hands holding PitMoss Prime soil substitute

PittMoss was a surprising discovery for me several weeks ago. I met Brian Scott, CEO of PittMoss at an impact investing conference in Seattle and he showed me his next-generation dirt. Made from recycled paper and other organic materials, PittMoss produces substantially larger plants using one-third the water required with traditional peat moss-based soil products. The story of PittMoss’ founding — which came out of years of kitchen experiments that led to an appearance and win on the popular business show Shark Tank — is an American success story. PittMoss has invested to build its first facility for making the recycled soil substitute in a struggling steel town in Pennsylvania.

Brian Scott, CEO of PittMoss

PittMoss makes three products, two with fertilizer (one nitrate-based, the other organic) and one that’s pure recycled materials. We’ve created these links to help you find them.

You can listen to the PittMoss story with Brian Scott or read the transcript below.

Listen to “EARTH911 Podcast Episode 8 INTERVIEW PITMOSS” on Spreaker.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Welcome back to Sustainability in Your Ear, the Earth911 podcast. We’re joined by a really innovative company, PittMoss. And its CEO Brian Scott is with us. PittMoss is an all-natural recycled planting material. I got to handle it a few weeks ago, and it’s a remarkable substance. It’s the next generation of dirt. Brian, tell us all about PittMoss. What was it that got you started, and how do you go to market with something which is such a radical change in the way that we’ll be gardening?

Brian Scott: Yeah, thanks. Well, first of all, thanks for having us. We’re always really excited to talk about our product because it is such a new, unique, really innovative product for an industry that has been around for multiple generations. Just to talk about PittMoss, we do actually use … typically it’s recycled paper, but we’re using other waste streams today instead of base potting soil. And our product gives roots the moisture and the porosity they really need to thrive. The thing we tell people about, is we’ve really got a more sustainable way to grow plants. And one of our taglines is that we actually help plants grow, for healthy plants and a healthy planet.

And one of the keys to our product, even though we’ve got this great sustainability story, the one thing we like to talk about is, we really have proven results. Where we can get bigger, stronger, faster-growing plants with actually less water, and less fertilizer runoff. And part of the reason for that is, we have really positive biological properties that allow plants to better absorb nutrients. So, we talk about internally, as our product is almost like having probiotics for your plant, to allow them to absorb nutrients. So, those are some of the real differentiators between our product and what’s out there on the market today.

PittMoss Organic Potting Mix

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, you know, you take a look at the pictures on PittMoss.com, both the volume of the plant that’s grown, but also the root structures that come out of these. It’s really impressive. Why is PittMoss a responsible gardening choice for somebody who’s concerned about the environment?

Brian Scott: There are a couple really interesting things around that question. The first thing is, we talk about being very sustainable because we’re using recycled products. We’re using products that would typically be landfilled instead. So, on the positive side, we know that’s something that we really have that can help improve the planet and what we’re doing with the environment.

Typically, people grow in peat-moss–based products, or coco coir, today. And what most people don’t know, is that almost all of our peat gets imported from Canada. And as you mine a peat bog, not only is there destruction to wetland, that can later be reclaimed, but the bigger issue is that there are a lot of carbon emissions. When you mine a peat bog, it’s very similar to burning coal, in terms of the amount of carbon emissions that happen. So, most [people] don’t recognize that, because we’ve been growing in it for so long.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, you actually see a release of carbon dioxide as you extract the peat moss, not even … like a thawing of the tundra?  So, you’re actually seeing a carbon dioxide release when you extract the peat moss from the ground? That’s surprising.

Brian Scott: Yeah, I mean it’s really interesting. If you do a little research on the web, you’ll see that internationally, people talk about one of the larger ways to reduce carbon emissions in the world — a lot of people cite it as one of the top five things — is to eliminate peat mining. And a lot of places in Europe have done it already. And a lot of people have depleted bogs already. In the U.S., we hardly do any peat mining anymore. But in the U.S. market, we do import a lot of that peat from Canada right now. So really, it’s a matter of oxidation.

Every time you remove a layer of peat, as soon as air and sun hits that lower layer, it causes oxidation which releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. So, it’s something I really didn’t know about until I joined the company, and it’s really fascinating to do a little research about it.

Mitch Ratcliffe: The other thing that I found really impressive about PittMoss when we first talked was, your plans for being as close to local markets as possible. I know you’re based outside Pittsburgh today. But talk about PittMoss’ plan to grow in order to minimize the transportation of the material as well.

Brian Scott: So ideally, we’re pretty far away from the vision, but I think the bigger vision would be in almost like any major city, certainly multiple cities in a state, where you’ve got these waste streams. If we could build small facilities that are able to process those waste streams and turn them into a good growing media rather than landfilling them. Then, in theory, you can get all of your ingredients locally, and you could distribute it locally, and have a really, really tiny carbon footprint, in terms of just your distribution and transportation costs.

PittMoss Prime

Brian Scott: But more importantly, we’ve actually had some people do some analysis around the company even today, where they believe we have a net negative carbon footprint because we’re using all the recycled material, even though we do use some energy in making the product and transporting it. That product is used to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen through planting in it, through using it to grow plants. So, we’ve been told we’re one of the very few companies out there, where people see the potential for us to have a net negative carbon footprint.

Mitch Ratcliffe: And you’re doing this is essentially a recovering steel manufacturing community. Tell us about where that’s located?

Brian Scott: Exactly. Our town, we’re just outside of Pittsburgh. We’re in a town called Ambridge, but it actually stands for the American Bridge Company that was the big employer here years ago. So yes, fantastic, to really bring some new jobs to our local community, and really repurpose old buildings that have been around forever in the steel industry.

Mitch Ratcliffe: You’ve got three different bagged soil up at products right now. I know that a couple of them have some fertilizer, and one is completely organic. Can you tell us about the difference between the different products?

Brian Scott:  So actually, a couple of things. We do have three products. Two of the three are completely organic and they’re OMRI listed. So, that’s really important for us. A lot of people are looking for organic alternatives today. Of the three products, the first one that we have is a soil amendment or soil conditioner. It’s what we would call our base product, that’s PittMoss Prime. It does not include any kind of fertilizer or nutrients in it. So, people would use that to amend either in their garden or in new planting beds. And we’ve actually found that if you use 20 to 30 percent of that product, and mix it in with other potting soils, it actually helps improve those other soils as well. That product is completely organic.

Our second product is PittMoss Performance, where we have a controlled release fertilizer in it. It is specially formulated fertilizer to work with our product, and it works really fantastically well. If you go to our website and look at all of our photo comparisons, that’s typically using the PittMoss Performance product. Now that product, we don’t claim that it’s organic, simply because we have a controlled release fertilizer in it, it’s chemical based. But it works really, really well, especially for flowers, tree shrubs, that sort of thing.

The third product, which we’re really, really excited about, this is our newest product, is called PittMoss Plentiful, and it’s completely organic with completely organic fertilizers. And in that product, we typically have poultry manure, as well as some fish emulsion for nutrients, some mushroom compost, and also some fermented pine bark as well. Really, really works good as an organic product, that we suggest people use for vegetable growing in their garden. I mean we found cannabis users that have had a lot of success with that product as well.

So, in addition to being organic, we recently just got a certification from Redfield Proctor out in Colorado. We were the first soil that they ever tested, that didn’t even have trace elements of pesticides in it. So, we can also talk about being completely pesticide free, and a lot of competing soils have not been able to attain that level of recognition yet.

Mitch Ratcliffe: That’s fantastic, being pesticide free. The other thing that I was really struck by is how much less water is involved in growing using PittMoss.

Brian Scott: Yeah, one of the things that we really talk to people about, we put it on our bags is, that you need to water two-thirds less using our product than you would most other potting soils or potting mixes. The reason for that is that people have just been conditioned over generations using peat-based products, where you really need to over-water. We’re almost force-watering our plants today. Where a lot of times people water every morning and every evening, at least once a day. With our product, you really don’t need to do that, because it absorbs and holds water like a paper towel would. So, when you water our product, one of the things that you’ll notice is, it will absorb and retain that water.

PittMoss recycled soil substitute
PittMoss stores water to release it back to the plant when needed. Image: PittMoss

And you really don’t need to water again until the plant tells you it needs more water. It will recover very quickly because it releases water naturally back to the plant as the plant needs it. Where today, most plants we’re used to just force-watering them because most of our mixes don’t hold water very well.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Sure, and you wait till the water starts to come out of the bottom of the planter, for instance, to know that it’s done, and that is over-watering. But yours would actually just absorb it, and you would quickly be able to move onto the next … that’s great, that’s fantastic.

Brian Scott: Exactly. And I’ll point out one other really interesting thing. We do this as a quick little demo when we go and demo our product. If you fill like a six-inch pod with a peat-based product, and then another one with PittMoss, and you about 300 milliliters of water into each, you’ll notice in the peat-based product that the water will initially float on top, then it will run down the sides of the pot and empty out the bottom. And our product, when you put the water in it, you’ll see it like naturally wick the water throughout the media.

And one of the really fascinating things we’ll do, is we’ll turn over each pot. And the peat-based pot, you’ll see the top of it’s a little wet, maybe in the bottom it’s wet, but it will fall apart, and the entire center will still be dry. And with our product, when you turn it over, it will actually look like a jello mold, where the entire media is evenly moist throughout. If you peel it apart with your fingers, you’ll see that the center is nice and moist. And one of the things that you’ll see with our product compared to a lot of peat-based products, is the root system in our plant really grows naturally and evenly throughout our media.

Where a lot of people are used to this, when you pull a plant out of the peat-based mix, more often than not you’ll see the root structure, where the roots grew through the media, to the bottom of the pot, and all the roots are bunched up around the bottom or sides of the pot, because they’re looking for air and water. With our product, you get that natural root involvement evenly throughout the media, which is really unique to our product.

Mitch Ratcliffe: The root structures that I saw in the pictures on PittMoss.com are really impressive, much more robust, and they produce such large plants compared to the ones that you were planting in peat. So, at the end of a season, should you reuse PittMoss? What do you do when you’re done with a season’s growing?

Brian Scott:  I’ll come back to that in just one second. But the other really key thing about PittMoss and the root development is that we’ve actually learned through our scientific trials, that because we have such good biological properties in our product, we find that plants actually absorb more nutrients as well. So, the reason that we get significantly bigger plants is number one, there’s a much bigger, more extensive root system, but then number two, those roots are actually much more efficient at absorbing nutrients. And that’s what we talked earlier about, it’s almost like having probiotics for your gut. With our product, it’s almost like having probiotics for your plants. It actually allows them to absorb the nutrients that you’re putting in better.PittMoss Performance

And so, if you’re not over-watering it, if you’re not forcing those nutrients with the water out the bottom of the pot, guess where the nutrients go? They actually go into the plant, to turn into a much bigger, stronger, healthier plant. As far as you’re question related to using the product, we do have people that put our product in the ground in their garden, and you can leave it there for years. It would just decompose like any compost would really. So, we think of our product almost as an engineered compost. Like think of leaves, that are fiberized and then reformulated, that’s kind of what we’re doing with a paper product.

So, we do have people that just leave it in the ground forever, and worms love our product. So, you’ll actually find that we attract more works to the garden. And when you attract worms, the worms leave worm castings behind, so they’ll actually naturally fertilize for you as well. We do however suggest that people refresh every year. And the only reason for that is because of the decomposition, you’ll lose some of the aeration and the water holding capacity. But if you refresh it with new, fresh PittMoss every year, you’ll get that new aeration and water holding year over year.

Mitch Ratcliffe:  So, the last thing I wanted to ask you about is your startup story. You are living the modern media American dream because you won Shark Tank.

Brian Scott: Yeah, yeah.

Mitch Ratcliffe: What was that like? Tell us how it happened.

Brian Scott: Actually yeah, it’s a fascinating story. Our founder is Mont Handley. Mont is currently a board member with the company. He’s not active in the day-to-day operations, but he is a very active board member, he’s our largest shareholder. And Mont had worked on developing PittMoss really over like 30 years. Just like kitchen counter experiments that he had tried with different products, to try to get a better media. Because he read about peat moss in the Sierra Magazine, and that was really his impetus to try to invent something better than what was on the market today. So, he worked on it off and on for about 20 years. And then maybe about 10 years ago he got an SBIR grant that allowed us to do research on newsprint through the EPA.

And that’s how we learned that all the inks were soy-based and that there were really no more heavy metals in newsprint than you would find naturally occurring in the environment. So, Mont had done all of this groundwork, really developed the product, and was actually solicited to interview for Shark Tank, because he’s a military vet. And they were doing a military veteran’s show. And so, he got invited to Shark Tank, went on Shark Tank, and actually got an investment from Mark Cuban. Mark has been an investor in the company for almost four years now, and he’s actually made some subsequent investments with us as well. Mont ended up leaving the company to go care for his ailing father who was over in northwestern Indiana.

And he works today as an executive in residence at Purdue Northwest University. So, Mont’s doing great. He really does have a fantastic inventor story, and he’s done great with working with us on R&D and product development. And we’ve really been able to take his vision to the next level, developing the retail products, and bringing it to market.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, that’s an inspiration for people listening. Because I know a lot of folks are figuring out that there are more efficient or sustainable ways to do things, and they’re tinkering. The idea of being able to tinker to the degree that you could win Shark Tank, that’s really something. And that is, I think, where a lot of our environmental solutions are going to bubble up from, are people working as Mont did in their home, doing those experiments. So now, you can get PittMoss today in a number of places, and we’re going to add a couple of links on our Earth911 site to the Amazon store so that people can find it themselves. But where should people be looking for PittMoss?

Brian Scott: People can find our product online at PittMoss.com, it’s just www.pittmoss.com. We do get a lot of sales through our own website, and we ship it right here out of Ambridge. And then, in addition to that, we actually have a really good store locator map that’s on PittMoss.com as well. So, if you want to buy it locally, there are plenty of places in the Northeast. Really, we go from Maine down to about South Carolina, and then over towards Iowa. A lot of stores are carrying us in that region. We actually just got our first store in Washington state. And we’re excited to be expanding. So, if people go to our store locator, and there isn’t a store in your area that carries it, we’d love for you to ask us for our product, and they can buy it through distributors that they buy from.

Mitch Ratcliffe: That’s fantastic. Well hey, Brian, thank you very much for joining us on Sustainability in Your Ear. We really value the story that you told. Congratulations.

Feature image courtesy of PittMoss

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.