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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!

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.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: Are organic cherries worth the extra expense?

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?

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


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


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?

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


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?

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


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

red cups

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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!

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


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

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?

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


Pulp Nonfiction

Ask Umbra: How many times can you recycle paper, anyway?


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Q. I've heard that paper can only be recycled 7 times before the fibers get too short to make new paper. If everyone recycled all their paper, and purchased recycled-content paper, is there a limit to how much recycled content the average paper could have?

Alex D.
Somerville, MA

A. Dearest Alex,

Nick and Nancy are spearheading a campaign to increase paper recycling in their town to 100 percent. If X people recycle Y tons of paper per month, and total paper demand in town is Z tons, then -- wait, are you my eighth grade math teacher?

This delightfully knotty word problem is based on your correct assumption, Alex: Paper can indeed be recycled only a finite number of times before its fibers get too short and frayed to be recovered. And according to the EPA, that magic number is about five to seven trips through the paper mill. That means we must always turn to some amount of brand-new pulp -- called virgin pulp in the biz -- to fulfill our needs. According to estimates from a nonprofit and a paper industry group, if we tried to make all paper from 100-percent recycled content starting now, we’d run out of materials in just a few months. In other words, yes, there is a limit to how much recycled content the average paper can have.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: Is it safe to use newspaper as garden mulch?

Weeding Veg Patch Gardener from Overhead

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Q. I am able to buy from our local newspaper company the ends of their rolls of newsprint. They are too small to be run through the machinery, so they are not printed on. I am considering using long strips of this unused newsprint as mulch in my vegetable garden, but I'm wondering if it will supply dioxins or other undesirable chemicals to the soil as it degrades?

Greensboro, N.C.

A. Dearest Peter,

What’s black and white and read all over, and protects your veggies from weeds? Newsprint, that liner of birdcages and bulker of papier-mache projects everywhere, is also often touted as a useful garden or compost additive. But is it really safe to lay the classifieds alongside your cucumbers?

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: How can I find a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck (electricity)?


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Q. Any idea which vacuum cleaners are more environmentally friendly? I'm thinking made with postconsumer recycled materials, reusable filters, and low energy use, maybe other factors? Thanks!

Concord, N.H.

A. Dearest Nick,

Back in the olden days, all we needed to keep our floors dirt-free was a stick and some bundled straw. Now, we (the carpeted among us, anyway) must rely on electricity and plastic suction machines, some of which cost hundreds of dollars, to get the house ready for company. Oh, the complications of modern life.

But if carpets you have, Nick, then vacuum you must. The three Dirty Ds -- dust, dirt, and dog hair – aren’t going to remove themselves from your home. And if you or anyone you live with has asthma or allergies, this chore becomes even more important. So what’s an environmentally conscious housecleaner to do?

It is possible to procure a mechanical carpet sweeper, which looks kind of like a regular vacuum but works by sweeping up debris with rotating bristles. I use the word “works” loosely, though: My weekly allowance used to depend on carpet sweeping, and I can tell you it leaves a lot to be desired in the effectiveness department. (These commenters largely agree with me.) Grandmothers everywhere also once used the old “beat the rug with a stick” trick, but alas, that won’t work for non-movable carpets either.

So we’re left with choosing the best vacuum cleaner we can find. You’ve identified some of the major variables already, Nick: recycled materials, reusable filters, and energy use. To that I’ll add another factor: durability. There are also a few habits you can adopt to maximize the efficiency of your hoover and cut down on your vacuum time.

Read more: Living