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Ask Umbra: Are dogs born to poop wild?

no pooping in forests
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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

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Ask Umbra: How can I make the world a greener, funnier place?

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Q. I read about all kinds of important stuff on Grist — like how to ensure my couch is flame-retardant free, how to keep toxins out of my food, and how to make the best decisions for my family and the planet. What can I do to spread the word about this stuff?

John D.
Berkeley, CA.

A. Dearest John,

It warms my heart when people like you crave green information. While Big Media often falls woefully short on this front, Grist and I always have your back.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Ask Umbra: How can I green my candle habit?

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Q. HELP. I'm a soy candle devotee, but when I've burned them down to the bottom, I'm basically left with a glass jar with an inch of petrified wax at the bottom. I don't wanna toss it in the trash, but can the glass be recycled? And do I have to somehow dig out the hardened wax and/or break the glass to do so? NOTE: I am NOT one of those crafty Susie Homemaker types who has a clever use for an old candle jar. I'm never gonna drink wine out of it.

Holly R.
Portland, Ore.

A. Dearest Holly,

My, readers do seem to have candles on the brain lately. Yours was one of several recent burning questions about the wax cylinders beloved by everyone from real estate agents staging homes to teenagers trying to fool parents about what else they’re lighting up in the bedroom. So let’s shed a little flickering light on the matter of disposal.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Can I sneak a compost bin past my homeowners association?

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Q. I’d really like to start composting the food scraps from my kitchen, but my HOA doesn’t allow outdoor bins. Are there any sneaky ways to compost without anyone noticing?

Tinaz S.
Vernon Hills, Ill.

A. Dearest Tinaz,

As far as acts of rebellion go, this is one of my favorite kinds: harmful to none, beneficial to all, and with the potential to change some hearts and minds. No homeowners association should be able to force you to send your scraps to the landfill – and luckily, nor can they. There are indeed a few options for clandestine composting, even among the nosiest of neighbors.

Why does the HOA care in the first place? Reasons may vary group to group, but I’ll bet it’s because they think compost bins are stink-producing, bacteria-brewing, rat-attracting pestilence pits that will lower property values. Of course, you and I know a well-tended compost pile is none of those things.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: Do they still make alarm clocks that don’t require batteries or electricity?

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Q. I'm trying to cut back on my time in front of screens (outside of work). Obviously, my smartphone is my biggest hurdle. One issue I'm particularly bothered by is my morning routine. Since my phone is my alarm, I'm on Facebook and Twitter before I fully open my eyes. To put some space between me and my phone I'm looking for an alarm clock. I want one that doesn't use batteries, but is going to be reliable. What are my eco-friendly, electricity- and battery-free options? Do they even make those anymore?

Rose
New Orleans, La.

A. Dearest Rose,

For all its benefits, the digital age has sure ushered some invasive technology into our lives. Kudos to you for setting some boundaries with your smartphone – I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Twitter has no place in the bedroom. But with your phone banished from your bedside, how will you know when it’s time to start the day?

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Which is greener, grass or artificial turf?

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Q. Recently, my community looked at installing an artificial turf field with lights to extend the use available from our recreational fields. Is this good for the environment? Community? Children? Will the lights affect the ecosystem of the forest nearby?

Lucy
Reston, Va.

A. Dearest Lucy,

As I write this, I am this very moment sitting on a lush, natural lawn, squishing the green blades between my toes. It’s delightful. So perhaps it won’t surprise you to hear that in any contest between plastic and things that grow, I’m naturally inclined toward the latter. But there’s a lot more to consider here than my barefoot-in-the-park sentimentalia. Shall we pull out the weed whacker and wade in?

I’ll tell you the bad news up front: As with so many either-or questions, it’s not entirely clear whether fake turf would be better than the real stuff for your community. Each side has its champions and its eco-cred, and the answer depends on the climate where you live and how the field is used and maintained.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Is somebody sneaking palm oil into my food and shampoo?

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Q. Is there a database of food and household products that use vs. don't use palm oil? If not, would there be a way that we, your readers, could crowdsource one? (I know other forms of action have more impact, but it'd be nice to be able to vote with our wallets, too.)

Reader #27352

A. Dearest Reader #27352,

Before we begin, may I call you something else? Your moniker is a bit, well, robotic. How about Julius, in honor of noted treehugger and founder of American Arbor Day Julius Sterling Morton? OK, Julius it is.

Now down to business: Shopping is tough enough when our enemies are obvious, like triclosan in our soap or vinyl in our house siding. But you’ve put your finger on a particularly slippery problem with palm oil: Unlike, say, gluten or peanuts, it’s very tricky to figure out whether a product contains palm oil or not. No, palm oil lurks in the shadows like a double agent, using dozens of aliases to infiltrate half of the supermarket.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: What’s the best way to get my local veggies?

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Q. Is it better to have a veggie box from a produce delivery service sent to my home each week, or to just purchase the produce from the grocery store? They have many of the same products from the same producers.

SDL
San Francisco, Calif.

A. Dearest SDL,

Who wants local veggies? We do! When do we want them? Now! Where will we get them? Well … that one is a little more complicated. But dear readers, I don’t want you overthinking this. Eating lots of local produce is superhealthy for you, the environment, and the economic futures of small farms. There are some differences between the sources for these veggies, which we’re about to dive into. But if you point your compass toward local, organic foods, your choices will all be varying degrees of good, OK?

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: Is it safer to ride a bike or drive a car?

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Q. I like to commute on my bike, but lately I've been spooked by reports of cyclists getting clobbered by cars. Is it safer to ride a bike or drive in a car? The math gets complicated very quickly.

James L.
Huntington Beach, Calif.

A. Dearest James,

Even the most dedicated cyclists wake in a cold sweat every now and then, their nightmares populated by unexpected car doors and right-turning semis. For all of its many, many benefits, bike commuting can make you feel quite vulnerable out there in traffic. Add to that the emotional gut-punch of a tragic cycling accident, and I don’t blame you for getting a little spooked. But should you let that fear keep you off the bike? I think not.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Ask Umbra: What should I do with used tissues, old mixtapes, and rage against the greens?

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Q. What is the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of used tissues? I usually use a handkerchief, but I've had a very bad cold for four weeks. I try to put the tissues in the toilet, but my wife says I should put them in the trash. We have a properly maintained septic system, and the company that pumps it uses the outflow for approved compost on fields elsewhere in Maine. I maintain that they're better reused as compost, rolling that carbon back into the soil. My wife maintains that it would be better to put them in the landfill, as they are reported in some circles to put undue stress on septic systems.  

Bob E.
Chebeague Island, Maine

A. Dearest Bob,

My, my -- a month is a long time to spend nursing a terrible cold. I do hope you’re feeling better, and not only because of the mountain of icky tissues you’ve been creating. You’re right that a reusable, washable handkerchief is the best way to go here, but as you note, sometimes the nose has other plans.

Read more: Living