I arrive at my destination on Cleveland’s east side—a one-story brick building with two beige roll-up garage doors and a standard-size door with no handle. There is no signage and no bell to ring. I knock and wait before calling my contact. “Are you outside?” Adam, whom I’ve never met, asks. Shortly, with a metal clank, one garage door smoothly opens and three people greet me. They usher me inside, the garage door descending behind me—an undeniable air of secrecy. I’ll soon learn why: I’m about to get a glimpse of the missing link.
Adam Ritterspach and Kathryn Simmons both work for Great Lakes Brewing Co. Jim Riley owns the facility. The I-beam frame structure, with its concrete slab floor and glass block walls, is largely empty save for an enormous green tank. It looks like a rocket staging shed after launch. Perhaps this was the lure for Jim, who worked in aerospace manufacturing before starting Full Cycle Organics in 2014. The growing company has helped a number of restaurants, schools, and other food-scrap generators to reduce their reliance on landfills and return food nutrients to the foodshed. Great Lakes Brewing Co. is his most consistent partner in supplying him with compostable food wastes.
“The vast majority of the sorting is done up-front, on a table. We call it ‘surveying,’” Jim says. His compost system is aerobic and can handle paper and cardboard, meat and dairy products, but not some of the other items that wind up here—plastic garbage, silverware, ramekins, and lightly used crayons handed out with kids’ menus.
Much can be learned by watching someone pick through your garbage. “That was the shocking thing for us: coming here and actually seeing the sorting process and what’s in it,” Kathryn admits. The company that established craft brewing in Cleveland has always strived to set industry standards and connect the dots of sustainability. Jim tracks the percent weight of non-compostable items he removes from the food waste. “When we started, [Great Lakes Brewing Co.] was in the low teens for trash,” Jim says. “In December, [they] were just above 4%.” Those numbers improved, in part, by redirecting the used crayons to children in Africa.
After surveying, Jim feeds the compostables into one end of the 40-foot-long cylinder he calls “the tubby.” Walking its length, I run my hand along the tubby belly, feeling increasing heat as I reach the midpoint—the telltale sign of active, aerobic decomposition happening within. The tank sits atop two steel wheels that enable the entire thing to turn, mixing up and moving along the contents to the other end, where Jim removes black compost each week. Great Lakes hopes to make full use of this compost on its farms in Ohio City and Cuyahoga Valley. Adam hails the brewery’s goal with an enthusiastic mouthful: “We see [this] big green vessel as a bridge, turning [Great Lakes Brewing Co.] into a farm-to-table-to-vessel-to-farm-to-table eatery.”
I ask Jim if he considers himself, and his role in the local food system, as a missing link between waste and production. “I do,” he says. “When I first got into it, I saw it as a business opportunity, but as I get into it further I see it more on a personal community level as part of a network.”