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Ask Umbra: What should I get my sweetie for Valentine’s Day?


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Q. Valentine's Day seems to have become a sustainability-conscious guy's minefield. Flowers? Pesticides. Chocolate? Is it Fair Trade? Jewelry? Is it conflict-free? Were the precious metals extracted without wrecking the environment? If I want to give my wife something that she will always have (rather than an experience like a nice dinner out) how can I be sure that a piece of gold jewelry doesn't bear a heavy environmental burden?

Gregory H.
Seattle, WA

A. Dearest Gregory,

I think you’ve finally hit on a good reason to unite all of us, lovey-dovies and swingin’ singletons alike, in disliking Valentine’s Day. But before we throw up our hands and give February over to Presidents’ Day, take heart: I believe we can ply our sweethearts and protect the planet at the same time. It just takes a little extra thought -- which, incidentally, will make your Valentine gift all the more meaningful.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: Are shrimp farms killing the oceans?


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Q. I have recently read an editorial about the shrimp farming industry and the absolute hell it brings upon the mangroves of Southeast Asia and the use of horrendous chemicals. I immediately thought, "Shit, now I have to stop eating shrimp too!?" So I checked my freezer to look at what might be my last bag of frozen shrimp, and I saw the mark for the Best Aquaculture Practices website.

I read the various pages, however, and it could very well be greenwashing. Do I have to stop eating aquacultured shrimp, even with this seemingly eco-friendly label?

Aonghus M.

A. Dearest Aonghus,

Sigh. Party appetizers, like life, are so much easier when you don’t ask questions. Now that you know the harsh truth lurking behind that innocent-looking shrimp cocktail, there’s no going back. But I’ve got good news: While it’s not always easy to untangle all the competing seafood standards out there, you don’t have to go cold turkey on shrimp if you follow some simple guidelines.

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: How do I dispose of an old TV set?


Send your question to Umbra! Q. My environmentally apathetic grandparents dumped an old cathode ray TV on the edge of their property. It's sad because they live right next to a beautiful wildlife reserve and ponds. I know CRTVs have lead, mercury, and other nasty stuff. What should I do to remedy the situation? Taylor P. Knoxville, Tenn. A. Dearest Taylor, Environmentally apathetic? Heavens, dumping a box filled with eight pounds of lead on the edge of a wildlife preserve almost qualifies as environmentally homicidal in my book. But let’s assume Gramps and Granny didn’t understand that their old-school cathode …

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: What kind of wood floors should I buy?


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Q. From an environmental point of view, is installing an acacia wood floor a good or bad idea? It's from the tropics -- that's a long way for wood to travel, hence a bigger carbon footprint. It's also hard to find from a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) source.

On the other hand, from what I read, this is a fast-growing plantation tree that improves the soil because it fixes nitrogen. It's also more durable than many local species, so the chances my acacia floor would be replaced within the next 100 years is lower than if I go with softer local species.

So, should I get over the fact that it’s exotic and not FSC?

Rich G.
Bellingham, Wash.

A. Dearest Rich,

After spending the last few hours looking at photos of rich, lustrous acacia flooring, I must say that style-wise, you’ve made a lovely choice. And as one of the hardest woods in the world, acacia also passes muster on the durability front. But there’s certainly more to consider when it comes to filling your home with this tropical timber.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Ask Umbra: How can I be sure my recycling gets … recycled?


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Q. How do I know whether the items I place in my recycling bin are actually recycled (short of attaching a spy camera to a glass bottle or following the collection truck like an investigative journalist)? I try to reduce my consumption so that this question burns less intensely, but I have yet to reach a packaging-free state of being. When it takes so much water to clean the plastic and glass, I wonder if the effort and water are worth it.

Lori H.
Urbana, Ill.

A. Dearest Lori,

Spy camera? Glass bottle? Before I say anything else, I must say this: Please make this movie. I heart innovative documentaries about our municipal waste systems.

But as cool as this project would be, it’s unnecessary for your peace of mind. I can understand how modern single-stream (or commingled) recycling programs -- in which all items go into the bin together -- might seem dubious. I just toss all the paper and glass and plastic together, and it somehow all ends up separated and recycled? Really? Yes, really, for one major reason: Recyclables have value. And where there’s a dollar to be made, we can be confident people will do their best to make it.


Ask Umbra: What do I do about my treacherous sidewalks this winter?


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Q. Is there anything new in deicing products as we enter the winter season? May I humbly suggest it may be time for an update to avoid a rash of broken bones?

Bill C.
Annandale, Va.

A. Dearest Bill,

Suggest an update? Why, of course you may. Though, believe it or not, there haven’t been many earth-shattering technological breakthroughs in the field of residential ice management in the past few years. But with this winter shaping up to be such a cold and snowy one for much of the U.S., now is indeed a good time for us all to brush up on eco-friendly deicing.


Ask Umbra: How do I get rid of the mold in my house?


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Q. I recently learned that we have a serious mold problem in our basement and attic. It’s mostly confined to old cardboard boxes and the insulation paper. Our insurance doesn’t cover mold damage and we can’t afford to hire professionals, so I’m looking for an environmentally safe way to kill the mold and stop it from coming back. Right now I’m using a mixture of water, vinegar, baking soda, borax and a few drops of eucalyptus citriodora essential oil to wash the woodwork, plaster walls, and concrete floor. For the attic, I’m considering using a “mold-bomb” fumigant, which is claimed to be safe, but I’m concerned about the health effects of the chemicals used to kill the mold.

Green with fungi,
Eric T.
Pittsburgh, PA

A. Dearest Eric,

In a horror movie, right now we’d all be screaming, “No, Eric! Don’t go into the basement! Or the attic!” Alas, this is real life, and you must face your fuzzy green invaders head-on to prevent the mold from spreading. Otherwise, it could pose a slew of troubling respiratory complications for you and your family before it takes over the house.

The good news: It is often possible to tackle mold cleanup jobs yourself, depending on their size and severity.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: What’s the most responsible way to get my winter thrills?


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Q. I am a snowboarder in Ohio. I need to travel to cold, snowy mountains at least once a year to get my snowboarding fix. Should I drive my Prius or fly? And how bad is patronizing ski resorts?

Andy H.
Yellow Springs, Ohio

A. Dearest Andy,

My condolences on the mismatch between your hometown and your winter sport of choice. (Have you considered taking up cross-country skiing or ice skating? No mountains required!) My favorite cold-season activities tend more toward the knitting-next-to-the-fire-with-a-cup-of-hot-tea variety, but the skiers and snowboarders I know are quite enthusiastic about their pursuit of something called “the stoke.” So I sympathize with your desire to indulge each winter.

There is an easy answer and a hard answer to your question of car vs. plane, Andy. Not to snowflake out, but I’ll start with the easy one: neither. It would be far better for you to pack up your snowboard and hop on a train or bus to the mountains. Yes, in today’s America this option often adds time and inconvenience. But it’s also fun and romantic to ride the rails, and you’ll slash your carbon emissions. Transport options vary once you draw near your resort of choice, but many mountains run ski buses or shuttles (often free), and others can be reached directly via train or light rail.

Now, if you absolutely must drive or fly, the matter becomes more complicated.


Ask Umbra: Why must we “store” renewable energy? Can’t we just use it?

solar sun power plug

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Q. I’m confused about renewable energy storage. Last I checked, renewable energy was but a small fraction of total electricity generation on our grid. I don't think we have ever generated SO much renewable energy at one time that it became necessary to choose between storing it or grounding it. Shouldn't we be using absolutely every kilowatt-hour of renewable energy right when it's generated? And am I incorrect in assuming that the necessity for storage won't even arise for decades in the future?

Christian B.
Los Alamitos, Calif.

A. Dearest Christian,

If only understanding the vast, high-voltage web of infrastructure we call the grid was as simple as flicking a switch. What seems so straightforward on our end -- turn on the lights and bam, electricity! -- is truly a complex system designed to move huge amounts of power staggering distances, all so that we can exercise our right to run the washing machine, dishwasher, and power drill all at the same time.

You’re not alone in your confusion about the country’s power grid, or how renewable energy sources like solar and wind power plug into it. Allow me to shed some light on the subject.


Ask Umbra: Are cows really as bad for the climate as they say?

cow farts

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Q. We all know that in the process of eating grass and grain, our farm animals produce methane. But what if that grass was left to die -- wouldn't the decomposition of it also produce methane? Would there be a comparison in amounts of methane produced? And, if we were to just eat those grasses and grains ourselves (instead of having the animal eat it first), wouldn't our own fecal matter produce an equal amount of methane from decomposition?

Rory F.
Orillia, Ontario

A. Dearest Rory,

Let’s call it Methane Week here at Grist -- last Thursday, we discussed the dairy industry’s role in producing hot-air balloonfuls of the greenhouse gas. Today, your question turns our attention to other sources of the stuff: namely, plant decomposition and our own, er, unmentionables. You’re right that we should be concerned about methane -- it’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere -- but there are some significant differences in the sources you mention. Grab your shovel and dig in.