Ever get that guilty feeling when you scrape a plate into the trashcan? If not, you should. Every year, Americans throw away a nearly incomprehensible amount of food–60 million tons, according to a 2016 Guardian report. Worse, the vast majority of it ends up in our landfills; food is the single largest occupant there.
Local woman Tiffany Bess is fighting that trend with her one-year-old company, Apple Rabbit Compost. In December 2015, Bess, then a manager at Corner Taco, had the urge to do something about the enormous amount of food she saw going into the trash. A gardener and composter herself, she knew there was a better way. “About 60 percent of restaurants’ waste output is food,” the 24-year-old said last week, standing surrounded by piles of composting foodstuffs on a farm on Jacksonville’s Westside.
A few keystrokes later, Bess was learning about large-scale composting operations to the south, west and north–but none locally. Her path became fixed when she alit upon an announcement for the U.S. Composting Council’s 24th Annual Conference & Tradeshow coming to Jacksonville in just one month’s time.
“I was, like, this is fate,” she said.
The conference fed her the knowledge and certainty to launch Apple Rabbit Compost last March, along with boyfriend Kevan Kimball. There wasn’t much buzz those first few months, but as the word spread, so did interest. When summer began in earnest, the composting business did, too. Today, Apple Rabbit counts a handful of businesses–including Community Loaves, Southern Roots Filling Station, Sun-Ray Cinema and FreshJax–as clients, as well as roughly 25 residential customers. Businesses pay a monthly fee that varies depending on output, currently $70-$90. Residential customers pay $25/month for pickup service, $16/month if they drop off compost at the Cross Creek Honey booth at Riverside Arts Market. (In the future, Bess says, they plan to have their own booth at RAM.)
Twice a year, customers get their wasted food back in the form of composted soil. If they decline the soil, Apple Rabbit donates it to local community gardens. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is good for the planet, great for reducing the weight, volume and smell of trash that Apple Rabbit’s customers send to the landfill, and priceless as black gold for gardeners.
Back on the farm, which is owned by Kimball’s brother, they dump buckets from residences and large trashcans from businesses onto an ever-growing, retracting and rotating pile. The smell is mild and not particularly unpleasant; the horses on the other side of the fence seem to mind it not one bit. To facilitate decomposition, Bess and Kimball turn the piles for aeration and add various types of plant waste or mulch.
There’s no denying that the work, though minimal considering the amount of food they collect, takes a fair bit of sweat equity. And in the summer, heat generated by decomposition causes those piles to steam.
“I like to joke that it’s my sauna, my tanning bed, my gym,” Bess said.
Along the way, they’ve learned some lessons: Goats will wreak havoc on a compost pile; collecting all the food by bike, though great in theory, is less manageable in practice; and large pieces of mulch take far too long to decompose–leaves, grasses and sawdust work much faster.
Those lessons have increased their confidence and improved their focus. Though Apple Rabbit is currently for-profit, Bess says they are strongly considering becoming a nonprofit to make it easier to do more educational outreach, with an aim to inspire the next generation to compost. And the couple has plans to add composting locations to keep waste more centralized, minimizing the fossil fuels expended collecting food waste and distributing composted soil.
As much of an advocate for composting as she is, Bess humbly thinks of it as the second-to-last stop before the landfill–other uses, like minimizing human waste, feeding livestock, making soup stock or even wine, fall higher on her scale of preferred uses for all that food that goes in the garbage. But composting is still far better than the alternative.
“My whole goal is, I just want the food waste out of the landfill,” she said.