uh, they come to their work from a place of social justice, from a place of food sovereignty, from a place of ecology. And I’m not convinced that a lot of the larger scale organizations really take that as seriously as the community composters do. So I think those are the distinguishing characteristics of community composting, keeping it close, and also how we’re doing what we’re doing, not only just what we’re doing.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Any top of mind goals for rust belt riders for the next year?
Michael Robinson Yeah. So I mentioned earlier, one of the great assets that we have is we have land. So we’re our, we process on 500 square feet right now in basically downtown, but we’re looking at an eight acre site that’s, you know, probably 15 blocks away. And we’re looking at expanding our processing capacity. We want to go after some of the larger producers of, uh, food scraps in the region. And in order to do that, we want to be able to have our own processing capacity for that. So we’re exploring a, an eight acre facility that would allow us to go after some of the bigger fish out there and also scale up our composting operations and then soil blend sales. So hopefully we’re looking at early 2020 to be able to start to move on to that site. But there’s a, a bit of work that needs to be done to, uh, to ramp up to that.
Linda Bilsens Brolis What advice would you give someone new to composting, Just starting out. And what about resources if folks want to learn more about Rustbelt riders.
Michael Robinson Yeah. Um, so advice for a new composter. I think our experience has been, it’s really important for us to take time to explore what you don’t know and having a really good idea of what you don’t know allows you to search out the people that do know what you don’t know and tapping into this network or bringing together an advisory board to be able to pass those skills along to you, um, has been really, really important for our growth is just knowing what we don’t know. And then, uh, seeking out advice from, uh, from some of the awesome people that are out there that are willing to spend some time to help you learn those things.

As far as Rustbelt riders, we’ve got the, uh, really the Tilth site is the one where we’ve got all of the soil blends right now. And then a Rustbelt is the, the hauling website. Uh, if you want to learn more about the hauling efforts and some of the metrics there, you can find them there. Um, and then we’ve got the Instagram and the Facebook and all that. So all those links are on the website and stuff. Don’t you have some sort of soil biology testing? Uh, yeah, so we do offer soil biology testing as well. Um, if there are even we do it for industrial scale or community composters. Um, our approach to making compost is about cultivating a diverse number of beneficial soil microorganisms and it’s kind of a unique approach in that, uh, most of the time people are doing mineral testing and stuff like that. Um, but we throw compost under a microscope and go through and count literally the ratios of bacteria to fungi and then a search out for beneficial soil microorganisms. So if there’s anybody out there that’s interested in the biodiversity of their compost, you can send a test and we’ll do a, uh, an analysis for you.

Linda Bilsens Brolis Awesome. Well thanks Michael for joining us and thank you all for listening.
Michael Robinson Thanks for having me.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the composting for community podcast from the Institute for local self reliance. This episode is produced by myself and Hibba Meraay. We’ll be back again next month. Our theme music is, I dunno, by grapes. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family, including building local power, local energy rules and community broadband bits at



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Audio Credit: I Dunno by Grapes. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Since this interview Rust Belt Riders has grown to a team of seven. Pictured from left to right: Aramay Moss, Joe King, Michael Robinson, Nathan Rutz, Zoe Apisdorf, Jesse Williams, and Daniel Brown.

Photo Credit: Alison Tanker

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Linda Bilsens Brolis

Linda is the Senior Program Manager for ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative and Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program.