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Ashley and Gary Borrow use eco-friendly peat moss in their local greenhouse at Purdue University Northwest.

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Eco-friendly PittMoss to be used in Purdue University Northwest agriculture-tech project

PittMoss, made from recycled paper, is more efficient, effective, environmentally-friendly than conventional peat-based potting soils

PITTSBURGH — Back in the 1990s, Mont Handley was managing a retail nursery and selling truckloads of Canadian peat moss when he read about how devastating its loss could be for the problem of climate change.

“A little 3% of the Earth’s land surface does way better job at sequestering or locking away carbon than the rain forests, which get a lot more publicity,” Handley said.

So he started PittMoss, a Pittsburgh-based peat substitute made from recycled paper that happens to be more effective for growing plants than traditional peat moss. He ended up on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” where he won investments from the “Sharks.”

Handley later handed off the business to an experienced investor, Brian Scott, and became Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Purdue Northwest, in Indiana. This school is doing some of the world’s most advanced agriculture-tech research, and was awarded a federal SPRINT Challenge of more than $1 million to find new solutions for the economic, health and safety risks exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, Handley is using PittMoss again in Project TRAVERSE, which also uses remotely-operated robotics to grow nutrient-rich produce. There’s a data center being built upon the site of a former coal-burning power plant on the tip of Lake Michigan, which is making a gift of a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse to Purdue Northwest. The data center’s servers are exhausting heat to serve the greenhouse.

“It’s a robotic laboratory, essentially, so we can actually start to deploy and develop ag-tech automation,” Handley said. “And so the very first thing we’re doing is going to be growing tomatoes that will be harvested remotely by workers who are sitting in their homes or offices, utilizing standard Xbox joysticks and things like that, to select and pick the right produce.”

So now Handley’s career has come full circle, and he’s using PittMoss in the greenhouse project.

“We are using PittMoss because I’m familiar with it, they asked me to be the grower, and I’m going to use the best product available to me,” he said.

They’re also working with “Plantennas” — “with a propagation pot that has a sensor embedded into it,” Handley said. “And it allows the plant to become its own unit level sensor so the robot will actually sense what the plant is and we’ll know what to do with it. We’re going to be making our Plantenna pots out of PittMoss as well.”

PittMoss, Handley said, also happens to improve aeration, nutrient absorption, and uses less water than conventional peat-based mixes.

“We feel like we can disrupt the soil economy,” said PittMoss President Brian Scott. “Instead of hauling peat moss all over the world, we can use local paper waste to grow food.”

A typical bag of soil (most are 2 cubic feet) has the same carbon emissions as burning 22 pounds of coal. Most peat moss is dug up in peat bogs in Canada and trucked south—and it’s an ecological catastrophe.

PittMoss is currently made from recycled paper and cardboard in a factory in Ambridge, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

“We’re diverting paper waste from the landfill and turning it into soils, basically,” Scott said. “We use lightly processed paper, like newsprint, coloring books, mail ads, magazines, some office paper, as well as cardboard and cardboard dust. Our vision is to have a hyper-local model in every major market to recycle local waste and distribute it locally as a soil.”’

PittMoss calculates that in 2020, its products prevented 81,111 cubic feet of peat moss from being extracted, which equates to the reduction of 811.11 metric tons of C02 emissions. That equals 893,737 pounds of coal burned, or 91,269 gallons of gasoline consumed, or 2.01 million miles driven by an average passenger vehicle.

Annually, PittMoss gives each customer an “Environmental Savings Certificate,” which displays their calculation and certifies a specific number of metric tons of C02 emissions they’ve avoided that year.

“When you fill a pot with PittMoss, it holds water better, you get way better aeration, really good biologicals — so plants absorb nutrients better — and because of that you can fertilize less and water less, and still get a bigger plant,” Scott said.

Find out more at pittmoss.com or investment opportunities at republic.co/pittmoss.

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