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Ask Umbra: How do I wipe out a yard full of weeds?

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Q. Weeds have taken over the yard of a house that hasn't been maintained. Can you please recommend an environmentally friendly way to get rid of them?

Adriana F.
San Jose, Calif.

A. Dearest Adriana,

I love gardening questions. They allow me to virtually escape the stacks and spend the day mentally frolicking in a sunny, flower-filled yard. And with spring finally springing in so many places, yours is a timely query indeed.

It sounds like the weeds in question aren’t in your yard, Adriana, but perhaps you’re keen to remove a neighborhood eyesore. (If people actually still live in this house, though, you should probably have a chat before descending on their property with hoes and trowels.) It also sounds like you’re dealing with an advanced infestation. Even so, you probably know what I’m going to say first: The best way to deal with weeds is … weeding!

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Ask Umbra: Good gracious, is there lead in my fine china?

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Q. My mom passed along the set of dishes that my grandmother hand-carried home from China, back when she and my grandfather were among the very first U.S. tourists to travel there in the early ’70s. And they're beautiful, with colorful glazed patterns. The trouble is, the glazes all contain lead. (I checked.) I'd rather not just dump them as household hazardous waste, but I certainly don't want to give them away to someone who might unknowingly use them for food. Any suggestions? I'm not about to take up pique assiette myself, but I suppose I could find someone who does it.

Diana F.
Portland, Ore.

A. Dearest Diana,

We’ve all heard the saying about gift horses and mouths. In your case, I’d like to propose an addendum: “Unless that horse is china set that could be coated in lead.” You were wise to check into the safety of your inherited dinnerware, and you’re right to be concerned -- but I don’t think you necessarily have to kick your lovely heirlooms out of the house.

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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to recycle bottles that have been full of chemicals?

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Q. Is it safe to recycle plastic jugs that previously held toxic substances? Would the residue from a bottle of automotive antifreeze or household cleaner transfer to next plastic product after recycling? I've thought about washing out the bottles before recycling, but I don't really want to put this into the wastewater system either. Obviously, not using these products is the best way around this problem.

Jon
Lincoln, Neb.

A. Dearest Jon,

I’m so glad you asked. A well-meaning person who tosses the wrong item into a recycling bin can do more harm than good -- especially when the item in question may contain toxic residue that can harm waste managers or contaminate other recyclables.

Nobody likes the idea of hazardous chemicals around the house, but many of us may end up harboring some anyway, whether it’s antifreeze, lawn pesticides, drain cleaners, or even nail polish. As you note, Jon, the best thing to do is avoid these products altogether, but more on that in a bit. For now, we’ve got a few jugs to deal with.

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Ask Umbra: So even BPA-free plastic is poisonous now?

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Pete Carpenter

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Q. In light of recent BPA-free-wait-this-stuff-is-worse confusion, what kind of water bottles can I drink from? I don't trust myself with a glass Nalgene.

Thanks,
Hannah W.
Cleveland, Ohio

A. Dearest Hannah,

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water bottle … Out comes disturbing new research saying our new, safer plastics aren’t necessarily all that safe after all. So where can we turn to fulfill our hydration needs now?

First, for those of you who don’t have a Google Alert on BPA, a.k.a. bisphenol A: The Center for Environmental Health recently released a study that looked at chemicals in several brands of BPA-free kids’ sippy cups. Nine of the 35 cups tested contained significant amounts of estrogenic chemicals similar to BPA – seven of which actually measured higher for estrogenic activity than products with BPA. This joins a 2011 study finding that most plastics leach synthetic estrogens, even those labeled BPA-free, and even without exposure to stressors like microwaving, dishwashers, or UV light.

What gives? Didn’t we solve this dangerous-hormones issue a few years back, when the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and kids’ cups and manufacturers switched en masse to BPA-free plastics?

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Ask Umbra: Should I trade my big home in for a tiny house?

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Q. Environmentally speaking, what are the pros and cons of building a tiny house (approximately 300 square feet) vs. living in an older home that is already here (approximately 1,000 square feet)? Is it better for me to move out of my old home into a tiny one to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?

Colleen
Stoughton, Wis.

A. Dearest Colleen,

When I was 7, I was sent home early from a slumber party for attempting to convert a friend’s Barbie mansion into an energy-efficient, high-density apartment complex. (Do Barbie and Ken really need all that space for just two? Come on!) So I understand your urge to shrink your environmental footprint by way of shrinking square footage. And with tiny homes getting hipper and more architecturally ingenious by the minute, there’s perhaps no better time to think small. But as you suspect, Colleen, there’s more than just sheer size at play here.

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Ask Umbra: Are chemicals in my garden hose polluting my veggies?

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Q. I have heard that there is triclosan in new garden hoses. My old hose is spouting leaks everywhere now, but I cannot find any references as to where I can find a chemical-free garden hose. I grow lots of veggies and don't want our family to be eating toxins. Any idea where I can source one?

Jacqueline
Adelaide, Australia

A. Dearest Jacqueline,

The ubiquity of chemicals in our daily lives is rather dispiriting, isn’t it? Here you are engaged in the very healthy, sustainable practice of growing fresh veggies for your family, only to learn your innocent-looking garden hose may be showering tonight’s salad with toxins? Good grief.

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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to re-side my house?

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Bob Jagendorf

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Q. Do you know anything about polypropylene house siding? We have to get our whole house re-sided and (obviously) wanted to avoid using vinyl, but it's so much cheaper than all the other options. And then I saw that Consumer Reports seems to differentiate between vinyl siding and "other plastic/polymer siding" in their rankings and I did some research. It looks like PP siding is an entirely different product.

Jeff K.
Brighton, Mass.

A. Dearest Jeff,

The greenest house is probably one we build ourselves from natural materials gathered from the forest floor. Somehow this sort of back-to-nature carpentry is a nonstarter for most people, however, so we’re stuck with actual houses that need some type of protective siding. I’ve spent the better part of a day immersing myself in polypropylene, and I’d be tickled to share what I've learned.

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Ask Umbra: Can I drink coffee with a clear conscience?

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Jill G

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Q. Would you explain the environmental impact of my drinking coffee? I am a coffee fiend, and I am concerned that forests and the like are being decimated so I may have my several cups of joe per day.

Caffeinatedly Yours,
Regina M.
Mattapoisett, Mass.

A. Dearest Regina,

You’re in good company with your jones for caffeine: With 83 percent of Americans reporting they enjoy a cuppa now and then (which translates to 400 million cups per day!), coffee may as well be our national drug. But as you suspect, your daily joe has its dark side. If you’re not up for quitting the stuff -- sssh, they might revoke my Seattle residency for that -- let’s first take a look at the damage, then consider how we can sip more responsibly.

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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to reuse biodegradable plastic spoons?

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Q. We get cute, colorful, (supposedly) biodegradable plastic spoons at a local frozen yogurt joint. They would be perfect to reuse for my 2-year-old son, except that I'm worried about the chemicals they may be releasing, especially in response to the high temps of the dishwasher. Should I steer clear or is it OK to reuse this biodegradable product?

Jess W.
St. Louis, Mo.

A. Dearest Jess,

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Ask Umbra: Is it irresponsible to use cloth diapers in a drought?

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Q. I am about to have a baby. I had planned to use cloth diapers after the first two weeks, but given the California drought, I am not sure that is the best idea. I've read much of the literature about sustainability of cloth diapers over other alternatives, but given the state of emergency, I wonder if the benefits still hold over disposables.

Marisa R.
Irvine, Calif.

A. Dearest Marisa,

Congratulations on your impending bundle of joy! It sounds like you’re well-prepared for one of parenthood’s primary side effects: A 1,000-percent increase in the amount of time spent thinking and talking about poop. As diapers are about to become a major part of your life, it makes sense to get your strategy pinned down now.

The party line here at Ask Umbra is that disposables and cloth diapers are basically a draw, environmentally speaking. As spelled out in a comprehensive life cycle assessment from the British Environment Agency, disposable nappies create a much larger landfill burden, but cloth ones require much more water, both to grow and process the cotton and also to wash the diapers. However, a severe drought does indeed change the calculus here.

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