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Detroit Dirt: Creating a Zero-Waste Mindset

January 6, 2022 Innovation Impact
African American woman with thick natural hair, wearing black leather jacket, white t-shirt, and jeans, walks with piles of dirt and train cars in the background
Pashon Murray of Detroit Dirt believes communities should be composting and managing their own waste streams. / Photo by c’mon team

Pashon Murray could be called a next-generation Rachel Carson—fearless, outspoken, and willing to take on the big boys. Murray saw that food waste had become an epidemic—a 2020 estimate in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics valued food waste by U.S. consumers at $240 billion a year—and that was a driving factor in developing Detroit Dirt, her full-circle composting company.

Detroit Dirt’s mission is to push forward a low-carbon economy by way of organic waste diversion. Murray designed a closed-loop system that treats waste as a resource, saving 50 to 70 tons of renewable waste annually from entering landfills and instead turning it into fertile compost.

African American woman leans over pile of dirt with a shovel and pulls roots with her hands
Photo by c’mon team

Murray asks: “Why truck food waste 30 miles outside the city? Composting is a natural process. All communities should be composting and managing their waste streams.”

Murray started simply with a pilot program that composted food waste from General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield offices in Detroit. Now her company works with a wide selection of restaurants, coffee shops, and corporations that look to Murray to help them manage their waste streams more efficiently.

Detroit Dirt’s composting site near downtown Detroit is producing rich, healthy soil for local farms, backyard gardeners, and community gardens, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for Murray’s delicious dirt grew daily.

Man in red shirt and baseball cap works at table filled with cardboard boxes lined with plastic bags
Detroit Dirt has a composting site that is transforming renewable waste from local restaurants, coffee shops, and corporations into rich, healthy soil. It’s packaged and available for purchase, starting at $15 for a five-pound bag. / Photo by c’mon team

A one-woman force with a dedicated team of collaborators—including the Detroit Zoological Society, which provides the herbivore waste critical to her compost—Murray has helped to change the carbon footprint of Detroit by revitalizing neighborhoods and finding solutions for everyday waste.

“Our health and the health of the planet depend on the soil,” said Murray. “If we’re not investing in soil, then the consequences are detrimental to the ecosystem. Globally, we can make byproducts with food waste. It’s a resource, not a waste.”

Infographic with text and numbers
Statistics on municipal solid waste in America.

When we checked in with Detroit Dirt during late spring 2020, production of their rich compost had slowed significantly as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Obviously, the waste stream from local businesses hadn’t been flowing in typical fashion since everything went on lockdown. For Pashon Murray, these challenging times gave her opportunity for reflection, brainstorming, and collaboration. She looked for ways to work more closely with local officials, food distributors, urban farmers, other composters, food banks, and more to develop better crisis management models for recovering and repurposing food surplus. “I believe this pandemic is going to help us in the future, shining a light on the voids and giving a heightened focus to our broken food system,” said Murray. “We all have to look at our own footprints and waste streams to understand why there is an abundance for some and some don’t have enough—and start painting a picture of why a viable waste material management model is so important.”

Woman leans over orange paint bucket filled with plastic bags and organic material, in front of a pile with more bags of material
Photo by c’mon team

Murray has shown that with a small shift in perspective, you can empower and influence people to take big steps toward protecting and enriching their environment so that we can all thrive.

This post is adapted from “Sustainability at Stake,” an article written by Linda Engelsiepen for the June–December 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

COVID 19 impact, entrepreneurship, environmentalism, by Linda Engelsiepen, The Henry Ford Magazine, Michigan, Detroit, African American history, women's history

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