Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

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

Umbra on amusing questions

Dear Umbra, When I was a kid we were allowed to lick our plates at the dinner table, except when guests were present. We were told that starving children in other countries would never leave a scrap on their plates, and my mother also took it as a compliment to her cooking. I still lick my plate in the privacy of my home, but today there are environmental reasons: licking prevents a small amount of waste from being transported and dumped in a landfill. More important is the satisfaction of considering the environment in every possible way, with very little …

Umbra on recycling condoms

For the sake of argument, how does one recycle condoms? Unused they are plastic of some sort? I know it’s a bit silly, but don’t you just hate to have to flush them and all the water that goes with? Flavia S.Milan, Italy Dearest Flavia, In brief: condoms are generally made of latex and are not recyclable. (Though the actual recyclability of Milan condoms may be a question for the Milan Recycling Bureau, not yours truly.) Used condoms would be revolting if gathered in bundles and shipped to a reclamation plant, so don’t feel sad. But do stop flushing them: …

Umbra on hyped-up verbiage

Dear Umbra, Surely you must have noticed that ubiquitous cliché of environmental reportage: the alarming rate. Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, coral reefs are being destroyed at an alarming rate, global warming is increasing at an a.r., and so forth. Clearly, the use of “alarming rate” is itself growing at an alarming rate. Do you have any idea where this particular phrase originated? How can we express our distress at environmental statistics without having to resort to clichés? By the way, I am not an English teacher. Abigail WrightBoulder, Colo. Dearest Abigail, Thank you for your question, which …

Umbra on replacing appliances

Dear Umbra, I’ve done the research, and I’m ready to buy my first front-loading washing machine. And then a pesky friend starts asking the tough questions. “Does your existing machine work?” Yes. “Are you going to sell it to someone else who will keep using it?” Yes. “So, two machines where there used to be one … how is that better for the environment?” Can you help me answer this one? I’m facing the same issue on the transportation front, as I just convinced my spouse that he should sell his 2002 Subaru and buy a Toyota Prius. Kathleen WhitsonSeattle, …

Umbra on ecological footprints, again

Dear Umbra, I have a couple of questions that relate to how I live and ask others to live. First, my guess is that many of your readers are above average in terms of income and education; who is the average American that we need ultimately to create a sustainable life for? Second, as we try to make our personal lives more sustainable, what is the ecological footprint we need to seek (i.e., square acres or miles or whatever) and what resources does that block contain for us to use in a sustainable way? Kit RobisonColumbus, Ohio Dearest Kit, A …

Umbra on co-housing

Dear Umbra, How does one begin to gather a group of people to live in a modern city commune? My dream is to own in common an energy-efficient and sustainable house or apartment building inhabited by 10 or so people who are neighbors but also share the duties of the house (cooking, laundry, gardening), much like an extended family. I think this setup would be far superior to the current situation, where my spouse and I live in a large apartment building completely isolated from our neighbors, and I suspect there are other people living in relative isolation who have …

Umbra on LED holiday lights

Dear Umbra, Suppose I replace all my many old, tangled, not-so-efficient holiday lights with the newer LED lights. These are supposed to be better for the environment. What is the best way to dispose of my old lights? R-MOttawa, Canada Dearest R-M, The LED lights are indeed better for the environment, and, since I’m frankly running out of winter holiday-related questions (see my previous work on Christmas trees, gift wrap, candles, consumption, leftovers, and snow removal), I’m going to dwell on just how much better they are. Glow forth and multiply. Photo: iStockphoto. A lot better, people. We all know …

Umbra on green roofs

Dear Umbra, Our garage is in need of a new roof. We would like to build a “living roof” and are wondering where to start. Our long-term plan is to convert the space into an art studio, complete with insulation, electricity, and finished walls and floor. Do you have any pithy suggestions for us to consider while planning our roof, considering it will cover a finished room eventually? LesleyVictoria, B.C. Dearest Lesley, Not only pithy suggestions, but perhaps the very cambium of your living-roof planning. Aim high, like Chicago City Hall. Photo: Katrin Scholz-Barth/NREL. Background for other readers: a “living” …

Umbra on composting feminine products

Dear Umbra, OK, the kitty-litter thing pushed me over the edge. I know you are sick of writing about gross, yucky things, but I had to ask: if kitty litter is compostable, what about biodegradable maxipads and tampons? One of the leading natural feminine-care brands touts their stuff as being biodegradable and compostable. Can this actually be possible? Liz SchlegelWaterbury, Vt. Dearest Liz, I’m not sick of writing about gross, yucky things. I just got very sick of reading enthusiastic letters about picking up animal waste. I love animals (baby sheep are especially cute), but I don’t have any pets …

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