Sustainability in Detroit

Part 4: The dirt

Oct 14, 2019
What does sustainability look like in Detroit, a city that is going through changes that some consider a renaissance? The Erb Institute talked with five people who are working to make Detroit more sustainable—in wildly divergent ways, from bees, to dirt, to real estate development, to stormwater.

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt

Detroit Dirt makes waste into a commodity. It takes food waste, green waste, spent grains and herbivore manure and uses an aerobic process to make it into high-quality compost for local urban farmers and gardeners—and whoever else can use it.

Two of Detroit Dirt’s major partners are General Motors and the Detroit Zoological Society, whose food waste and animal waste gets diverted from the landfill. The process reflects circular economy principles, and “these are solutions and practices that will impact our culture—and policies we can adopt,” said Detroit Dirt cofounder Pashon Murray. “We need investment in infrastructure so we can build sustainable systems from the best practices.” The organization’s mission is to create a zero-waste mindset and drive forward a low-carbon economy.

The strength of Detroit Dirt’s partnerships has been crucial since the beginning, Murray said. The pilot began with General Motors’ Chevy Volt plant and the Detroit Zoological Society in 2013. At first, the zoo “didn’t really have a place to send the manure—it was kind of inconsistent. Farmers could use it or they could send it to landfill. The benefit was that if they basically sourced that to us, we would do something positive. And that would be positive reflection on them as well.”

The Detroit Zoological Society has an anaerobic biodigester, which supplies Detroit Dirt with tons of herbivore compost. “The anaerobic digester provides methane generation, and they power the animal hospital with renewable energy,” she explained. “When you really think about it, the system is producing energy, helping Detroit Dirt produce a product and sustaining the ecosystem while mitigating climate change.”

Initially, General Motors didn’t have a composting program in place. Now, the company’s Detroit headquarters collects food waste from its roughly 30 restaurants and takes it to a designated docking area. Detroit Dirt recovers food scraps from the headquarters three times per week and processes the materials to produce compost.

“Relationships, for me, have always been one of the main ingredients for success,” Murray said. “If you get the General Motors and Detroit Zoological Societies of the world, if the community knows that these companies are working with you,” then other people in the community are likely to follow that lead, she explained. Detroit Dirt also works with other large and small partners, including some local coffee shops and breweries, whose food waste gets added to the mix.

Anyone can buy compost through Detroit Dirt’s online store, and the company sells it wholesale to gardeners and urban farmers. “We were approved for a new composting site though the city council in April, which is going to be four times the size of the current site,” Murray said. “We’ll be able to supply more wholesale in the future. Next year, our hopes are to expand to scale the model and to push the retail side.”

What does sustainability look like?

“Sustainability looks like cities that are viable while sustaining the economy and ecosystem, our buildings, mass transportation, energy usage and roads—infrastructure as a whole. If we implement policies and legislation that will regulate our practices, we need to invest in infrastructure that will help us sustain humanity. Climate change is real, and in order for the next generation to carry the torch and live a fulfilled life, we need investment with focus on climate mitigation and resiliency,” she said.

In Detroit, “I would love for our city to implement zero-waste practices over the next five years. We need curbside composting, residential as well as commercial.”

When the United Nations created the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they set a standard for everyone to follow, Murray said. “They brought the climate issues right to our doorsteps without asking for permission, and taking leadership for the world. We can’t afford to ignore these issues. Now we have the United Nations saying, ‘Join forces with us, it’s all of our responsibility, and let’s stop discussing these issues and create the plan of action.’ Looking at the climate crisis from a global perspective is one thing, but now we can start creating plans nationally, regionally and individually.”

With food waste, this means we can manage our food systems better and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Murray added, “Empowering local economies will empower global economies.”

In this Erb Institute video, Pashon Murray talks about innovating for sustainability.