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Spinning bikes and composting into a career

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/29/13 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Biking, Composting, Zero waste

Dear parents of Millennials looking for the perfect holiday gift. Your twentysomething kid probably isn't yearning for a sweater from the mall. If they’re at all like Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson, consider making a small donation to their crowd funding campaign and support their dream. In Brown and Robinson’s case, that would be starting a bike composting business in Cleveland.

Pulling for zero waste<br />Two young Clevelanders want to start a cooperative like Pedal People (seen here) hauling stuff on bikes.Green businessmen<br />Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson with compost bins donated by Groundz Recycling.

What is bike composting, you ask? And why is this the career path your son or daughter has chosen?

Here's the data on dirty things. By some estimates food waste accounts for 30% of what gets buried in the ground. Gardeners long ago figured out that combining food scraps and yard trimmings produces a wonderfully rich and free (minus your time and maybe a compost bin) fertilizer.

It’s of better use in a garden than a landfill, say Brown and Robinson, who met while studying Ethics and English at college in Chicago. Brown, a native Clevelander, convinced Robinson to move here on a stop over during a cross-country bike ride. Together, they formed Rust Belt Gardens at E. 40th Street and St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland’s Summer Sprouts community garden program.

Their experience convinced them to start a business. They looked for a combination of food, biking and living in Cleveland. Higher housing densities interspersed with vacant land led them to believe its possible to pedal and pitchfork piles of waste into garden gold.

Their inspiration is Pedal People, a cooperative business with 14-employees sharing ownership in Northampton, MA. Brown and Robinson sought their advice and are convinced they can grow a market on the residential streets of Cleveland’s Near West Side for a human-powered service that offers to lighten ecological footprints and remove the hassle of composting.

The pair are hoping that at least 200 households in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood will pay a small fee for a weekly or monthly house call. The short, relatively flat distances make it possible to rig a bike with a trailer and stacks of plastic bins to haul kitchen scraps to a nearby community garden.

Like Pedal People, they see hauling food waste as just the beginning.

“We could offer an array of services like recycling drop off, CSA deliveries and compost delivery,” said Robinson, whose stint as a ped-i-cab operator in Chicago gave him a sense of the effort it will take.

Their bike composting project is currently in fifth place among eight projects competing in Ohio Savings Bank and Enterprise Community Partners’ Nurture an Idea Competition. The team that raises the most money by November 8 will win $10,000. Supporters can donate at Crowdrise, a crowd funding platform that differs from Kickstarter in that it lets competitors keep whatever they raise.

Brown and Robinson have raised $2,100 to date, enough for bins and to pay local firm, Rust Belt Welding, to custom build two trailers. The competition award would help them purchase bikes (they’re shopping at Ohio City’s Joy Machines) and advertise to build their customer base. And probably for a lot of burritos to power those days when the take could weigh 200-300 pounds.

Win or lose, they plan to make a go of it by spring 2014.

Have they figured out who is their future customer, and why they will support bike composting?

“The same way people are willing to pay a premium for local food, where our food goes has a carbon footprint,” says Brown, “The cost is hidden in taxes. If you broke down what you pay for food waste, is it enough? Is it reasonable to ask people to be personally responsible?”

“We are more interested in people,” Robinson adds. “Ideally it would be a cooperative model (share ownership with any future employees). We would offer composting workshops to teach volunteers how to do this.”

“The re-localization of money is just as important as relocalizing waste and food.”

Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization is an early supporter. The non-profit group is acting as fiscal sponsor to their entry in the Enterprise competition. Detroit-Shoreway also recently won a $40,000 grant from Enterprise which is paying for two feasibility studies: To start a community compost center and to expand access to lower income individuals at the Gordon Square farmer’s market.

Anna Jurs is the current coordinator of the Cleveland EcoVillage project. Jurs said the first study recommends a “decentralized” business model for community composting because vacant lots are relatively small in their area. The study builds the case for bike composting because Brown and Robinson have plans to work with at least three community gardens. Detroit-Shoreway could provide technical and marketing support for bike composting.

“There’s a lot of education that needs to happen around why it is a good idea saving food waste and what this will do for the community,” said Jurs.

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7 years ago

Daniel Brown -

Good to hear. We used to have composting in my office building. I'm not sure why the program ended, but it was popular and I'm certain folks would be interested in bringing it back.

Daniel Brown
7 years ago

Re: Pedestrian

We are partnering with Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, so, at least initially, that is the neighborhood we will be piloting our concept in. We plan on expanding into Ohio City, Tremont, Downtown, St. Clair Superior and elsewhere. We want to grow where the demand takes us but we need to work out the kinks before we go full-scale!

7 years ago

Why didn't they include downtown businsses in their pick-up zone?

Daniel Brown
7 years ago

If anyone has any specific questions feel free to email Michael and I at RustBeltGardens@gmail.com

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