Sitting around talking one evening in late 2013, Daniel Brown and a group of his neighbors started kicking around an idea. They’d heard about a new study conducted by their local neighborhood community development corporation in Cleveland designed to measure feasibility of a community composting program. As aspiring social entrepreneur, Brown and his long-time friend and roommate Michael Robinson began kicking around the possibility of creating a local composting service.
At the time, Brown was working at a community development non-profit and in local community gardens, and he knew first hand how difficult and expensive it was for gardens to get enough compost to fill their needs, especially in gardens created on vacant city lots where soil quality was poor. Meanwhile, Robinson was working full-time at a local restaurant and saw how much food loss and waste is created by restaurants.
“We always enjoyed musing … keeping one foot in reality and the other in the ideal,” Brown says. “We dreamt of creating an employee-owned company that would change the way waste management works.”
According to the United Nations, up to one third of all food is lost or wasted across the globe, accounting for 1.3 billion tons per year. That includes food that is spilled or spoiled before reaching the end consumer or final product (food loss) and food that is fit for human consumption but has been discarded or left to spoil (food waste). In the United States, SaveTheFood.com estimates that 40 percent of all food is wasted, which translates to $1,500 a year in cost for an average family of four. Food is the most prevalent thing in America’s landfills, according to the campaign, and contributes as much climate pollution as all the cars in Georgia.
Locally, Brown and Robinson knew it was a problem that needed attention. They began raising funds, and by spring of 2014 they had enough cash to invest in a few bicycles pulling customized trailers, picking up food waste at residences and businesses and delivering it to community gardens. Their fledgling business, Rust Belt Riders, grew steadily for nine months until another food waste hauler in town failed an EPA inspection and calls began flooding in to Rust Belt Riders.
“We faced a challenge: how do we take what we thought was a hobby, just something to put a few extra bucks in our pocket, and turn it into a full-fledged business?” says Brown.
Brown and Robinson enrolled in SEA Change, a 14-week accelerator program for Ohio-based social enterprises. Rust Belt Riders took first place in the program’s pitch competition, winning $20,000. Brown quit his day job, purchased a vehicle, hired his first employee and built a branding campaign. Today, Rust Belt Riders services nearly 50 organizations across Northeast Ohio, including hospital systems, restaurants, grocery stores, office buildings and coffee shops, picking up about 10,000 pounds per week and delivering it to community gardens, where their composting bins are located. They’re now raising funds for their own facility, and are working with entomologists to breed new larvae for their composting process.
“Our implicit challenge to our customers is to put us out of business. … If they didn’t make any food waste, they wouldn’t need us,” says Brown. “We need to educate consumers so they will go into their favorite restaurant and ask, ‘are you composting? What are you doing with your food waste?’”
Rust Belt Riders’ success is garnering attention for the company; for example, it was one of those highlighted by the AIM2Flourish initiative, a program driven by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, which has created a higher-education curriculum around the role of business in achieving the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The UN SDGs are ambitious goals that may seem insurmountable to some — things like ending poverty and hunger by 2030, creating decent work and economic growth for all, and taking urgent climate action. But Brown insists that everyone can take small steps toward achieving the SDGs in their daily lives.
“A lot of the conversation around climate change focuses on huge initiatives requiring hundreds of millions of dollars to move the needle, but the problem of food waste has tentacles into everything,” Brown says. “If you care about ending hunger, this makes a lot of sense. If you care about climate change, it makes sense to understand why food going to landfills is a bad thing. If you care about preserving the Great Lakes, the nitrogen runoff because of food waste in landfills contaminates that. And if you care about local food, we are making more soil to support that.”