Week of 4/11/2004

Dear EarthTalk: Do urban gardens significantly contribute to our food supply?

—Wayne Chow, New York, NY

The United Nations Development Program estimates that urban gardens, like the ones springing up all over New York City and Seattle, provide 15 percent of the world"s food supply. In the U.S., they are also creating sorely needed jobs in neglected neighborhoods and introducing concrete-raised children to the wonders of nature. Gardens bolster community pride and eliminate some of the environmental problems of modern agribusiness such as heavy use of pesticides and pollution from long-distance transportation.

Town planners, who may worry that constituents will be offended by manure and dirt, often view urban agriculture suspiciously. However, there are many examples of successful urban gardens. Hong Kong, one of the world"s most densely populated cities, produces about half of its vegetables in urban gardens. In Moscow, nearly 65 percent of families engage in some kind of food production. In Cuba, according to the Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First), urban gardens play a crucial role in feeding the country"s citizens. Havana, where nearly 20 percent of Cuba’s population lives, is home to over 8,000 community gardens, which are cultivated by more than 30,000 people and cover nearly 30 percent of the available land.

Back in the U.S., South Central Los Angeles" "Food from the "Hood" program has brought attention to the potential of its embattled Crenshaw district, while providing college funds for the high school students who maintain organic gardens. San Francisco"s Fresh Start Farms employs homeless families to grow produce, which is then sold to local restaurants. Even some U.S. prisons have now started urban gardens, which can be on rooftops as well as on the ground.

CONTACT: Food from the "Hood, (888) 601-FOOD, ;www.foodfromthehood.com Fresh Start Farms, (415) 487-9778, www.grass-roots.org/usa/fresh.shtml, Institute for Food and Development Policy, (510) 654-4400, www.foodfirst.org.

Dear EarthTalk: How much of our waste in the U.S. is recycled compared to what is "disposed of"? Who keeps track of this?

—Anita Knight, Wheaton, IL

Roughly 30 percent of the trash generated in the United States is recovered and recycled or composted. About 14 percent is incinerated, and 56 percent ends up buried in landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency"s (EPA) Office of Municipal Solid Waste.

The EPA reports on a wide variety of solid wastes, including paper and cardboard, glass, metals, plastics, rubber, leather, textiles, wood, food, yard trimmings and inorganic wastes from residents, businesses and institutions. The agency has witnessed the amount of waste produced in the U.S. rapidly increase over the past four decades.

The EPA"s last study, conducted in 2001, estimated that 229 million tons of wastes were produced that year, or approximately 4.4 pounds per person per day. That"s a 260 percent increase in tonnage from the 88 million tons of waste produced in 1960, which was about 2.7 pounds per person per day. Bearing in mind that U.S. population was 179 million in 1960 but is 292 million now (a 60% increase), it means that not only are there more Americans now—Americans are wasting more.

But there are some positive trends: In 1960, only 6.3 percent of total U.S. waste was recycled, only a fifth of what is being recycled today. And in a more recent years" comparison, some 68 million tons of waste were recycled or composted in 2001, compared to 34 million tons just 10 years earlier.

There has also been forward movement in paper recycling. According to the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI), we are well on our way toward recovering 50 percent of all paper used. More paper is now recovered in the U.S. than is sent to landfills.

There"s progress, say recycling advocates, but not enough: "I think that for certain materials—glass, plastic, and aluminum—we have not made much headway in the past few years," says Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. "The recycling rate for all containers has declined over the past eight years, partly because the financial incentive to recycle aluminum cans has not increased with inflation," she says.

CONTACT: The U.S. EPA"s Office of Solid Waste, (800) 424-9346, www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/index.htm; Container Recycling Institute, (703) 276-9800, www.container-recycling.org; TAPPI, (800) 332-8686, www.tappi.org.