he eclectic Michael Robinson, Dan Brown, John Stone and Mikey Ericsson are self-confessed 20-something men of privilege. As managers of an urban community garden, they found themselves spending an unnecessary amount of money on compost to improve the quality of the soil. Buying compost wasn’t sustainable, so they began to make their own, bringing home food scraps from their respective restaurant jobs. It wasn’t long before the garden had more compost than it needed. The garden flourished, and the story could have ended there, but the unique personalities and entrepreneurial spirit of the Rust Belt Riders made them able to recognize that what they had fallen into was more than just garbage. With little more than an idea, they found Carmen Gambino of Scapegoat Cycleworks who designed and welded a custom compost-hauling bike trailer, and a business was born. What started out as a way to improve a community garden has become a successful business and an approach to work and life that just isn’t average.
Rust Belt Riders is founded and operated on concepts that are inherently counterintuitive to the modern employer. RBR wants to redefine how people relate to themselves and others while working, and redefine the way people think about work. Dan Brown’s boy-faced charm quickly fades as he chafes criticism that Americans don’t want to work. He scoffs and says, “I think people want to work, but jobs are so unfulfilling and dehumanizing that people don’t want them, people know their own value. Many American jobs are placeholders until corporations can outsource to a cheaper labor pool — why would anyone invest in a job like that, a job that doesn’t invest in them? At RBR everything you put in you get out. We are building a community for ourselves based on our personal politics. The model of worker-owner is what we want to duplicate, more than a biker pick-up composting service. We wake up and breathe our ethics and morals in everything we do. We don’t check anything at the door.”
Rust Belt Riders make collecting compost from businesses and homes as simple as possible. Functionally for the consumer, it’s similar to working with other waste collection services — you place food scraps in a bin and your bin is collected every week. Residential customers are given a 5 gallon bucket and a cheat sheet that explains what can and cannot be composted: yes to egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps; no to meat and dairy. Restaurants, coffee shops, and schools follow the same rules, only they have bigger containers for compost. When the scraps are picked up, clean empty bins are left.
Similarities to traditional waste collection services end there. Julie Tozser, Production Manager at Rising Star Coffee Roasters, says that working with Rust Belt Riders is another way to support local businesses, economy and agriculture, “We started using them when our old compost service just stopped picking up. Rust Belt Riders approached us and said they were going to be picking up our coffee grounds using bikes and trailers, and the grounds would be composted in local gardens. We jumped at the opportunity to work with them. They are incredibly knowledgeable, efficient and really friendly. They work really hard too. I’ve seen them out riding in the winter all bundled up. We think what they do is remarkable and we are proud that our grounds are being used for such a good purpose; to make nutrient rich soil.”
Looking at every interaction as a way to exchange ideas, whether with clients or community members, Rust Belt Riders often participate in local events to provide education on the value of composting. Their drive to generate social and economic impact has been so inspiring, they recently received a $20,000 investment from SEA Change, Northeast Ohio’s Social Enterprise Accelerator. In addition to seed funding, SEA Change also provides countless resources, including continuing education and connections to industry experts. The team went through six months of classes and coaching that enabled them to work on their business plan and meet and exchange ideas with other small business leaders from across the region.
“The funding we received will cover office expenses and allow us to begin reducing shifts at our ‘other jobs.’ The idea is to transition from RBR being a part-time thing to more of a full-time thing,” Brown, who recently quit his job to focus on the business, explains. “In addition, we are purchasing bikes, paying our programmer, and investing in equipment that will allow us to scale up much more rapidly than we have been able to in the absence of such funding.”
Workdays at RBR start early. There are pick-ups to be made, piles to maintain, customers to chat with, business decisions and administrative paperwork to attend to. Daily, each man juggles this work with other part-time jobs in restaurants across town, and trying to coordinate different schedules means that work meetings often happen over late night pinball. They count themselves lucky to have had the privilege of opportunity, and to be able to spot that opportunity in Cleveland.
While Rust Belt Riders worker-owned business model has been successful with compost, they hold a larger vision, knowing that they can apply this scalable structure to any product or service. Their business model was influenced by the work of philosopher and mathematician David Schweickart. In his book After Capitalism, which elaborates on economic democracy, Schweickart incorporates self-management in the workplace as well as profit sharing, promoting equality for workers, and in all aspects of the business, from dealing with customers to trade with other businesses.
“It changes how people are able to relate to each other, because it changes the way you think about work and the people you work for, or in our case work with,” Stone says. “Most employers want their workers to conform to a standard, but we embrace our unique personalities and abilities as we complement and balance each other. We’ve found a successful way to conduct business. It’s why we are successful, and it makes the work fun and interesting.”
The Science of Compost[intro-text size=”25px”]The business model may be built on a philosophical ideal, but it’s grounded in the reality of each man being capable of physically hauling almost a ton of compost each and every day. [/intro-text]
It might seem simple enough, to ride around the city picking up waste from point A and taking it to the compost pile at point B, but the work doesn’t end once the waste is dumped into the compost pile.
Managing the structural porosity and chemical composition of the piles is Michael Robinson’s particular specialty, making him the resident soil guru of the group. Robinson took classes at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, where he learned to love and care for microorganisms. When he thinks about making nutrient-rich compost, he thinks about making microorganisms happy, so that they can do the work. A properly maintained compost pile takes about 3 months to transform scraps into usable compost.
Robinson knows the kind of things that only soil gurus know. For every bucket of compost he has to add 2 buckets of wood chips in order to create an environment for the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio (27:1). Though the ratio changes with volume and weight, the pile needs to have 50-55% percent water content while also having the structural porosity to maintain proper oxygen levels. The structural porosity comes from the wood chips, which act like two-by-fours in a building, creating pathways for oxygen and water in the pile. While the piles can be tested in labs to measure the levels, Robinson knows from experience how they should look, feel, and smell when the microorganisms are happy and doing their job.
If you see these dapper dudes out hauling compost, slow down and give them some space.[well]Home composters take note: a pile of unattended compost without woodchips and care simply rots and stinks, creating methane and a slimy useless mess. To make compost you have to turn it, which aerates the pile, distributes the water, and mixes up the microorganisms. Maintaining the pile is hard work, but it doesn’t stink — a properly maintained compost pile smells like a rainy day.
[/well] [intro-text size=”25px”]A lawyer, a garbage man, a philosopher, and a bug eater are united by their love of what is universally considered waste[/intro-text]
JS: It’s more fulfilling than entry-level attorney work and I get to ride my bike.
DB: I like being a garbage man. Besides, I studied ethics in college, which doesn’t have a professional career base, and this allows me to explore my interest in the economies of communities.
ME: I like to eat bugs and being able to spend time in gardens gives me access to all the free bugs I want. Between this and being a bartender, I’ve been able to conceptualize “Criskey,” a whiskey infused cricket — not many workplaces foster that type of creativity.
MR: I love the riding and the urban agriculture of Cleveland.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
JS: Seeing the outpouring of support we received and the psyche we create in people, it’s reflective of the community in Cleveland. People contact us because they believe in the project and want to support us. At the end of the day, it’s great having a business with your best friends.
DB: I put more than I can fit on my plate, and this is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever taken on. I like the creation, the problem solving, it’s dynamic and I can put all my energy into it. There are so many opportunities for different positions that I know I’m never going to cross the finish line.
ME: For me, it’s all about the riding. I like to transfer the energy I’ve been given to make a positive contribution to the community around me. And everywhere I go, people dig on our standard.
MR: I like working outside and moving around. I like labor-intensive work. I’ve always played sports and got used to having a physical outlet. I like getting sweaty and dirty and having that be my job. I get to work at my own pace and I can take a break when I want to. Plus I get to work with my friends.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had on the job?
JS: During the coldest months of the winter the 64 gallon totes froze, and the compost was practically impossible to get out. We hacked them with shovels and dumped boiling water on them. For some we had to wait for warmer temperatures. Next winter Mikey wants to use different shaped totes and create an ice castle of compost — also known as a composticle.
DB: I was thrown off the bike because the trailer was overloaded; got a concussion and had to go to the hospital. John Stone interjected here, in a very lawyerly way, and stated: ‘This incident resulted in the implementation of a helmet policy.’
ME: My experience was both bad and good. One day I went to the garden and I ate a worm and then ate some raspberries. Later I realized I
had compost all over my hands. I got really sick, like explosively sick. When I felt better, I did it again — compost hands and all. I didn’t get sick, so I knew I was building my immunity.
MR: Dealing with drivers that are assholes. Not a day goes by that we don’t almost get run over. Last summer we were riding over the Abbey Street Bridge when a big truck with truck nuts revved his engine and buzzed us by us, literally just inches away from us. It was completely unnecessary — there were no cars in the other lane.
What’s the most time consuming part of the job?
JS: The service delivery. All day you go from A to B until all the compost is picked up. Then there are the hours of shoveling cubic yards and yards of compost — it’s intense work.
DB: Figuring out a business model and pricing structure. When and what do we pay ourselves, what kind of insurance do we get?
ME: Thinking and administrative work, which is why I ride and haul compost.
MR: Learning how to deal with the seasonal changes. Winter was different than summer. When we started we made an agreement that we would maintain the piles in the gardens. So we’ve had to develop systems and processes that are efficient and that work in all seasons, otherwise the compost turns to garbage.