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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.

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Ask Umbra: Why is my face scrub full of tiny plastic beads?


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Q. There has been a lot of talk about the damage those tiny plastic beads in beauty products are doing to our waterways, especially the Great Lakes region. What sorts of alternatives are out there? I've heard of jojoba beans and nutshells being used, but are they really any better?

Madison, WI

A. Dearest Danni,

You’ve certainly got your finger on the pulse of aquatic pollutant news. First, your letter – then, last week, Illinois became the first state to ban the sale of products containing those tiny plastic beads you speak of. More states may soon follow suit, making microbeads (as they’re officially called) the villain du jour of our waterways. High time, if you ask me.

For those not as up on soap trends as Danni, in recent years, cosmetics companies have flooded hundreds of products – primarily face scrubs, but also shampoo, toothpaste, lip gloss, and sunblock – with diminutive balls of plastic meant to exfoliate our skin. Manufacturers like 'em because they’re smooth and easy to produce, but that’s pretty much where the benefits end. Once they’ve done their thing on our faces, these microbeads go down the drain, through the filters at the treatment plant (they’re typically too small to be snared), and into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. There, they soak up environmental pollutants like DDT and flame retardants before unsuspecting fish gobble them up, and then other fish (or maybe even you and I) gobble them in turn.

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Ask Umbra: Which is lighter on the land, wild game or farmed meat?


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Q. We all know that a plant-based diet is the best way to cut carbon emissions in our diets. For meat lovers, chicken, fish, and meat substitutes often steal the spotlight when it comes to “if you have to eat meat.” But what about the carbon impact of wild game? How can you tell if it’s locally sourced, and what is the carbon footprint of, for example, antelope burgers or wild boar sausage?

Also, we keep hearing about bugs being in our future diets. Are there resources describing how to farm bugs at home, since I can’t exactly walk down the block and sample grasshopper tacos just yet?

Houston, Tex.

A. Dearest Alex,

No grasshopper tacos in Houston? Restaurateurs of America, have I got an opportunity for you!

You sound like a conscientious eater, Alex, as well as an out-of-the-box thinker. And I think you’re also spot-on in your hunch that opting for the reindeer ragout or the cricket soufflé over your typical feedlot beef is likely a much greener choice. Not only that, you’re even going the extra mile by looking for local sources for all these alterna-proteins. In short, I think I’d very much enjoy a dinner party at your house.

Let’s back up a minute. As you point out, wild game is currently riding a surge of popularity among eco-minded folks, primarily for what you’re not getting: no artificial hormones or antibiotics, no water- and fertilizer-guzzling monocrop grains to feed the animals, no cruel and stinky CAFOs. Plus, hunters I know often wax poetic about how killing your own dinner connects you to nature and your food like nothing else. Eaters, for their part, may like to imagine an elk frolicking through the forest, wild and free, before garnishing their hamburger buns.

Here’s the thing about wild game though, Alex: If you’re buying it at a restaurant, butcher shop, or online, it came from a farm. That’s right – U.S. farmers raise everything from bison and elk to reindeer and bear, and are allowed to market it as “wild.”

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: I’m buried in garbage bags. Is there a better way?

garbage bags

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Q. I'm trying to use less plastic. Currently, I line the kitchen trash can with 13-gallon bags and the bathroom and bedroom cans with plastic grocery bags. But I don't want to buy more 13-gallon bags, and, as I now exclusively use cloth bags for shopping, my plastic grocery bag supply is dwindling. What do you suggest for handling household trash without plastic? When I was a child, we lined the trash cans with newspaper, but I don't have much of that around.

Kathy D.
Syracuse, N.Y.

A. Dearest Kathy,

I think your decision to use less plastic is, well, fantastic. As you’ve discovered, making the change to a less plasticky lifestyle involves adjusting some old habits – like the convenience of tossing trash into readily available bags – but it can be done. What’s more, I think you’ll find it quite freeing once you get the hang of it.

The surface problem here is that we need a new way to deal with household trash. But Kathy, let’s go a bit deeper with this: If you don’t have any household trash, then your problem disappears. See what we just did there? Now, I realize that completely eliminating garbage sounds like a tall order (though it can be done!). But focus on simply reducing your trash, and then you won’t need to worry so much about the bags you use to haul it around.

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Ask Umbra: What’s the most efficient way to heat and cool my house?

Everett Collection

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Q. I'm building a house just south of Boston. What are my options for efficient heat/cooling?

Dighton, Ma.

A. Dearest Mark,

If the home is indeed a man’s castle, then your attention to energy efficiency makes you a most benevolent king. And that’s wonderful, because not only are green homes one of my favorite topics, but building anew gives you the freedom to play around with eco-friendly design techniques in a way you can’t always pull off when renovating an existing home.

Before we start debating furnaces vs. heat pumps, though, I’d like to look at some of the bigger-picture choices you can make to slash your need for heating and cooling systems in the first place. These issues will depend on your particular lot, budget, and preferences, but the more you do now, the better. And of course, seek the counsel of a pro before you commit to anything -- he or she will have plenty more details tailored to your dream home.

One major variable that’s often overlooked in these discussions: home size. Sounds obvious, but it bears repeating: The smaller your home, the less energy you’ll need to heat and cool it. Only you know how much house you really need, Mark, but keep that in mind.

Then, I’d encourage you to investigate the magic of Passive House design. The details vary according to the climate in your region, but the idea is this: Through smart insulation, efficient windows, and careful siting, you can all but eliminate the need for energy-gobbling heating and cooling systems.


Ask Umbra: How do I convince my boss to start an office recycling program?


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Q. I recently relocated to Florida from New York and I am finding it so hard to recycle without having to go completely out of my way. There are no recycling bins at my place of work or my apartment complex! I am completely amazed by this and also horrified at all of the recyclables that are ending up in landfills. I have looked into bringing it up at my apartment, but I also want to know if there is a good way to approach this with the bosses.

Tampa, Fla.

A. Dearest Sam,

As someone who has been known to embarrass her friends by fishing Coke bottles out of the garbage in public, I feel you -- it’s downright painful to see perfectly recyclable items going to waste. But don’t forget that in challenge lies opportunity, and you’re in a great position to make a difference here. Is that an Employee of the Month trophy I see glinting in your future?


Ask Umbra: Is there really BPA in my recycled toilet paper?


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Q. I am on the committee for an association of property owners on a lake in Ontario and have offered to write an article about the merits of using recycled toilet paper in our septic systems. But I was disturbed to read online that recycled paper has BPA in it and shouldn't be used on any part of our bodies, especially sensitive places. Can you enlighten me as to whether this opinion is valid?  

Jo-Ann R.
Ottawa, Ontario

A. Dearest Jo-Ann,

What a crappy discovery: Just as you’re trying to go about your private business in the most planet-friendly way possible, you hear that our beloved recycled TP is contaminated with chemicals. Talk about damned if you doo, damned if you don’t.

The bad news: Recycled toilet paper -- among many other recycled paper products, from paper towels and napkins to newspaper and business cards -- may indeed contain BPA, reported a 2011 study in Environmental Science and Technology. (For a review of why this ubiquitous chemical concerns us, head over here.)

How’d it get in there? Blame thermal paper, which we encounter most often as receipts but is also used in lottery tickets, luggage tags, and shipping labels. Thermal paper sports a coating of powdered BPA (serving as a developer for the heat-sensitive paper), and researchers have shown the stuff readily rubs off on our skin, the Benjamins in our wallets, and, most relevant to our discussion today, all the other paper it meets down at the recycling plant. The result: traces of BPA getting prime access to our nether regions via our eco-conscious tissues.

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Ask Umbra: Which are greener, cartons or cans?


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Q. I see that some foods previously available only in cans are now available in cartons -- soup, tomato products, pumpkin puree, etc. How do the types of packaging compare on an environmental basis?

Puzzled by pumpkin puree,
Abigail D.
Washington, D.C.

A. Dearest Abigail,

Ah, the perennially puzzling packaging question, or PPPQ. Many discerning shoppers like you have written me attempting to untangle the knotty questions of glass bottles vs. cartons, big jugs vs. little cartons, glass bottles vs. cartons again, and many more. Now that cartons are muscling in on can territory, what are we to think?

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Ask Umbra: Are dogs born to poop wild?

no pooping in forests
Shutterstock / Mslavick

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Q. I have recently been blessed with the addition of a four-legged friend to my household of one. We frequently take advantage of a local wooded trail to get a little exercise. The Admiral also takes the opportunity to do his business in the open air and far from manicured yards or sidewalks. My question is: Do I need to carry "it" out or can I safely leave his call of nature in nature to feed the Earth and help sequester carbon just like his cousins the large herbivores we call cows do?

Bob T.
Gainesville, Fla.

A. Dearest Bob,

Congrats on the new addition! On the pro side, you now have a trusted bud to fetch your slippers and alert you to threats posed by passing squirrels. Of course, you’ve already discovered the not-so-pro side of dog ownership: poop duty. We discussed how to best dispose of your pooch’s unmentionables here, but you add an interesting twist: What if The Admiral (great name, by the way) does his business not in the ‘burbs but in the woods?

Read more: Living