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Ask Umbra: What’s the best way to seal up a drafty house?

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Q. This winter is supposed to be very cold in Virginia. What are your top recommendations to renters in drafty homes? We plan to put plastic wrap on the windows and replace the door jamb insulators. Is there anything else we can do?

Cold Kate
Fredericksburg, Va.

A. Dearest Kate,

There’s something rather Dickensian and romantic about the idea of huddling 'round the fire as icy drafts sweep through your charming Victorian home. But it’s not so nice in practice, is it? As renters, you may feel limited in what you can do to fortify your house against winter’s chill, but take heart: There are several short-term steps you can take without your landlord’s involvement, and several more long-term improvements to be made with it.

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Ask Umbra: Must an eco-minded wine connoisseur drink from a box?

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Q. Traditional wine bottles weigh a lot to transport, but the glass and cork seem to be good for recycling. The economical cardboard wine box weighs a lot less and can also be recycled or composted, but inside the box there is a plastic bag which may be recyclable, but may also impart unwanted ingredients to the wine.

Could we add a little weight in the formula to the health of the consumer, since the environmentally and politically active part of the population seems to include a higher percentage of wine drinkers (impression, not hard data), who, if they remain healthy, may better be able to help restore our planet's health?

Ron L.
Philadelphia, Penn.

A. Dearest Ron,

Your question puts the environmental impact of wine in a whole new light. If the world indeed depends upon the health of our wine-swilling, lefty-leaning, grassroots-organizing neighbors, then the presence of dangerous chemicals in their Chablis is a matter of national, nay, global security.

And even if your assumption about a link between wine drinking and eco-activism doesn’t pan out (though it sure is fun to examine the evidence), the health effects of a particular wine package are worth considering when we’re choosing between bottles and boxes.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Is my artisanal whipped cream a climate menace?

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Q. The holidays are coming, and with them, lots of pies. Pies that go better with whipped cream. I use a foamer bottle to make whipped cream, quickly, easily, and with far less mess than doing it by hand or with a stand mixer. But I just realized: The cartridges I use are CO2! So I'm using a greenhouse gas just to make whipped cream! I'm feeling ridiculously guilty. Is it really all that much? How much CO2 would be released generating the electricity to power a mixer to do the same thing?

Steve, a.k.a. Grossly Conflicted about a Minuscule Part of My Life!

A. Dearest Steve,

Welcome. You’re among friends here. I wouldn’t have a column if not for people grossly conflicted about minuscule parts of their lives.

I must start by breaking the news that the situation is worse than you think: The cartridges (also called chargers) you’re using in your whipped-cream foamer are most likely filled with nitrous oxide, not carbon dioxide.

Read more: Food, Living

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My expert advice: Donate to support green news now

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Today is the final day of Grist’s vaunted annual tradition, the year-end fundraiser!

We still have 786 donations to go and we’re relying on you to propel us, like a steely javelin slicing through the crisp winter air, to our goal of 2,500 gifts before midnight.

The fact is, we need you to make our unique brand of green news and advice possible.

Do you enjoy my little column, or our daily news, or the insightful interviews with bold people endeavoring to make this planet a better place?

Then please give. We’ve got lights to keep on, bills to pay, and a staff of 25 to feed.

Can we count on your help on this last day? Make a donation now!

Read more: Uncategorized

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Ask Umbra: Does antibacterial soap work better than the old-school variety?

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Q. When I asked my new roommate if we could switch to regular dishwashing liquid from our pure castile soap, she said she would rather not because she was "bug friendly." I'm a fond lover of the flora and fauna myself, but I don't want to get a foodborne disease that would be avoided by using a stronger soap. I even wonder if the awful cold I caught from her was from not using disinfecting soap on our dishes. Why is my roommate insisting on using castile soap? Does it work?

Dishwashing Dilemma
San Francisco, CA

A. Dearest DD,

You’ve identified what I think is a common concern among the eco-conscious. Of course we want to choose nontoxic, non-polluting products … but do natural cleaning alternatives actually, you know, work? This is especially acute when health issues -- not to mention matters of domestic tranquility -- are on the line.

Get ready for a cooling of tensions in the kitchen, DD: Your pure castile soap is just fine for dish duty. To explain why, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the purpose of soaps, whether they’re meant for your hands, body, or the pot with the burned-on crud stuck to the bottom. It’s not to kill pathogens. Rather, soap chemically binds with grease and germs, then yanks the offending nasties down the drain in a swirl of hot water. (It does this so effectively, simple handwashing is the centerpiece of a global campaign from the World Health Organization.) And castile soap, a veggie-based and biodegradable concoction, stands right there with your “regular” varieties.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Can you really recycle plastic bags?

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Q. I do my best to avoid plastic bags, but it takes a lot of planning to completely avoid getting them -- e.g., if I decide to buy items like Brussels sprouts that need to be corralled before going into my reusable bags. Do the plastic bags that supermarkets offer to recycle really get recycled? If not, I really need to get serious about planning ahead.

Jim P.
Newton, Mass.

A. Dearest Jim,

I can empathize with your plight. I, too, have dashed off to the grocery to pick up “just a thing or two,” only to emerge laden with impulse radishes, string beans, or those alluring Brussels sprouts. While your checker no doubt thanks you for confining them to a plastic produce bag, your conscience may not.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to keep my teeth white?

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Q. I am trying to reduce waste (like any diligent Grist reader), and one item I can't find in a recyclable or reusable container is toothpaste. Are there any toothpastes that come in recyclable containers and aren't made by big companies and full of chemicals? I've considered making my own paste from baking soda, but then there's no fluoride. How important is that?

Rachelle G.
Menlo Park, Calif.

A. Dearest Rachelle,

We’ve come a long way since the days of cleaning our choppers with crushed twigs and bones, but that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out everything when it comes to eco-oral hygiene. Your question addresses two issues, Rachelle: the toothpaste itself, and the tube it comes in. Let’s brush up on the former first. Environmentally and healthfully speaking, what’s the best way to keep our teeth clean?

The medical establishment is pretty much unanimous on this one: You want to brush your teeth at least twice daily with an American Dental Association-approved toothpaste. The ADA conducts gold-standard testing to ensure a given goop actually follows up on its claims to protect those pearly whites -- and brands that pass muster get an ADA seal on the package. Easy, right?

Well, not so fast: An ADA seal doesn’t necessarily mean a tube is free of potentially worrisome chemical ingredients.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Can I rest easy eating organic beef?

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Q. I always buy organically raised beef, when I do buy beef. I read that ground beef you get is a mixture of beef from different animals. How do I know the beef I am getting is, in fact, organically grown? Could it be mixed with other feedlot beef? Also, when it comes to processing the animal, how are the organically raised cows treated? Any better or different than if they were just regular cows?

Suzy P.
Denver, CO

A. Dearest Suzy,

When I got your letter, I imagined you reading it aloud in with a suave accent: “I don’t always eat beef. But when I do, I prefer organic.” And well that you do: There are important differences between the lives -- if not the deaths -- of organically raised cattle and their conventional, feedlot-bound siblings.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: How much is my firewood polluting the air?

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Q. How do I measure wood smoke from firewood?  We want to do a comparison of different firewoods and find the one that has the least smoke emissions, provides the most heat, and burns the longest. We would like to really measure the smoke. Any ideas?

Patricia S.
Scotts Valley, Calif.

A. Dearest Patricia,

If you listen carefully this time of year, you can almost hear it: the crackling of thousands of wood stoves firing up for a season of home heating. Unfortunately, the cozy glowing of all those stoves has a serious downside: a smoky, sooty smudge on local air quality.

Wood smoke emits all kinds of nasties [PDF], including benzene and formaldehyde, but the primary culprit is particulate matter (PM2.5), a mix of tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled and wreak all kinds of havoc. The stuff is linked to respiratory illness, chronic lung problems, cancer, and premature death -- so your desire to find the cleanest-burning logs possible is a vote for both air quality and personal health for you and your neighbors.

I admire the citizen-scientist pluck behind your wish to analyze and compare different types of wood smoke yourself, Patricia. Unfortunately, this is currently pretty tough to do unless you A) are an atmospheric scientist with access to sophisticated sampling tools, or B) have an extra $10,000 to $50,000 lying around to spend on said tools. I checked with Matthew Harper, air monitoring lead for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. He said you could use a handheld particle counter, the cheapest of which will run you a mere $300 to $500, but these devices probably aren’t accurate enough to distinguish the nuances between, say, hickory versus oak smoke.

But don’t hang up your lab coat just yet: There are still a few worthwhile experiments to be done.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: What do I do with my worn-out sponges?

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Q. I wash dishes all the time, and those yellow and green sponges will only last a few weeks at most. I don't know what they're made of, so I don't know in which bin to throw them or how to reuse them. Can I make a recycled mattress or couch with a thousand used sponges? Is there any charity or artist that collects old sponges? Is there a good, affordable, practical, and eco-friendly alternative?

Arne P.
Calgary, Alberta

A. Dearest Arne,

Sponges truly are the multitaskers of the cleaning crew. Not only are they scrubbing our dishes, they’re also busy wiping counters, washing cars, applying makeup, brightening windows, and exfoliating our skin in the shower – and this week, likely pulling overtime sudsing the stuffing off your company platters. It doesn’t seem right to reward such service with a one-way ticket to the trash, but unfortunately, that’s exactly where many sponges are bound.

Your typical grocery-store kitchen sponge is made from polyurethane, a petroleum-based material that can’t be recycled or composted. Even worse, some sponges billing themselves as antibacterial are soaked with triclosan, that ever-plaguing chemical linked with liver and thyroid issues and toxic to aquatic life.

Luckily, there are easy alternatives.

Read more: Living