BioCycle January 2015
Detroit Dirt: Urban Renewal from the Ground Up
Entrepreneur Pashon Murray is working to create a more socially just, economically sound, and environmentally friendly Detroit through her closed-loop composting business, Detroit Dirt. Murray and Detroit Dirt grabbed the nation’s attention when she was in a 2014 Ford Motor commercial — “Upside: Anything is Possible.” The commercial opened up many doors for Murray. She was named one of Newsweek’s “13 Women in Business to Bet On” and highlighted as a Modern Farmer, and is now a Media Lab Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Since Murray was young, she saw the buildup of waste in landfills as a pressing issue. She grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan visiting landfills with her father, who owned a maintenance and waste removal company. Once she graduated from Texas Southern University with a Bachelor’s in marketing, Murray returned to Detroit and founded Detroit Dirt in 2011 to help beautify the community and provide a resource for the up-and-coming urban farming movement. Along with many other nonprofits in the area, Detroit Dirt is helping communities in the city become more food secure by providing a growing medium.
Detroit’s automotive industry has advocated for a zero waste policy for the industry by 2025, so Murray reached out to the industry for assistance. General Motors agreed to work with her to start a pilot composting facility. At the time, the city government was recovering vacant land in Detroit to help the urban farm movement get off the ground. After some persistence, the Detroit Dirt team leased 2.5 acres of vacant land from the Canadian Rail Association. This pilot project enabled Murray to analyze Detroit’s waste stream and get comfortable running the composting operation. In the beginning of Detroit Dirt’s journey, much of their compost was given away to businesses for free.
Detroit Dirt currently accepts about 5,000 cubic yards/year of organics, which consist of vegetative food scraps from local restaurants, coffee houses and breweries, and animal manure from the Detroit Zoological Society. The facility uses a tractor and a backhoe with a front loader to manage the composting process. The compost is sold to larger-scale urban farmers. Plans in the near future include expanding Detroit Dirt to obtain more equipment and accept additional feedstocks (including BPI-certified compostable products), and offer more jobs to the community. Detroit Dirt is planning to develop additional composting sites in the city. Slated for 2015 are plans to sell bagged compost at select local stores and to work with Michigan State University and MIT to test their compost.
Murray believes in the importance of creating networks of organizations whose mission is to better their communities through organics recycling and community gardens. “We need as many people involved in this mission as possible,” she notes. “We need more politicians, more grassroots, more people involved in making this a priority. If we work together, we will see a change in the landscape.”
Durham, North Carolina: Tilthy Rich Compost
When Chris Russo moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Durham, North Carolina in 2010, he planted a garden and used compost to enrich the soil. “I was interacting with compost more intimately than ever before, which invigorated me to pursue my interest in promoting composting to my community,” explains Russo, who had considered starting a bike-powered residential food scraps collection service when he was living in Boston. With his renewed interest, he decided to act. “A friend helped me build a bicycle trailer out of an old futon and I got some recycled 5-gallon honey buckets from a local restaurant called the Ninth Street Bakery,” he says. To gauge interest in the community, Russo posted to his neighborhood listserv to explain his food scraps collection concept. “The listserv is an active way for our community to keep in touch with each other — it is a method for sharing resources with community members,” notes Russo. “I posted that I was thinking about starting a food scraps collection service, that I was going to start for free to work out the kinks, and then begin charging a service-based fee. I believe within the first hour, I received 20 positive responses — that was a telling sign that people are into this.”
Over the course of the next two years, Russo continued to develop the business plan. He began accepting payments for collection in August 2012, and in May 2013, officially branded his service Tilthy Rich. The company is a subscription-based food scraps collection service focused mainly on the residential sector. It currently services 80 residences and diverts close to a half-ton/week of food scraps. Subscribers are given an option of a 2-gallon or 5-gallon collection bucket, and are provided NatureTek compostable bags to line the container. Tilthy Rich provides weekly collection, and offers customers an option for email or text reminders the night before service. All material is collected by bicycle and trailer, and taken to a central dumpster location that is serviced by Brooks Contractor, a commercial organics hauler and composter based in Goldston, North Carolina. Russo notes that recent changes in North Carolina regulations has allowed for processing (unpermitted) of up to 1 cubic yard/week of collected food scraps at community gardens and urban farms. Tilthy Rich plans to begin processing material on that scale in the near future.
To make the business more user-friendly for both customers and collection staff, Russo, a website developer, tapped that skill set to create an open source software for customer registration and routing logistics. When subscribing to Tilthy Rich’s service, customers sign up online with a credit card and are asked to choose their desired collection bucket, as well as indicate where they plan to leave their bucket for servicing. This information is stored in their individual customer profile, which is accessible to collection staff on the back end. Each customer’s location appears as a plotted point on a Google Map, so drivers can click a location and see a customer’s profile. For routing, administrators can use the software to manually put the stops in order based on efficiency, which the riders can view on their smart phones. It can also design the route per a rider’s preference. “If someone wants to avoid riding up hills, they can customize the route accordingly,” Russo explains. He adds that the benefit of keeping the software open source is that other companies can use the tool and be able to improve it as they see fit.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Composting Added To Urban Agriculture Rules
In May 2014, the City of Milwaukee amended its Building and Zoning Code to add composting to its definition of a Commercial Farming Enterprise (CFE). According to the city’s “homegrown Milwaukee” page on its website, a CFE is defined as a site where “the premise is used to grow and harvest plants or compost for sale to the general public, retail business or wholesale establishments. This use does not include community gardens or outdoor storage facilities.” Previously, the city allowed bees, chickens (per ordinance), community gardens, hoop houses and urban farms, but they weren’t defined and had no formal approval process. The updated rules added that composting “can be a primary use” on a CFE. Community gardens, on the other hand, may make compost for their own use and may sell their produce and ornamental crops, but may not sell their compost. On-site compost bins for community gardens must be no taller than five feet and cannot exceed 125 cubic feet.
A CFE can be located without a special use permit in Industrial and Institutional zoning districts in Milwaukee but are not allowed in the Downtown zoning area. In all other zoning districts, a CFE requires a special use permit from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Florence, Italy: Sesto Fiorentino Facility Increasing SSO Composting
In July 2014, BioCycle toured the Case Passerini composting facility in Sesto Fiorentino, Italy, built in 2005 for Servizi Ambientali Area Fiorentina SpA (Quadrifoglio), a local government agency that manages the waste of a 115 square mile area with roughly 500,000 inhabitants, including the City of Florence. The composting facility is part of a materials recovery facility (MRF) that takes in roughly 440 tons/day of MSW, or 132,000 tons/year, from Florence and other municipalities. The composting plant has a capacity of 75,000 tons/year and processes MSW fines and source separated organics (SSO) in 14 enclosed composting biotunnels supplied by Ecomaster, part of the Atzwanger Group.
Quadrifoglio provides door-to-door collection for roughly 150,000 residents, while three communities, totaling about 55,000 inhabitants, have their own collection services. Residents generally receive a 2.5-gallon kitchen bin and a 95-gallon curbside bin. Two municipalities have no door-to door collection, but since 2008, communal street bins have been provided for organics collection. Residents can find the locations of dumpsters for organics, recycling and trash collection online. In a relatively new program, some citizens have electronic keys to unlock bins on the street level that feature underground waste storage. Compostable bags are delivered for curbside collection of household trash and kitchen scraps, and all shopping bags in the region are compostable, which eliminates the need for debagging and reduces contamination in the compost products. The cities and Quadrifoglio also promote home composting and give away bins for that purpose. Municipal data indicates that waste diversion from composting and recycling is roughly 50 percent.
At the Case Passerini composting facility, incoming MSW is shredded and screened to 16 inches, then 2.5 inches, resulting in 35 percent organic fines. The plant also accepts 66,000 tons/year of SSO and green waste. The SSO organics are mixed with green waste using a loader and a shredder before going into the biotunnels. Up to 18,000 tons of yard trimmings from city maintenance crews are used as a feedstock in the biotunnels as well as composted separately in outside windrows. As separate collection of household and commercial organics in the region increases, more of the biotunnels are being used for SSO — from 6 that processed MSW fines and 8 that processed SSO to 3 for MSW and 11 for SSO currently. The SSO compost is sold, whereas the facility loses money using the MSW compost as alternate daily cover. MSW organic fines remain in tunnels for 21 days and SSO for 16 days. SSO compost and yard trimming compost are sold for $12 to $24/cubic yard to local agricultural industry and soil companies.