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June 29, 2016

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Interview with Detroit Dirt's Pashon Murray

Pashon Murray (pictured).
Profiles
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June 29, 2016

Pashon Murray was listening to Detroit house music when she pulled up in her white pickup truck to Detroit Dirt. The aromas of coffee grounds, dirt and manure wafted from giant compost piles at the Corktown headquarters. Views of the train station and Ambassador Bridge were visible from the composting site, and it was a beautiful location for such dirty work.

Shinola + VICE teamed up to produce this short film featuring Pashon Murray — Watch the video and read the article to learn more about her story.

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Pashon cofounded Detroit Dirt in 2010 as a local compost company, which focuses on being an engine for waste reduction and climate benefits. She's spent the majority of her adult life advocating sustainable solutions, and was even named as a Directors Fellow of the MIT Media Lab in 2014.

"We believe circular economies are socially, economically and environmentally impactful," she says.

As a child growing up in Grand Rapids, she watched her father run a waste removal company and accompanied him on trips to the landfill.

“I grew up around tractors, snow plows, going to landfills and the landfill never made sense to me,” Pashon says. “When the urban farming movement got momentum in 2007-2008, I wanted to give up the lobbying and consulting I was doing and kind of jump all in to creating an agricultural hub in Detroit. A lot of the industrial cities weren't practicing sustainability and the momentum wasn't there. So I had to figure out, 'how do I get people in Detroit to help me with this mission?'”

Today, this environmental entrepreneur collects waste from plant-eating animals at the Detroit Zoo, food waste from local restaurants and General Motors’ headquarters, among many other places, and makes compost with it. She then sells the compost to urban farms, corporations with garden beds, community gardens and individuals in Detroit.  

"Farming, anaerobic systems and eliminating foodwaste from landfills are top priority," she says. "Food waste and the management of food systems are imperative."

Anaerobic systems create biogas, electricity and heat. This clean and attractive gas can be used for transportation fuels — if we eliminate food waste from landfills we can create multiple byproducts and renewable energy, Pashon explains.

"My whole mission is using a closed-loop model — taking food waste, repurposing it and putting it back into the community,” she says. “I wanted to make food waste a priority because of the energy that you get from it because you can harness that as a carbon source and put that back into the ground.”

The Ambassador Bridge

The goal is to create awareness in Detroit about the options available to regenerate waste into resources that can reshape Detroit with community garden and urban farm initiatives.

“I think gardening is an anchor for the community and certainly a positive reflection of bringing people together,” Pashon says. “I think the urban farms are important, but the gardens are just as important because it's inspiring people to do this on their own as well, and that's the underlying agenda for me.”

Depending on where you live, food waste takes up 20-25 percent of the landfill. “That doesn't really make sense to keep burying a precious resource that we could actually repurpose,” she says.

Pashon shows us some of the food waste in her compost piles.

Not only does Pashon collect waste no one else wants, she has helped other corporations and communities start their own gardens, utilizing her compost as a starting point for fertile soil.

“General Motors and some other corporations — together we created community gardens around the city and the impact of that alone in these vacant parking lots and vacant land, it allowed people in the communities who felt abandoned to join in on something everyone could benefit from — they are creating a food source, cleaning up their neighborhood and reducing crime,” she says.

With Pashon's help, General Motors now has a flourishing rooftop garden that provides vegetables and herbs for local restaurants and the Rennaissance Center restaurant kitchens.

GM's rooftop garden.

“I kept telling them that if you can grow just one or two things, grow some tomatoes, grow some herbs and allow the full circle to be shown, right here on your property, we can raise more awareness,” she says.

With a large following behind her, the next mission is to sell compost by the bag instead of strictly wholesale. To do this, she’ll need to acquire more land and get an anaerobic system in place.

“I need another 30 acres, but I'm not going to be able to have that 30 acres flat in one place, so we'll have to expand into three or four different areas throughout the city,” she says. “We also started to raise money for in-vessel and anaerobic systems that can create more volume faster, all year long — it will also be an energy source that takes gas from the food waste, captures it, and uses it for greenhouses or hoop houses.”

Peppers are grown on the GM rooftop garden.

Detroit's future depends on circular economies and sustainable practices, Pashon says.

"The time is now, we're living in a crisis and we can't afford to be wasteful. We need everyone around the country thinking in crisis mode, our resources are limited. Our food systems are in need of proper management and we have to integrate technology in order to build for future generations. We have an opportunity to lead this movement — remember we're all connected to the soil."

 

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June 29, 2016

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