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

litter volunteer

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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


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

snorkel kids

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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.

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


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

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


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!

Read more: Food, Living


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.

Read more: Food, Living


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.

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.

Read more: Living


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

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.

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?

Read more: Living


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

Inhabitat Blog

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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?

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.

Read more: Living


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?

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.

Read more: Food, Living


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

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.