Pashon Murray lives up to her gloriously unique first name. As founder of Detroit Dirt, a company that manufactures nutrient-rich compost from some of the city’s leftover food, she has parlayed a lifelong love of rolling up her sleeves into a booming business model and growing acclaim. Since 2013, the Media Lab at MIT, the prestigious multidisciplinary research institution where Pashon is a fellow, has been working with her to pioneer soil technologies. Pashon knows that, if she’s to succeed in her mission, she must engage classrooms as well as boardrooms.
Horacio Silva: What have you been doing today?
Pashon Murray: I’ve been running a bunch of errands in Detroit before I hit the road tomorrow to go to Grand Rapids, where my family lives. And preparing for a couple of meetings.
HS: Will you be seeing Martha Stewart ?7c
PM: [Laughs] No. But I’m starting to build a relationship with her and some of the people who work with her, and she was my guest at the 30th anniversary event for MIT’s Media Lab.
HS: Why, fundamentally, does soil, or dirt, matter to you?
PM: Everything for me boils down to the science of life and nature, so dirt matters because it’s an important component of the ecosystem. It’s the foundation of life and we’re all connected to it.
HS: When you put it like that, it sounds like it’s almost spiritual to you.
PM: It really is.
HS: Was there a specific moment of conversion?
PM: I grew up visiting landfills with my dad because he owned a company in Grand Rapids that did all sorts of things, from landscaping to waste removal. So from a young age I found myself waist-deep in piles of trash. Even then, landfills didn’t make sense to me. Of course, I had no idea that my life would come full circle and I’d be here, pushing for zero waste and creating solutions to combat landfills. But I think that my purpose began way before I ever acknowledged it.
HS: What does your dad say about your potentially putting some aspects of his company out of business?
PM: He is completely supportive of what I do, and in any case he did so many things on a day-to-day basis, and waste removal was just a fraction of that. He actually ran some recycling services, particularly in the 1990s, when companies started to adopt it.
HS: Were there other family members who were very attuned to nature?
PM: I spent my summers on my grandfather’s farm in Mississippi. He could diagnose exactly what was wrong with an animal if it was sick, and he knew before anybody else did if it was going to rain. That sort of ability is magical to a kid. I was captivated. The idea of going to Disney World didn’t fascinate me, nature did.
HS: Why is the management of food waste a big deal?
PM: Food waste is the second largest category of municipal waste, after packaging materials. Between 21 and 25 per cent of any landfill is food, and the decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23 per cent of all methane emissions in the United States. Basically, when people throw away food and it isn’t managed properly with carbon farming or carbon sequestering, it releases methane into the atmosphere, and that contributes to climate change.
HS: Is composting really so effective as a solution?
PM: Yes, and in so many ways. Look at California, which is experiencing drought. By maintaining the land better, by putting a layer of compost throughout the state, the situation there would dramatically improve, because compost returns nutrients and carbon to the soil. Healthy soil holds way more water, so crops would be more resilient in the face of drought. Simple practices like that can make a huge difference. It’s a positive feedback loop!
HS: How did you persuade businesses to get involved in contributing their food waste to Detroit Dirt?
PM: When you begin to sort and separate waste at a huge company like General Motors, an automatic audit begins to happen and you start to notice simple, obvious things, like the fact that, say, you’re ordering 100 chickens every Monday and you always have 35 left over at the end of every week. So you may want to take that order down to 75 chickens. Reducing waste saves companies money, and saving money and making money is the same thing at the end of the day.
HS: I’ve heard General Motors is so big it has its own zip code!7d
PM: It really does, and there are about 30 restaurants in their headquarters, so all of those are essentially my clients too, from Panera to McDonald’s and the high-end restaurants too. Then there is Blue Cross Blue Shield, an insurance company downtown, that feeds 2,000 people per day. Detroit Dirt’s current two-and-a-half-acre site is at capacity with just those two corporations and the zoo. Together they form my primary client base. I bring what I collect from them to my site, where we turn it into compost.
HS: What do you collect, exactly?
PM: Vegetables, fruit, leaves, hay and herbivore manure from the zoo, which has a high straw content.
HS: Can you talk to me about how you’ve used the media to widen the audience for your cause?
PM: The industry sort of needed someone like me to come along and talk to all kinds of people about these issues in a simple, relatable way – not necessarily as the pocket-protector, expert guy with the horn-rimmed glasses – and I’m happy to make things easy for people. We have to be willing to create a way to make nature look cool and be sexy and give it a cultural spin so people can relate to it, because, as I always say, a lot of individuals around the world want to take part and help out.
HS: Celebrities can be very helpful to a cause like yours, can’t they?
PM: Yes, but I’m very hit-and-miss when it comes to celebrities. I don’t always know who they are. Brie Larson was in the audience when I spoke at Bad Robot 7e recently, and she came to talk to me for a while, but I had to be told who she was. I meet people all the time, but I’m on a mission.
HS: Is part of that mission trying to redress the perception that others have of Americans as being wasteful and environmentally reckless?
PM: Some American behaviour is reckless and does need to be checked, but at the same time a shift is happening. When I first started, there was, like, one sustainability officer here or there for a whole city. Now you go to LA or New York, and there is a whole sustainability department with directors and coordinators. This is amazing to me, and it just didn’t exist 10 or 12 years ago.
HS: How is MIT helping you?
PM: I am a fellow there and go to them quarterly. Joi Ito is a very brilliant man and the director of the Media Lab programme, which is the most fascinating thing in the world to me. The Media Lab represents the future from a technology standpoint. They’re mainly looking at bacteria in compost, helping others to find applications for it. You’ve got all these experts at MIT that have their own great networks, so it’s an amazing alliance and an opportunity for me to continue to grow with them.
HS: Is Detroit Dirt your whole life now, or do you have time for interests too? I hear you’re a great basketball player.
PM: Ha, I haven’t played basketball in a long time. I really can’t afford to have too many other interests. I cycle a little bit, but I had a heart procedure in December so that’s out for now.
HS: Lord, what happened?
PM: I had a blood clot last summer that travelled to my heart and lungs, and I was almost out of here. Then, while I was recovering in hospital, they found out that I had a hole between my left and right chambers. We waited a few months because I had a lot of speaking engagements, but I got sicker and sicker, so when I went out to LA, one of the media families in Hollywood kindly asked me to stay and have the procedure done with one of the top specialists at UCLA.
HS: That’s so kind! Who was it, exactly?
PM: There’s an organisation called the Jena and Michael King Foundation which was set up by the family that produced a lot of syndicated shows such as Oprah. They support various good causes projects in California. I don’t know them personally but I was involved with an open-source teaching resource that they supported, called The Soil Story.
HS: Aren’t you writing an autobiography? How is that coming along? Do you reveal the best perfume for masking the smell of rotting veg?
PM: Actually, the smell is not as bad as you’d think at the end of the day. [Laughs] Actually, you will have to wait to find out, because I’ve put aside my personal book for the time being. The writer Lauren Crane and I are working instead on Pashon for the Earth, a children’s story based on me as a child. We want to help the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade group become ambassadors for the mission, because they’re the ones who are going to be running these companies in the future. We want these young people to take back the earth and learn how to protect it in their way. We want to help the younger generation create their culture within this, so it becomes something that they get accustomed to doing.
HS: And are they receptive?
PM: Fortunately, the younger generations I meet are more conscious. When I go to these schools and events and engage with them, they tell me about what they’re doing and they’re so excited about graduating and working in an area that helps ecosystems or climate change. I meet kids who want to be environmental attorneys or scientists to help repair soil. That’s a beautiful thing. There’s hope.
In 2014, Pashon collected $10,000 as the winner in the food category of media mogul Martha Stewart’s American Made contest, which rewards local business innovation.
The postal code for General Motors’ world headquarters, a complex consisting of seven interconnected buildings known as the Renaissance Center, is 48243.
Bad Robot Productions is the Californian production company responsible for films including Star Wars: The Force Awakens and TV shows including Lost.