Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

For even more green goodness, you can follow Umbra on Twitter (@AskUmbra) or become a fan on Facebook.

Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

Umbra on old clothes

Dear Umbra, I promise that I searched the archives before emailing you, so hopefully you haven’t already answered this question. I’m wondering about the best way to dispose of old clothes and shoes — the tired, well-loved, and much-worn items that thrift shops really don’t want. I wear my clothes until the bitter end, and then I just don’t know what to do with them. Old T-shirts make great rags, but then what? Carrie Doring Seattle, Wash. Dearest Carrie, I’m holding you up as an example of proper Umbra-writing etiquette. You searched the archives. Thank you. I feel very sad …

Umbra on moving

Dear Umbra, Is there such a thing as “green movers”? I want to transport furniture from L.A. to Seattle and wonder if any movers use biodiesel vehicles or something like that. Andy Luk Seattle, Wash. Dearest Andy, You know, we’re moving too. What a coincidence! Crate expectations. Photo: iStockphoto. But we’re not moving far — just a few blocks — and have tailored a green moving system all our own. Firstly, we’re using only old feedbags, hand-knit sacks, and fruit boxes to pack our stuff. We’re wrapping the computers in used Kleenex and old socks (everyone’s written their names on …

Umbra on shower curtains

Dear Umbra, You have successfully instilled the fear of all things vinyl in me. Now the big question is: with what do I replace my old vinyl shower curtain? We have a cotton one at work, but it clings to your legs like a drowning jellyfish. This, and the constant mold, is something I would like to avoid in my own bathroom. Any suggestions? Flo Miller Montpelier, Vt. Dearest Flo, I’m always full of suggestions — in a wide range of usefulness and accuracy. Today’s suggestion: polyester. I found, after looking a bit harder than usual — some of you …

Umbra on replacing light bulbs

Dear Umbra, I am reluctant to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because that means tossing out not only used-but-still-working incandescent bulbs, but also the brand-new bulbs I have waiting in the closet. Is it really a positive effect overall when we’re reducing our carbon emissions but adding to landfills? Julie Pittsburgh, Pa. Dearest Julie, Damn fine idea … don’tknow why I didn’t thinkof it myself. The gummint says, if every American household replaced five incandescents with higher-efficiency fixtures or bulbs, it would keep a trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of the air. You tell me: would you rather …

Umbra on farmers’ markets and food stamps

Dear Umbra, Do organic grocers take food stamps? Do farmers’ markets? If not, what do ecologically/health-minded people on fixed incomes do? David Burch South Bend, Ind. Dearest David, Did you know that in many states food stamps are no longer stamps? Plastic cards similar to ATM cards have replaced the paper coupons. Electronic Benefit Transfer, it’s called, and it’s not dissimilar to a bank card with a finite, monthly replenished amount of money. Out of reach? Photo: iStockphoto. Any store that wants to accept food stamps or EBT can apply to do so. To qualify to accept food stamps, a …

Umbra on personal fans

Dear Umbra, So the weather is turning hot again. I got my electric fans out of the closet. On the back of these, there are no indications of what amount of electricity they use. Could you illuminate which ones are most efficient? Howard Nelson Portland, Ore. Dearest Howard, Not really. Efficiency is very important for commercial ventilation, and even home ceiling fans and oven fans are given an Energy Star label, but I fear our lowly personal fans don’t get similar levels of evaluation. Better oscillate than never. Photo: iStockphoto. It does seem generally accepted that oscillating fans are more …

Umbra on smelly CFLs (and mercury too)

Dear Umbra, We have been replacing our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, but we notice that the compact fluorescents have an odd smell. Are they emitting something we should know about? Compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury; can the bulbs discharge the mercury into the air? Tom MurphyWellsboro, Pa. Dearest Tom, I don’t know of anything that would be emitted from your bulbs and smell. If it is your CFL giving off an odor — not something evaporating or burning in the lampshade or socket — it may be from the plastic, and it should go away. But rest …

Umbra on CFLs and dimmers

Dearest Umbra, Are there compact fluorescent bulbs for lights on dimmer switches? Why can’t I use regular CFLs in dimmers? Dimly, Julia L. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Dearest Julia, I feel like my brain is squinting when I try to understand electrical current and wiring, but here we go: the short answer is yes, there are now compact fluorescent lamps designed for lights on dimmer switches, and they’re even made by big guys like GE and Philips. Now you can have your CFL and dim it, too. Photo: iStockphoto. The second lesson I will share from the research I did on …

Umbra on couches

Dear Umbra, I am in the market to buy a new couch (our current couch is older than me — it’s 27!). Is it better to buy a “green” couch, a couch from a mainstream vendor, or a used couch? If used is the way to go, do you have any suggestions for finding one that isn’t disgusting? Nora Burton Seattle, Wash. Dearest Nora, Long have I waited for this moment, when I will at last learn the difference between a sofa and a couch. My dictionary says a sofa is a long upholstered seat usually with a back and …