We have here a momentous occasion: The 10th anniversary of Ask Umbra! Instead of making myself useful by answering a question from one of you today I've compiled the 10 most notable moments in Ask Umbra history as I’ve feasted on organic carrot cake. Walk with me for a while -- and keep an eye out for further celebrations this week. (We’ll also be dusting off some of our favorite columns from the archives in the coming months -- if you have a classic you’d like to see get another moment in the sun, let us know.)
I just read an article about the quantity of lead in lipsticks. The obvious question is: Why? We took the lead out of gas and paint, and put it in lipstick. I love my lipstick, but I’m starting to wonder if I should.
Maura D. Turin, Italy
A. Dearest Maura,
Getting all gussied up for the Ask Umbra 10th Anniversary Fiesta next week? You are too sweet, and I can’t wait to exchange virtual air kisses with you. (A special note to my dearest readers in the San Francisco area: Grist is throwing a for-real celebration in your fair city on April 26 -- hope you’ll meet me there!)
Bellissima, your question is fair. Why, indeed, is a pollutant that can cause damage to our brains, nerves, and reproductive systems lurking in a product that is supposed to make people feel pretty? The bare-bones answer is this: Lead is everywhere. It’s in our air, our soil, our water. And as it happens, it’s in the mineral colorants often used in lipstick. Lead is a naturally occurring metal, but much of this ubiquity has to do with, as you note, our earlier predilection for adding it to things like gas, paint, pipes, food cans, and so forth. As a society, we leaded ourselves. Now we can’t get rid of the stuff.
Maura, this lipstick issue is just the tip of a bigger truth: The cosmetics industry is full of ugly secrets. Having said that, however, I don't think evil cosmetics executives are gleefully rubbing their hands together as they pour molten lead into tiny tubes.
I bought a new bicycle helmet, and I’m wondering what to do with my old one. I worry that donating it is irresponsible, since I am no longer confident in its noggin-protecting abilities. But sending it to the landfill isn’t a good option either. What is the best thing to do?
Anne D. Seattle, Wash.
A. Dearest Anne,
You know what you could do with your old bike helmet? Use it as a chafing dish for the beautiful cake you are going to bake for the 10th anniversary of Ask Umbra this month!
Anne, you get points for being a responsible cyclist and replacing your brain bucket (see these guidelines for when to do it). As I’ve said before, bike helmets are not easily recyclable, but we should try not to lose too much sleep over sending helmets to the landfill, given the many, many other ecological (and economic) benefits of the bicycling habit. However, I’ve unpacked a few new thoughts from my pannier:
I’ve been in my rental apartment for 20 years and have had the same refrigerator the whole time. A friend told me a new refrigerator would be much more energy-efficient. While it leaks a bit now and then, my current refrigerator works fine, and my electric bill is OK – about $30 a month. Should I buy a new one for the efficiency? Would that offset my old but still-functioning refrigerator being landfilled?
Tam T. San Francisco, Ca.
A. Dearest Tam,
Before we get to poking around in your refrigerator, let me leak a big secret: April is my birthday month! In a few weeks, Grist will be celebrating 10 years of Ask Umbra -- so please feel free to shower me with warm wishes, surprise me with incredibly original questions, or pen a birthday haiku in my honor. The most creative notes I get will be featured on the site.
Now back to our regular programming. Tam, you had me at “it leaks a bit now and then.” I’m wondering what it leaks. Coolant? Water? The last remnants of soup from a forgotten meal? Whatever the substance, it indicates that your fridge, besides being a hulking old energy-sucking dinosaur, is probably operating even less efficiently than it should.
Your friend is right: It is time for a new refrigerator.
I’m lost in a recycling conundrum. Our waste hauler tells us they can recycle milk and juice cartons, but not coffee cups. But according to my research, cartons have up to three layers (paper, aluminum, polyethylene), while coffee cups are typically made of paper and polyethylene. How could a recycling facility separate and recycle three layers, but not two?
Kathy C. Philadelphia, Pa.
A. Dearest Kathy,
I got lost in a recycling conundrum once. It took several days to make my way out, and only then because I made a handheld GPS unit out of an old newspaper, tin foil, and a paperclip.
In the “organic” aisle I see many juices and other liquids in plastic containers. I’d like to think packaging that had its origin in paper would be better for the environment. But with everything the paper is undoubtedly coated in, is the plastic actually better? Or is it just a cheaper way to put a product on the shelf?
Krista H. Utica, N.Y.
A. Dearest Krista,
Like a thirst-quenching melon-berry blend, this question contains many tasty nuances, if not quite as many antioxidants. Let’s take a closer look.
Have you heard of "no gas Mondays"? Do you think the idea is a good way to make a statement about rising gas prices?
Jeff W. Old Orchard Beach, Maine
A. Dearest Jeff,
I do support the idea of no-gas Mondays, and therefore suggest that we refrain from consuming beans, raisins, cauliflower, and flaxseed on the weekends.
Oh hang on. You’re talking about your car.
Your question is well timed, given this year’s rising gas prices (and attendant political jockeying). Every time this happens, a "no-gas Monday" movement seems to rise like vapors from a pump, encouraging people to boycott their local gas stations on a specific day. It’s an idea that has circulated periodically since the late 1990s.
With spring just around the corner, I’m wondering: What’s the scoop on rubber mulch from recycled tires? It’s often touted by the companies that produce it as “eco-friendly,” but is that true? Is there any risk of chemicals leaching from the rubber into the soil?
Danica G. Kensington, Md.
A. Dearest Danica,
Happy almost spring! As with so many of these thorny eco-dilemmas, the answer depends upon whom you ask. Passionate people on both sides of the mulch aisle will try to convince you that this product is the best or worst investment you will ever make. Happily for both of us, you asked me, arbiter of eco-sanity.
I know it’s supposed to be bad to leave your cell phone charger plugged in when it’s not charging, but here’s something I find myself wondering often: Is it as bad to leave it plugged in with your phone attached after it’s been charged? And what about my laptop charger? Does that leak energy? Can’t remember if you’ve covered this before.
T.G. Oakland, Calif.
A. Dearest T.G.,
I have indeed covered some of this before, once or twice, but your question is timely: Just last month, your fine state adopted new energy-efficiency rules for chargers, citing potential residential and commercial savings of $306 million a year. Also, I am all zinged up by your question about leaving chargers attached to gadgets when their job is done -- an important, but often overlooked, variable in this multi-pronged energy equation.
How can I get “free,” “environmentally” friendly business cards? I am starting to network with my new credentials, LEED GA and BPI certification. So I need an eye-catching business card.
Dee R. Philadelphia, Pa.
A. Dearest Dee,
First of all, congratulations. For those who don’t speak eco-acronym, Dee here has become something of a green-building expert, proving her chops as both a LEED Green Associate -- someone with expertise in environmentally friendly construction and design -- and a Building Performance Institute professional, chock-full of knowledge about home energy performance and efficiency. Go Dee!