The founder of composting business Detroit Dirt will serve as the keynote speaker at next week’s Sustainable Business Conference.
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum is hosting its fourth annual conference from noon-4:30 p.m., Monday, March 14, at Cathedral Square Conference Center in downtown Grand Rapids.
The half-day event will bring together regional sustainability practitioners from business, government, nonprofits and education to discuss sustainability issues, best practices and networking.
WMSBF said the focus of this year’s conference will be “zero waste and sustainable agriculture for the nonfood business.”
WMSBF has invited Pashon Murray, co-founder and owner of Detroit Dirt and former Grand Rapids resident, to share her sustainability journey with attendees.
Murray said her interest in sustainability began during her childhood when she would occasionally accompany her father on trips to the landfill as part of a waste-hauling business he operated.
“When I was young, I never thought I’d be doing this, but it never made sense — all the trash in the landfill,” she said. “We laugh about it because I was really inquisitive about it.”
As a young adult, Murray was introduced to sustainability through the construction field, and she had a chance to see sustainable building practices firsthand when she worked on the new YMCA building in downtown Grand Rapids, which was being built to LEED standards.
She said scrap steel and other waste materials from the project were sold rather than trashed.
“I started to see the value of the waste stream,” she said.
By the time Murray moved to Detroit, she had become focused on creating a zero-waste, landfill-free movement. She launched Detroit Dirt as a way to accomplish that goal.
Murray secured a 2.5-acre plot of land in Detroit to serve as a pilot space for the project and was able to get the Detroit Zoological Society and the GM Chevy Volt plant on board.
“In the beginning, it was mostly about creating a closed-loop model and getting a couple of corporations and organizations, like the Detroit Zoological Society and General Motors, to help me validate the model, which was basically diverting food waste (from the Volt plant) and using herbivore manure from the zoo and creating compost with it,” she said.
After a successful first year, Murray began gaining the attention of other area businesses, nonprofits, churches and community gardeners who were interested in what she was doing.
She said a big turning point was when Ideal Group, a GM supplier, got involved.
“Ideal bought a bunch of property and we took shipping crates used to ship cars and repurposed them, and created a huge garden in southwest Detroit and used the compost to do it,” she said. “Once we created that garden, that validated the vision and it took off.”
Murray said not only is composting good for the environment, but it also saves companies money and helps their triple bottom line.
“The purpose was to show, socially, economically and environmentally, these are things we have to do now for the next generation,” she said.
Since founding Detroit Dirt, Murray has gone on to found International Dirt, the focus of which is to create programs and tools and consult on strategies to integrate zero-waste practices. She is also a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab fellow and has an ongoing project in India as part of that role.
So what’s next for Detroit Dirt?
“My goal is to expand the business and create jobs. And I want to be able to bag the compost because nurseries and stores were calling, and I wasn’t able to do it at the time,” she said.
She is currently looking at a 10-acre plot in Detroit for possible expansion and named Goodwill Industries as an organization she’d like to partner with to begin creating job opportunities.
Murray also hopes to begin to educate state legislators about composting and the need for passing composting legislation in Michigan. She said Massachusetts, for instance, has banned all food waste, and California is also working on creating composting legislation.
“If it was left up to me, I’d have two or three of these sites in different areas, and we’d create jobs, package the compost and help the legislature create policies,” Murray said.
More information about the Sustainable Business Conference is available on the organization’s website, wmsbf.org.