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Rust Belt Riders notices big increase in household composting during COVID, increased recycling awareness

Posted at 6:16 AM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 18:29:27-05

CLEVELAND — Cleveland-based Rust Belt Riders says the group has noticed a 30-50 percent increase in how many homes they are collecting materials from for composting.

The company picks up food scraps and other compostable materials from businesses, restaurants and individual homes so that they can be carefully mixed with mulch and processed to be reused as fertile soil.

Rust Belt Riders employees like Liani Rivera pick up containers with food scraps from roughly 300 homes across greater Cleveland to help them compost.

“Raw foods, cooked foods, meat, dairy, bones, moldy cheese, all of it,” said Rust Belt Riders’ residential services director Zoe Apisdorf.

Those materials are picked up from homes across parts of greater Cleveland and brought to Rust Belt Riders’ composting location in Independence where they can be broken down in a way that allows them to be reused.

Compostable material is eventually missed with mulch to create fertile soil that residents can use to grow more food.

“About 40 percent of all the food that’s grown in our country will end up thrown away, so what you see behind me is that alternative,” said Rust Belt Riders Co-Founder Dan Brown.

When left over food is sent to the landfill, it isn't reused and often can give off gasses that can be harmful to the environment. Composting allows that left over food to be turned into fertile soil to grow more food.

Leftover food is breaking down under the watchful eye of Rust Belt Riders as it's mixed in with mulch to create new soil.

“I think we can get away from the idea of thinking about this as waste because waste implies that there is no value that we can derive from [food waste],” said Brown. “But what we’re trying to demonstrate is that these are resources that we’re squandering.”

COVID Impact

“Everybody moved form an office or from going out to dinner into their household,” said Apisdorf.

As a result, Rust Belt Riders saw many of the restaurants and businesses that subscribe to its service pull back while more individual households signed up each month.

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Tim Dewald keeps this container under his kitchen sink for food scraps while he and his wife prepare meals.

“You’re making dinner, you chop stuff up, you throw it into a little container off to the side,” said Tim Dewald, who signed up for Rust Belt Riders’ pick-up service during the pandemic.

Dewald and his wife were composting on their own and eventually got tired of the compost bin in the backyard. Rust Belt Riders picks up his bucket once a week, swamping it out for a clean, sanitized bucket.

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Banana peels, coffee grinds, and other kinds of food can all be composted.

“A five-gallon bucket of stuff not going to the landfill once a week is pretty awesome,” said Dewald.

He joins composting residents like Andrea Sharb and Doug Katz who have been using the service for years.

Katz keeps a smaller container in his kitchen that he empties into his larger bucket, which is kept outside.

“When we are wasting food, we’re wasting all the resources that went into making that food,” said Sharb.

“It’s a little thing that we can do that really can make a great [environmental] change,” said Katz.

Large piles of soil are made up of leaves, food scraps, and other materials that help the composting process.

Now, Rust Belt Riders estimates about 1,100 households are signed up to drop off their compostable material and about 300 are part of the organization’s pick-up program.

It’s meant Apisdorf has overseen the planning for adding and expanding pick-up routes stretching from Rocky River to the west to Beachwood to the east.

More recycling awareness

The composting increase comes as greater Cleveland is paying more attention to what it throws out and what gets reused.

The City of Cleveland lost its recycling contract and has been sending recyclable materials to a landfill since April 2020. The main reason is recycling contamination was so high in Cleveland that the city couldn’t get a bid to process its recycling that it would agree to pay.

Republic recycling
The recycled materials we leave at the curb can be turned into products we might buy off store shelves a few weeks later.

On February 23, Cleveland released a report that laid out the recycling programs shortfalls, a consultant’s suggestions to fix it, and the city’s suggestions for changes it would adopt.

Read the full report here.

Experts say those high levels of recycling contamination are often a result of well-meaning but confused residents who struggle to keep up with changing recycling rules and markets. Any material is only valuable to recycling companies if there is a market to resell it. Those markets mean that materials residents recycled in the past are now considered contamination.

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PHOTO: Cans and plastic bottles are acceptable if they're empty, clean and dry.

That problem doesn’t exist for composting.

“The things that are compostable today were compostable a thousand years ago and will be compostable a thousand years from now,” said Brown. “We can tell people what can and cannot be composted and that will be true forever.”

An orange peel breaks down at Rust Belt Riders composting facility.

Partially because of the increased composting from individual households, but also from some new partnerships, Rust Belt Riders predicts it will be able to double the amount of material diverted from landfills.

Last year, Brown says the business diverted 2.4 million pounds of food scraps from landfills. In 2021, he expects to divert 4.8 million pounds of scraps, making it into soil that can be reused. Since Rust Belt Riders tracks that information, they are able to tell businesses that partner with them how much food they individually diverted by composting.

Rust Belt Riders is considering how to grow to meet the increased demand for its pick-up composting services.

“For food scraps, it will always be possible to put things back into the system,” said Adisdorf.

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