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

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.

Read more: Food, Living


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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Ask Umbra: Who makes the most awesomely eco-tastic computers?


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Q. What's the best(ish) choice I can make when purchasing a computer? Is there a company out there that makes an effort to not overly pollute/exploit/crap on the earth and its people?

Antananarivo, Madagascar

A. Dearest Austin,

Computers do have their benefits – allowing us to have this transoceanic discussion, for example, or putting a bottomless supply of adorable cat videos at our fingertips. But the ubiquitous thinking boxes come with a hearty impact on the planet throughout their life cycles, from potentially toxic materials used in their manufacture to their siphoning of electricity to the knotty problem of what to do with them once they’re kaput. Is opting out of civilization entirely an option for you, Austin? If not (and I hope it isn’t – how else would we have these chats?), you’re going to have to deal with a computer. Luckily, some companies are markedly better than others.


Ask Umbra: Should I get my panties in a bunch?

Conor Ogle

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Q. I buy organic, U.S.-made undies from a very eco-conscious company, but have doubts about their packaging. They use "100% biodegradable," low-density polyethylene (LDPE) envelopes that claim to entirely disintegrate, turning into "humus and biomass" within months of composting or landfill disposal. I doubt that, since there's no oxygen in landfills. Or is this the type of plastic that just breaks down into small pieces? I think a recyclable paper envelope would be a lot better, even if it might get wet in transit on rare occasions.

Stephanie P.
Oakland, Calif.

A. Dearest Stephanie,

Three cheers for your skepticism -- a raised eyebrow is exactly the kind of response I like to see when my readers are confronted with marketing claims like this. We will not be greenwashed! But first, I have to ask: Are you acquiring new undies at such a rate that the envelope disposal is a major concern? If that’s the case, may I gently suggest that your first move be to slow down a bit and make those unmentionables last?

Whether you have one set of skivvies or a hundred, your letter raises an excellent question: Can plastic really biodegrade? It may say so right on the package, but unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: Is my compost pile contributing to climate change?


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Q. Composting has become a basic tenet of sustainable living, but it is also under debate: How irredeemable is its methane bi-production? Is there any way for homeowners to process compost so that methane production is limited or eliminated?

Santa Rosa, Calif.

A. Dearest Adriana,

Backyard composting sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? You divert food scraps from the landfill and create an ultra-enriching soil booster that nourishes crops and gardens -- and you do it all right out the back door so there’s no fuel used in shipping. So where’s the catch? Well, under certain conditions, decomposing matter does produce methane -- a highly potent greenhouse gas 20 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. But here's the unequivocally good news: Your compost pile doesn’t have to. With the right management, backyard compost can indeed be methane-free.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Ask Umbra: What’s better than butter? Spreads will roll


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Q. I follow a largely vegan diet, but I often make exceptions for animal foods that have a lighter environmental impact, such as using local honey instead of sugar. I am wondering about butter and its alternatives. Coconut oil is a great butter replacement, but it must travel far. I have access to generic organic butter, but no local butter. What do you recommend?

Little Rock, AR

A. Dearest Christine,

Butter and its assorted alternatives aren’t technically required for a healthy diet, so we can live without them entirely. All butter does is moisten our cakes, add creamy flavor to our crackers, impart rich mouthfeel to our sautés, and lend an irresistible flakiness to our pie crusts ... You know what? On second thought, we definitely can’t live without them. Please excuse me while I go grab a biscuit.

Since you’re open to cow-sourced products, I should start by pointing out that you do have access to local butter -- if you can connect with a local, grass-fed, pastured dairy and make it yourself, that is. From what I remember from elementary-school Pioneer Day, this is a tasty and fun process.

But then again, it’s also somewhat time-consuming and creates a product high in saturated fat, one of the artery-clogging bad fats we’d all do well to avoid. And because you’re largely limiting animal products in your diet, Christine, I suspect you’d be even more interested in some of the creative, plant-based alternatives out there. Coconut oil is a popular one, but as you note, it’s not exactly a local product. Let’s toss out palm oil too while we’re at it -- the stuff is linked to significant ecological destruction of the rainforest.

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: Can I feed feral pigs to Fido? Should I?


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Q. Wild/feral pigs/boars: I see their overpopulation is a problem in Texas, New York, Missouri, California, and Florida, to name a few. Are these the same animals in my chi-chi dog food featuring "Wild Boar"? Are there other companies taking advantage of this invasive species to make dog food that I can support?

Michele C.
Keene, NH

A. Dearest Michele,

I love the twofer problem-solving you display in your note. Problem: Wild hogs are overrunning sensitive ecosystems all over the country. Problem: Our dogs are hungry. It’s win-win!

The solution sounds perfect, but can we really join the battle against invasive species by ... feeding them to our pets?

From what I can tell, the answer is a qualified yes. I’m not sure which brand of puppy chow you’re scooping, Michele, but I could only find a few companies advertising wild boar as a main ingredient. One of them, Taste of the Wild, reports that the boar in Fido’s bowl was indeed a wild-caught, invasive hog from a Texas supplier. A spokesperson at the other one, Natural Balance, also confirmed their boar is wild-caught in the U.S. (There’s also a Canadian manufacturer that offers boar dog treats, but those come from farmed hogs.)

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: How do I clean my too-green roof?


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Q. There is lots of moss growing on our concrete tile roof. Do you have any advice on getting rid of it? Looking online, I see several recommendations for a product that uses hydrogen peroxide, which it says is eco-friendly. Do you agree? Our drinking water comes off the roof and is collected into a cistern. Thank you for your help.

Kristin M.
Gabriola, B.C.

A. Dearest Kristin,

I just had to Google your hometown, and I see you live in what looks like a seaside paradise off Vancouver Island. But even the planet’s prettiest hometowns have their downsides, and it seems the price you pay for your temperate winters and romantically foggy atmosphere is moss that grows like it’s on steroids. We generally love green roofs here at Grist, but this kind could spring a leak in your attic.

Your question reminds me of our recent discussion on mold removal, and just like in that case, I think the best chemical to start with is good old elbow grease, applied liberally.

Read more: Living


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