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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.

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Ask Umbra: How do I fight my city’s terrible litter problem?

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Q. My city is littered with litter! It is all over the place. I try to pick up litter whenever I am outside, but I am only one person. What other methods can I employ to clean up my city?

Blakely S.
Boston, Mass.

A. Dearest Blakely,

Of all the environmental issues out there, you’d think litter would be the one we could all agree to fix. After all, when’s the last time you heard someone argue in favor of greasy potato chip bags in the park or cigarette butts in the harbor? But despite the near-universal distaste for litter, there’s still trash flying around town. Go figure.

I’m glad to hear you’re concerned. As you may already know, the litter problem does more than make a neighborhood look, well, trashy. Free-range garbage also makes its way into storm drains, and from there, local waterways, where it can end up in the stomachs of turtles and seabirds. It may attract pets and wildlife, which in turn invites the spread of germs. Litter diverts recyclable items from the recycling plant. And in case those reasons don’t move you -- personally, you had me at turtles in distress -- littering costs businesses and governments billions in cleanup. That’s a high price to pay for the “convenience” of tossing a banana peel out the car window.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Ask Umbra: How do I know if my local swimming hole is safe?

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Q. Summer is coming, so I wonder if the river near my house (the famous Kamogawa) is safe for my kids to splash in. There is a garbage incinerator upstream, though not directly on the river, and the operators *swear* it does not leak. Is there a water testing kit? What kinds of things would I want to test for? And what kinds of safety limits would I want to look for? It does not have to be drinking-water quality, just safe enough to stick their little feet and hands in.

Gabi
Kyoto, Japan

A. Dearest Gabi,

You’ve just officially made it Water Week here at Ask Umbra. On Monday, we waded into what kind of substances we can safely put in the water; today, let’s address whether or not we can put ourselves in as well.

I hope you’ll forgive me for answering your question broadly. I don’t know how clean the Kamogawa is, nor will my expense account cover phone calls to Japan to check. But I can share some information I hope will be useful to you and anyone else longing for a warm-weather dip in a local waterway.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to lather up in the lake with biodegradable soap?

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Esp2k | spwidoff

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Q. I live on a small lake. I have a dock, and a kayak, and a pedal boat for my niece, and hands that get dirty. I'd like to have the safest possible soap to use on the dock to wash hands and boats and furniture, and so on. Based on my own research, it seems to me that Seventh Generation dish soap may actually meet my needs without harming the lake or the critters therein? Do you concur?

Dennis K.
Sumter, S.C.

A. Dearest Dennis,

I do not. I don’t mean to sound harsh -- lots of people mistakenly think that biodegradable soaps are OK to use in the water -- but I’ll need to ask you to put down that bottle and back away from the dock.

“Biodegradable” and “nontoxic” sure sound appealing on a soap label, don’t they? Terms like this may lead us to believe that the contents will break down immediately and harmlessly, causing no damage to the complex ecosystem of plants, fish, bugs, and other tiny aquatic creatures in the lake. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Read more: Living