This Startup Turns Table Scraps Into Profit
Pashon Murray’s father worked in waste disposal and management, and as she was growing up in Grand Rapids, she’d regularly visit landfills with him in the mornings before he dropped her off at school. Even as a kid, she found the system to be flawed. “I would just keep asking my dad, ‘How does this work? Why do people keep burying waste?’”
Why? Because that’s how it had always been done. She became determined to find another way. That led her to launch a composting company called Detroit Dirt. It picks up organic waste from the Detroit area and composts it, and the resulting dirt is sold or used to grow produce within the city.
The benefits, as she sees it, are threefold. Most landfills are some 30 percent food scraps, and large-scale composting is a step toward less waste; roughly 20 percent of soil in Detroit is unusable due to contaminants like lead, so composting can provide urban farmers with reliable soil; and the availability of locally grown produce means greater access to healthy food for residents. And it’s a scalable solution: Two hundred eighteen billion dollars’ worth of food is wasted annually nationwide. “That equates to 52 million tons of material being dumped into landfills,” she says. “But we can repurpose and reuse it.”
It took Murray years to perfect the model, operating on a 2.5-acre plot of land in the heart of the city. She wanted to launch by making a big statement, so she approached General Motors -- whose corporate headquarters is home to 29 restaurants and generates plenty of waste -- about a pilot program in 2012, and reassured them that there would be an immediate cost benefit. She promised to pick up and haul GM’s food waste at a lower price than standard waste management companies do, and offered to provide the resulting compost at a discount.
“That opened the door,” she says. In addition to using the nutrient-rich soil fortified with manure from the zoo to landscape its campus, GM installed a rooftop garden with Murray’s guidance and sells the produce to city chefs and restaurants. The pilot was immediately successful (and profitable for Detroit Dirt), and four years later, the garden is still thriving.
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Since then, Blue Cross Blue Shield and about 30 city restaurants have signed on. The next hurdle? Growth. “I get calls from everybody -- hotels, stadiums -- but I can’t serve everyone just yet,” Murray says. She’s working to secure a new seven-acre plot of land that will be used to grow client-specific crops (say, hops for local breweries) and research variations of compost. She’s also eyeing other cities and locales, with a focus on partnering with public schools and food banks to provide them with subsidized produce. “If we continue to create these corridors of urban farms and grow them vertically, we can change the carbon footprint, change food distribution and make schools and shelters healthier,” she says. “Then we’ve completed the loop.”
From waste to growth
With three separate revenue streams, Murray is turning compost to profit.
1. Food-waste removal
Detroit Dirt’s bread and butter comes from removing food waste from clients’ operations. “It’s the same as any waste management operation. We charge our clients and partners to pick up their food waste two or three times a week.”
2. Community orders
“Anybody can call me directly and order compost,” Murray explains. “It could be an elderly lady with a green thumb tending to her home garden, or an urban farmer working on a larger plot of land.”
3. Retail partnerships
This spring, Detroit Dirt partnered with local lifestyle brand Shinola, which sold five-pound boxes of compost (in sustainable packaging) in stores for $30 each. Big-box stores have come calling too, but she’s expanding slowly for now. “We’re trying to be smart about our growth.”