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Pashon Murray is a woman of many hats. Eco-activist, community organizer, and entrepreneur, she is leading a compost revolution in Detroit. She knows that fertile soil, the life force of our fruits and vegetables, begins with compost. Through her company, Detroit Dirt, she is making as much compost as possible from the organic waste she collects from local businesses—and in the process, diverting thousands of pounds of garbage from landfills every week.
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Murray learned about gardening as a child from her grandmother and grew up visiting landfills with her father, who owned a maintenance business in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After college, she worked for a spell in corporate America before embarking on a career of environmental advocacy, lobbying for Repower America, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club. Along the way, she met a lot of people—farmers, corporate executives, maintenance workers, and environmentalists—all committed to the same cause, yet “no one was sitting at the table together,” she recalls. “So I asked myself, ‘What can I do to join all these different people in a way that will actually benefit the entire community?’”
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Her answer came in 2009, when she met Greg Willerer, a pioneer of urban farming in Detroit. Willerer wanted to grow food locally, and Murray wanted to reduce waste. Together they decided to pursue compost, and launched Detroit Dirt two years later. (Willerer has since left the company to focus on farming.) “We were kind of rebels,” says Murray. “We never really asked permission in the beginning. We just did it.” Detroit didn’t have any composting rules at the time, but they found a two-acre unused plot in an industrial area and compelled the city to piece together permits to allow composting. Then they rallied local businesses to set aside their food scraps. “The entrepreneurial spirit is phenomenal in Detroit right now,” Murray says.“If you’re doing something positive here, you can’t go anywhere but up.”
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Today, Murray and her team of five collect organic waste daily from local small businesses (more than 30 restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops), corporations (including General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield), and even the Detroit Zoo, which provides weekly drop-offs of herbivore manure. Each month, Detroit Dirt picks up more than 25,000 pounds of waste. But even as she adds businesses to her growing roster, Murray is not content to sit tight. “I want the whole city to participate,” she says. Every year, she makes a list of new big businesses to bring on board. It can take up to two years to convince a corporation to join, so she knows she’s in it for the long haul. “You just have to be very focused and stay committed,” she says.
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Luckily, Murray is just that. In addition to winning over the Detroit business community, she is creating a line of composting products and bagged compost for consumers. (Currently her compost is sold wholesale.) She’s also writing a book and helping to get sustainability and agriculture integrated into the local school curriculum. “When I explained my plans to Martha at the American Made symposium last fall, she told me to ‘hurry up,’” she laughs. “I am. I’m going to get it done.” We have no doubt she will.
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From the Ground Up
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste makes up 20 percent of U.S. landfills; Murray (shown on-site, previous slide, adding organic waste to her company’s compost heap) is working to reduce that number. Detroit Dirt provides compost to more than 80 customers, including nonprofits, schools, and urban farms, such as General Motors’ rooftop garden.
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