Pashon Murray, founder of Detroit Dirt, is turning trash into treasure — and helping save the planet in the process
By Nicole Frehsee Mazur
Photography by Erin Kirkland
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Pashon Murray often accompanied her father, who owned a contracting business, on work errands. His job involved waste management, and the pair would make frequent stops at nearby landfills — which Murray found problematic, even as a kid. “The landfills didn’t make any sense to me,” she recalls. “I was asking myself at a young age, ‘Are we just going to keep burying things?’”
Today, Murray, who’s in her early 40s, is providing a solution to that question. In 2010 she co-founded Detroit Dirt, which gathers food waste from local restaurants, businesses like General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and the Detroit Zoo (where there’s lots of manure from plant-eating animals) and transforms it into compost — decomposed organic matter that’s rich in nutrients and other organisms that help the growing process.
Detroit Dirt has a multi-pronged mission: to divert waste from landfills and provide quality soil, crucial for growing good produce, to local farmers and gardeners, who then provide their communities with healthy food. “Waste isn’t really waste, it’s a resource,” says Murray, who lives in Detroit. “If we’re [dumping] it in landfills and burning it in incinerators we’re contributing to greenhouse gasses, but if we’re managing it, we’re reducing the problem. I’m here to be an ambassador to get corporations and municipalities to understand the failure of these practices.”
Since launching her company, Murray, who has a background in environmental consulting and lobbying for organizations like the Sierra Club, has diverted around 5 million pounds of waste from landfills while bringing awareness and a patina of cool to the sustainability movement. She became an overnight sensation in 2014 when she starred in a Ford Motor Co. ad touting the benefits of local agriculture (and promoting a hybrid vehicle, natch); the commercial has gotten nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube to date and led to all sorts of attention, from profiles in Forbes and Newsweek — which named her one of 13 Women in Business to Bet On — to appearances on NPR and ads for Shinola and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
She’s also presented her environmental ideas at the White House in front of President Obama in 2015; been a fellow at MIT’s prestigious Media Lab; and been interviewed by Martha Stewart. “We talked about microbes,” says Murray, who won a contest for entrepreneurs sponsored by the business icon. “That excited me because it’s not something I’m used to talking to most people about, let alone Martha Stewart.” More recently, she made a cameo in Kiss the Ground, a Woody Harrelson-narrated Netflix documentary that highlights the role soil plays in combating climate change, and appeared in a Mastercard commercial alongside Jennifer Hudson.
Murray says the visibility is in service of her true goal: raising awareness about pressing environmental issues. Detroit Dirt “helped me get through the door” to discuss sustainability with politicians and industry leaders, she says, “but my underlying agenda has always been about waste reduction, healthy soil, and the connection to climate.”
She knows that putting her face on Detroit’s sustainability movement helps make the concept less abstract. “I want to represent an image that people can associate with my brand, because it’s difficult getting people to buy into this,” she says. “People aren’t going to go research a composting book but they’ll see Beyonce wearing a sustainable jacket [and want to know more].” (It’s worth noting that Murray is, in fact, working on a as-yet-untitled book about composting, due out later this year.)
Still, Murray’s efforts seem to be catching on — at least in Detroit, where she’s co-chair of the city’s Climate Action Committee. When she’s not working with the city on its sustainability goals, she’s advising companies worldwide on eco-friendly practices, or lobbying businesses to join her cause. “The goal is to align with every industry, because [climate change] impacts all of us,” she says. And Murray still gets her hands dirty: Every month anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 pounds of food waste is brought to her lot in Corktown, where she houses it, watches it break down and processes the compost, a cycle that takes up to a year. “[Compost] is kind of like wine,” she says. “Once it ages, I get calls from everybody [to buy it].”
Now, Murray is hoping her company’s zero-waste model can be replicated in other cities. To that end, she travels to local K-12 schools and universities across the country educating students about waste reduction through the Detroit Dirt Foundation. “I don’t care if it’s a fifth-grade class or an Ivy League school — younger generations are so interested in what role they can play” in preserving the planet, she says. Protecting these kids, in turn, is why she’s so resolute in her mission. “Everything within the ecosystem has to be managed properly in order for us to sustain humanity, otherwise we’ll keep relying on fossil fuels and producing pollution, and generations to come will not have the same opportunities to live a fulfilled life like we did,” she says. “But if we start changing our pathways today, we can create opportunities for them.”