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Ask Umbra: What are “natural flavors” anyway?

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Justin McGregor

Send your question to Umbra! Q. I've been trying to eliminate preservatives and other food additives from my diet. Upon becoming more label aware, I've been shocked to discover how many foods contain "natural flavor.” Even butter contains it! I'm suspicious of how natural this flavor actually is! Do you have the scoop on natural flavor additives? Yours truly, Lindsay F. Seattle, WA A. Dearest Lindsay, Your question reminds me of one of my favorite old love songs, the one that goes “A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and butter is just cream that’s …

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Ask Umbra: What’s the most efficient way to heat the house?

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Send your question to Umbra! Q. We recently bought an older house that has an older steam boiler. Best guess is that it's from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. We don't have the funds to completely redo our heating system, so we're sticking with the steam boiler for now. What I'm wondering is this: Is it more efficient to turn down the heat at night and when we're gone during the day, or to leave it running at the same temp consistently? I've been told that with steam boilers it takes so much energy to raise the temperature that …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to wash a car?

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Q. I'd like to see your take on school fundraiser car washes. I live in Arizona and I cringe each time I pass one, as they seem so environmentally unsound.

David B.
Tucson, Ariz.

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A. Dearest David,

My, my, will cars never cease in their environmental transgressions? Not only are they fossil fuel-guzzling, smog-belching, traffic-causing beasts, they also demand to be washed with gallon upon gallon of precious water and stream-polluting soaps. Add to that the image of rowdy high schoolers spraying each other with the hose in between jobs, and I’m cringing right along with you.

But I also know this: Budget shortfalls mean those schools probably desperately need the extra cash infusion -- especially in Arizona, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau [PDF], ranks No. 48 in per-pupil spending. So it behooves us to find a better option for this sudsy rite of passage. I'm happy to report that they exist, but first, let's look at what's wrong with those open-air scrub fests.

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Ask Umbra: How can I throw a party without crashing the planet?

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Q. Do you have recommendations for hosting large gatherings in a sustainable way?

Lise O.
Wellesley, Mass.

Oh boy.
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Oh boy.

A. Dearest Lise,

I, too, love a good party. When my workload here in the stacks allows, I will occasionally indulge in an evening with friends, a good homebrew in hand and Engelbert Humperdinck on the hi-fi. And with the holidays swiftly approaching, I suspect we’re all in for some serious merriment. In fact, some of you may even be kicking off the season with a Halloween gathering this very weekend.

While dishware is a big part of any festal gathering -- whether reusable, compostable, or recyclable -- we dove into that discussion not long ago. So I'll focus this column on greening one’s gatherings beyond the forks and knives.

If your parties are anything like mine, you have several factors in play: invitations, festive décor, and what on earth you’re going to feed all these people. Let’s take each one in turn.

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Ask Umbra: Which kitty litter option is best?

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Q. I've been using a clumping, scoopable cat litter that is made primarily from corn. Recently my local pet stores were out of that brand, so I switched to one made primarily from wheat. The grain-based formulas seem to work better than the synthetic kinds, and they're not perfumed -- and I've assumed they're at least marginally better for the rest of the planet than, say, clay varieties, both to manufacture and to dispose of. However, I've been wondering about where that corn comes from: Am I contributing to GMOs and other horrendous farming practices by using the corn variety? Is the wheat any better? Am I starving hungry families by using a food crop so I don't have to live with the smell of cat poop? Please pour out your answer ...

Tonia P.
Port Washington

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A. Dearest Tonia,

Your question echoes several others I’ve received recently dealing with the unpleasant problem of, well, poop. We’ve covered composting toilets and doggy doo, so why not address man’s other best friend and her litter box, too?

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Ask Umbra: Is there such thing as an eco-friendly cellphone?

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Q. Have you thought about doing a review of cellphones for environmentalists? I’d love to know a) what the environmental impact is, and b) which phone does the least damage in terms of both materials and energy use.

Peter W.

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A. Dearest Peter,

Finally, an easy question! The greenest cellphone is no cellphone at all. I think I may just close up shop early today and browse my favorite vintage shops for a new cardigan.

Just kidding, of course. Though it’s true that you would be sidestepping the resource-intensive, landfill-clogging problems associated with cellphones by just not buying one, good luck with that in the real world. Like it or not (and put me in the not column), the mighty mobile has spread far and wide: According to the latest from the Pew Research Center, a whopping 91 percent of U.S. adults own a cellphone, with 56 percent of us opting for smartphones. And more than a third of our households are now wireless-only. Resistance may not be futile, but it is tough.

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Ask Umbra: Can you help us find a super new pooper?

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Q. We are wanting to build a small, environmentally friendly cottage, something for one person to live in. We're currently researching composting toilets and getting quite confused by all the contradictory information. Suppliers of course claim how perfect their product is, while competitors and consumers give voice to contradictory claims. Do composting toilets actually work? Are they a viable option? What about cost effectiveness? Are they truly better than septic systems?

Cedar United Church
Cedar, BC

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A. Dearest Cedar United,

My readers seem to have potty topics on the brain lately -- first this question about doggie doo, and now your query on the even less appealing topic of what to do with our own unmentionables. But as much as we’d all like to pretend this isn’t an issue, my favorite children’s book has it right: Everyone poops. Now what are we to do about it?

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Ask Umbra: Which is better, plastic or compostable forks?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

The Green Team at my church campaigned unsuccessfully for a policy of using -- and washing -- reusable dinnerware at church functions. Then we campaigned successfully for a policy of using all compostable dinnerware (plates, cups, and utensils) at church functions. The compostables are added to the bin that Cedar Grove Compost collects regularly. The compostable dinnerware costs a whole lot more than regular plastic-coated paper plates, plastic forks, and cups. Is using compostable dinnerware just greenwashing our church dinners? Is it really a significant improvement? Maybe we could use the cheap stuff and spend the savings on a better dishwasher...

Carolyn C.
Edmonds, WA

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A. Dearest Carolyn,

First, may I commend your church for supporting a capital-G Green Team? I like to imagine you and your compatriots as the eco-version of the Avengers, protecting your community from oil spills and the scourge of idling cars. Well done.

Yours is one of a few recent letters I’ve received on compostable dinnerware and entertaining -- and with the party-filled holidays just around the corner, now is a good time to devise a plan of attack for the mountains of dirty dishes looming in our future. (And while we’re in planning mode, here’s a refresher on greening your Halloween shindigs.)

Let’s start with the first part of your question: Is compostable dinnerware better than plastic? This is more complicated than it first appears.

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Ask Umbra: What do I do with my old shoes?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

What can I do with my old tennis shoes? I have a closet full of shoes that are way too weathered and beaten up to donate to a food pantry or Goodwill, but are still quality material that I feel shouldn't go to a landfill. Can shoe soles or leather uppers be upcycled?

Alison A.
Madison, WI

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A. Dearest Alison,

One of my most cherished dreams is to design an entirely biodegradable line of shoes. But until my efforts with baking-soda paste and threads woven from invasive vines pay off, I share your common dilemma -- a few too many pairs of tired tennies cluttering up the closet.

When you look at shoes in the broader context of the rest of our clothing, we’re shamelessly wasteful: According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American tosses 70 pounds of clothing per year. Of that, a mere 15 percent finds new life as industrial rags, insulation, carpet padding [PDF], seat stuffing, and even paper. The other 85 percent? Landfill.

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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to dispose of dog poop?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Although I set up our town’s recycling system and have followed updates in the waste management field with interest, I was at a loss when my neighbor asked me what to do with dog doo-doo. I know it’s not great for our gardens, and therefore not a superb compost amendment. Can you give us some ideas?

Jule A.
Slave Lake, Alberta

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A. Dearest Jule,

How wonderful to hear from a fellow waste-management enthusiast. I thought the latest issue of Municipal Excrement Weekly was divine, didn’t you?

Jule, you are right that dog waste presents environmental concerns. The average canine produces three-quarters of a pound of fecal matter every day. That makes for 274 pounds of unpleasantness each year -- which, besides its obvious drawbacks, is crawling with pathogens such as Giardia, salmonella, E.coli, and (brace yourself) roundworms [PDF]. And since I assume life in your North Country town demands strong, sturdy dogs such as huskies and St. Bernards, your neighbor’s problem may be, as Garrison Keillor would say, above average.

Read more: Living