Green City Diaries: Consume, compost, recycle, repeat

It’s been a little over a year since Avalon International Breads started encouraging its customers to compost most of their waste, rather than throw it away. "Garbage is sooo 2010," reads the big, bold sign painted on what used to be the garbage can and what has been transformed into a jaunty compost bin. Simple but detailed instructions also adorn the large, colorful receptacle: "Compost Here: Food, Cups, Lids, Utensils, Salad & Dressing Containers, Paper, Soup Cups & Lids, Paper Bags, Deli Wraps." And then, in characteristic Avalon fashion, a big "Thank You!" and a heart.

Next to the compost bin are the recycling bins, housed in a metal and wood frame that’s been there since the bakery opened in 1997. And garbage? Well, if you really need to throw something away, there’s the "itty bitty garbage can," which sits on top of the much bigger compost bin in an arrangement that makes clear to anyone who walks in the door what Avalon’s eco-conscious values are.

The remarkable truth is that there’s hardly anything you can buy at Avalon these days that you can’t consume, compost, or recycle. According to the sign on the itty bitty garbage can, it is reserved for plastic bags, milk cartons, and the window bags that some loaves of bread come in. Co-owner Ann Perrault told me that plastic bottle tops are one other item that could be added to that list.

The folks at Avalon really don’t want you to throw their products away. They know, as environmentalists have been saying for decades, that there really is no "away," and they’re more committed than ever to minimizing their contributions to local landfills (or the incinerator). The EPA reports that of the 34 million tons of food waste generated in the US in 2010, 33 million tons were thrown away. And food scraps rotting in landfills are a major producer of methane, "a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide."

Operations at Avalon are a bit bigger than you might expect from a visit to the cozy storefront on Willis. I was surprised to learn that there are almost 50 employees, and that at least a few of them are working in the bakery 24 hours a day. They make approximately 2,000 pounds of bread per day and almost 700 pounds of those famously scrumptious sweets, producing about ten tons of food per week. That’s a lot of potential waste.

They’ve been committed to composting from the very beginning in ‘97, but on a smaller scale, and only staff-side. Their early history is an interesting look at green community living in Detroit in the ‘90s and early 2000s: monks from the Capuchin Soup Kitchen picked up their compost, and a volunteer used to load all the recyclables in a van to drive them to Southfield, the nearest place they could be dropped off and processed.

Today, Avalon contracts with Detroit-based Recycle Here to pick up their recycling weekly, and the compost goes to a facility in Toledo managed by a company called Future Organics, Inc. Why Future Organics? Because of the volume of Avalon’s compost, for one, and because of the coffee cup lids they sell. Like most of the compostable/biodegradable products sold at Avalon, the lids are made by Green Safe, the Detroit-based sister company of Recycle Here that supplies local businesses with a wide variety of eco-friendly products.

But unlike most of those products, the lids require a commercial composter that reaches a temperature of 90º F to be successfully composted. That service is not yet locally available for the volume of compost that Avalon collects, so off to Toledo it all goes. (There are some people trying to get this level of composting started in Detroit and are testing it out now. Stay tuned for a future article as Green City Diaries gets down and dirty to learn more about the process.)

Avalon’s continuing journey toward no waste hasn’t always been easy, and it hasn’t proceeded in a neat, straight line toward success. The compost facility weighs Avalon’s compost each week, so management knows that there have been periods of more success (at the very beginning of the public-side program, for instance) and less (during the holidays, when the bakery is busier than ever and staff have less time to actively manage waste).

Part of the problem has to do with the sheer number of employees, the 24-hour production schedule, and the volume of waste produced there. Regarding employees, not everyone comes to the company as committed to triple-bottom line values as Avalon’s management or some long-time staff members are. Careful training is required so that everyone on the bakery’s various teams know what goes where (compost, recycling, and trash cans are all clearly labeled), and then "continuous quality maintenance," as Ann put it, has to be performed.

How do they do it? They’re learning. One solution is to work with human resources to develop an incentive system, including staff bonuses for "best recycler," "best composter," or those who do an especially good job encouraging others to stick to the system.

Another strategy for long term-success is to regularly return to Avalon’s organizational value system. Ann used a meditation metaphor and spoke about the importance of "coming back to your breath," something they do yearly. (Every April, for Earth Day, they publicly recommit to their Earth, community, and staff-centric values, and consider their success in living up to those values during the past year.)

Co-owner Jackie Victor said that if they were going to do it over again, they’d be more strategic: setting more specific waste reduction goals, developing a robust training program to meet those goals, and developing a system to measure their success. She also mentioned the importance of situating the zero-waste goal within the larger value system of the organization, and making it part of the organizational narrative that staff and customers alike can easily understand, rather than part of some abstract philosophy.

"At this point, people almost expect this of us," she said when we met in the bakery a few weeks ago. And it’s true -- Avalon has done such a good job articulating and demonstrating its Earth-consciousness that it’s almost surprising they didn’t start encouraging customers to compost earlier. Some customers I spoke to made it clear that Avalon’s practices, including their increased no-waste efforts, are what keep them coming back: "It’s something small that everyone who walks in the door can participate in," said one. Another succinctly articulated what many of us who keep returning to the friendly storefront probably feel after the fifth or sixth day of a vegan granola bar bender: "It makes me feel better about spending all my money here."

Probably the most successful aspect of Avalon’s storefront no-waste program is the ease with which customers can participate. With the big, unmistakable compost bin and the conscious effort to make sure that nearly everything in the store can go in it, Avalon has made it incredibly easy for all of us to help drastically reduce their waste output, and participate in an important community effort toward sustainability in the process. It feels simple and familiar, from the customer’s point of view, to dispose of waste this way -- you just chuck it in the bin.

But underlying that deceptively simple action are years of dreaming and planning, a clear commitment to a better world where waste is more thoughtfully managed, and the hard, behind-the-scenes work it takes staff every day to make it look easy.

We know that a lot of local business leaders, including people in the food service industry, read Model D, so our questions to that community are: have you ever considered a program similar to Avalon’s? If you’ve thought about it but haven’t moved forward, what’s prevented you? What would it take to get you to commit to no waste? Know a Detroiter or small business leader in the city who's choosing to live or work more sustainably?

Let us know at We’d also love to hear your thoughts about the series. Please leave your comments below.
Matthew Piper was a contributor to the Knight Foundation Arts Blog in 2011. Catch up to his first Green City Diaries piece here.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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