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Ask Umbra: What’s the most eco-friendly way to get rid of this sexy stubble?

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Q. What's the most sustainable way to shave my man-scruff so I don't look like such a dirty hippie? I know, I know, not shaving at all is the way to go, but damn if it doesn't start itching too bad.

Wade
Seattle, Wash.

Q. What is the most environmentally friendly/responsible hair removal method for women (legs and underarms)? Shaving, waxing, laser removal, something else I've never heard of? (I realize the most environmentally responsible way might be to not remove the hair at all, but I've decided not to take that route at this point.)

Caitlin
Derry, N.H.

A. Dearest Wade and Caitlin,

My, society is a funny beast. Thousands of years of evolution have come up with a highly successful model for the human body – all that leg, face, and underarm hair included – and what do we do but work ourselves into a tizzy over how to get rid of it. I appreciate your sheepish acknowledgment of that fact, you two, but worry not. You’ll hear no rants in favor of au natural grooming from me today.

What you will hear, however, is a gentle reminder to keep things in perspective. Individual choices do matter, and we should always strive to do the best we can. But the carbon emissions associated with razor blades versus electric razors versus waxing, etc., pale in comparison to bigger-ticket choices like transportation, home energy, and diet. So let’s get into some recommendations here, then transfer that care and energy elsewhere.

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Ask Umbra: What’s that stuff dripping out of my neighbor’s air conditioner?

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Harsh Patel

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Q. Is the water dripping from my upstairs neighbor's air conditioner full of chemicals? I often sit out on my fire escape and wonder if I should be concerned about the water dripping not only on me but also on my potted herbs and salad greens (which I eat).

Kate
Jersey City, N.J.

A. Dearest Kate,

Your letter gives me an idea for the next great superhero movie: Our mild-mannered heroine sits out on the fire escape, eating salad while unknowingly absorbing drip after drip of radioactive goo from the upstairs AC unit. The next morning, she wakes up with superpowers and bounds off to battle villains, protect the innocent, and restore peace to Jersey City. Is that blockbuster material or what?

Unfortunately for my prospects of summer-movie success but fortunately for your health, Kate, air-conditioner water will no sooner hurt you or your garden than it will enable you to swing between skyscrapers. The stuff dribbling out of the neighbor’s AC is essentially pure, distilled water, not chemical-ridden toxic waste. That doesn’t mean you can drink it, mind you, but there’s no need for you to rig up an umbrella out back, either.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: How can I get rid of all of this packaging foam?

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Q. I am distressed by the bulky #6 Styrofoam blocks that come in the box on the rare occasion when I buy something new and large. I have not found anywhere that recycles them; they sit around the house for a few months, and if Halloween doesn't arrive, they ultimately go in the trash. (I've already dressed as a salted pretzel, hot cocoa with marshmallows, and coffee with sugar cubes for Halloween.)

I found your post from 2004 that said the market for #6 might improve, but it's been ten years (!) and it doesn't seem like it has. Is there hope for #6? Do you have any other ideas of how to dispose of it?

Emily B.
Hillsborough, N.C.

A. Dearest Emily,

How about bagel with sesame seeds? Christmas tree covered in snow? Starry sky? That should get you through another few years.

But seriously now: I’m afraid those piles of excess foam still represent a recycling hurdle in many parts of the country. And even the most inspired Halloween reuse is merely delaying the disposal issue, leaving us with a big, bulky problem. But the good news is that you can very likely find a place to recycle your blocks, even if it’s not as simple as taking them out to the curb.

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Ask Umbra: What should I do with my nasty old pillows?

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Q. My pillows are getting gross. I've thought about washing them, but I can only do two at a time in the washing machine, and I live in Southern California where we're in the midst of a nasty drought. So, I've thought about throwing them away and getting new ones, but I hate the thought of them just sitting in a landfill. Which path to clean pillows is better for the planet? And if you have any recommendations for eco-friendlier pillows in general, I'll take 'em!

Amy
Glendale, Calif.

A. Dearest Amy,

While I admire your commitment to water conservation, there’s no need to force your pillows into early retirement. Just as you wouldn’t toss your clothes, dishes, or bedsheets after getting a bit grimy (I hope), nor should you contribute to overconsumerism with a new set of pillows, which require raw materials, water, and energy to produce – and that you don’t really need.

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Ask Umbra: Are organic cherries worth the extra expense?

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me and the sysop

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Q. While I go organic as much as I can, the inability to buy organic cherries is the price I pay for a low-paying job cleaning up our gorgeous environment. Since I cannot bear to live life without a few fresh summer cherries, I buy the regular ones. My mother insists that in this case, using that fruit wash stuff is the way to go. But it's expensive! Does it REALLY do a good job of getting pesticide residues off of the surface of fruit, or does a good spray of plain old water do just as well?

Karen
North Bend, Wash.

A. Dearest Karen,

I wholeheartedly agree: No one should be confined to a life without fresh summer cherries. Or strawberries. Or blueberries. Mmm … Methinks a trip to the farmers market is in order, stat.

As you note, though, even in-season cherries can be pricey, with organics still more so (and that’s not considering the premium you’ll pay for those tasty kings-among-cherries, Rainiers). We here at Grist love organic produce: It’s free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, making it healthier for you and the planet. But if your budget can’t swing it – I’m going to go into some tips on that in a moment, mind you – you can still reduce your pesticide exposure from the conventional variety.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: What’s a girl to do with soap that’s full of plastic microbeads?

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Q. Shortly before the reports that described the effect of microbeads on our waterways came out, I was at Costco and bought several bottles of facial scrub on sale. I stopped using it, but still have 2 or 3 bottles here in the house. What's the best way to dispose of it?

Dori G.
Cockeysville, Maryland

A. Dearest Dori,

What lamentable luck. Like anyone stuck with a pile of Brazil World Cup Champion T-shirts could tell you, sometimes it backfires to buy in bulk. You may have already purchased the plasticky potions, but I have good news: You can still keep their insidious microbeads out of our waterways.

But first, in case anyone here has missed the microbead brouhaha of late: Many personal-care products intended to exfoliate the skin, such as face scrubs and body washes, derive their abrasive powers from tiny bits of plastic (a bit nonsensical, really, but there you have it). But researchers have realized the tiny bits of plastic, a.k.a. microbeads, are showing up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they’re attracting pollutants and getting eaten by fish and generally behaving badly. Turns out, water treatment plants can’t filter out these minuscule bits, so they go straight from our sinks and tubs to the sea. (Read more about the problem here.)

Knowing this, you’re right not to sigh and simply use up the rest of your supply, Dori.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Can I survive in the city with just a bike?

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Q. Driving everywhere makes me feel like a cretin. However, I live on a hill in Los Angeles. I've considered a bicycle (with some type of engine or motor boost) alternative, but several things stay my hand:

  1. Bike safety.
  2. Hill. Big one. And my job is one where I'm on my feet and moving, so long rides after a hard day don't sound fun.
  3. Groceries. Tools. My dog. There are certain things I can't imagine accomplishing with a bike.
  4. No public transport stations within walking distance.
  5. Dear old mom trained her girl to always be wary. There are times when it’s a relief to be able to lock my doors and be in an enclosed car.

What's the next most eco-friendly decision for a busy gal in a city of cars? Or are there just more lifestyle changes I could/should make?

Remy,
Los Angeles, Calif.

A. Dearest Remy,

Your personality-filled letter – which, regrettably, I had to edit for length – neatly identifies the hurdles many of us face when contemplating life without our four-wheeled gas-guzzlers. While the benefits of ditching the car are huge (among them saving tons of cash, no traffic and parking hassles, and more exercise), it can be intimidating to take the leap – especially in a place as stereotypically auto-crazed as L.A. But fear not: With the help of a bicycle, public transit, and perhaps a little technology, you can indeed reduce your reliance on that fossil-fuelmobile. You can even dump it entirely.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Ask Umbra: Is it safe to water veggies from my rain barrels?

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Q. Is it safe to use the water that comes off my roof into a rain barrel to water herbs and vegetables that we eat?

Ron
Jefferson, Md.

A. Dearest Ron,

Using sweet rainwater to nourish your burgeoning salad ingredients is just like a refreshing drink straight from a mountain stream. By which I mean – and if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing what I’ll call "the wilderness two-step" after indulging in the latter, you’ll know this already – proceed with caution. Both water sources may look clear, pure, and unequivocally healthy, but you never know what invisible intruders lurk within.

Rain barrels in general are unequivocally healthy for the planet. Simple systems designed to funnel rainwater from your roof into storage tanks, rain barrels relieve pressure on stormwater systems, reduce the energy used to treat and transport water, and save you roughly 1,300 gallons of tap water per summer. But you’re not the only one wondering about using that manna from heaven on your veggie garden, Ron.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: What is the greenest party-drink vessel of all?

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Q.  Do you think it is better to use cups and bottled soda or canned drinks at a party? I recently hosted a graduation party and chose to use 2-liter bottles of soda and plastic (recyclable) cups. I set out Sharpies, so people put their name on their cups and reuse them. I know people tend to set a soda can down unfinished, misplace it, and get a new one, but I haven't tried Sharpies on aluminum!

Ginger
Richland, Wash.

A. Dearest Ginger,

Your question, while timeless, certainly feels timely this week. Countless Americans are no doubt stocking up on BBQ fixin’s, flags, and fireworks from just over the border for this weekend’s 4th of July celebrations, so now is a perfect time to discuss our party drinking habits.

You have posed a classic either-or question, Ginger, but as is my wont with these queries, I’m going to start with an answer of “neither.”

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: Should I find a rideshare for my trip — or just go Greyhound?

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Chester Paul Sgroi

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Q. I would like to take a Greyhound bus with another family member on a short trip from Toledo to Cincinnati. It would be more relaxing than driving, and better for the planet. But we have an appointment we can't miss. How do I find out how reliable the schedule is? Also, I have heard there are rideshare websites one can go to. Any information on them? Are they safe?

Kathy
Southeast MI

A. Dearest Kathy,

I’m revved to hear your enthusiasm for transportation options beyond the personal automobile. Given the choice, I, too, would happily hand the wheel over to someone else and spend those road hours catching up on my crossword puzzles. It’s the surest cure for road rage I know.

Planet-wise, the bus is an excellent option for your trip to The Queen City. Not only do Greyhounds have wifi these days, but buses are among your lowest-carbon choices: According to a Union of Concerned Scientists report, you and your relative will cut your carbon emissions almost in half over even a hybrid car by busing. The downside to this option over, say, a high-speed train is that you’re still tied to the ebb and flow of highway traffic.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living