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Umbra on the benefits of recycling

Dear Umbra, Some time ago, the public radio program This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass, was about recycling. Glass reported, "Experts agree that we have plenty of landfill space for the foreseeable future." He proposed that recycling therefore did little more than make us feel good. The hapless person he interviewed came up with no better response to that than, "Well, what's wrong with feeling good?" Glass pointed out that recycling paper costs less than using raw materials such as trees, but that was not true of other recyclables such as glass. Besides, he said, we are in no …

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Umbra on recycling profitability

Dear Umbra, My friend has the notion that recycling programs lose money. Where does this come from? I can imagine situations where that could be the case, but in most cities there seems to be plenty of material being recycled to justify the collection infrastructure, etc. And surely there are markets for more recycled content than we currently produce. Why does the myth persist that recycling doesn't make sense? And are there items that don't pay for themselves? MikeLexington, Ky. Dearest Mike, Cities promote and support recycling programs for two reasons: public demand and financial good sense. (In special, hippie-filled …

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Umbra on SUVs

Dear Umbra, Please help; my friend Kathryn Schulz, Grist's managing editor, is sick of hearing about my guilt. I own an SUV. In my defense, I got it almost six years ago, when I was moving to the mountains and needed a big car with four-wheel drive to support my rugged, transient lifestyle, and it's a littler model, not a Navigator. Life is funny, though, because now I live in New York, and the only thing I use my SUV for is commuting from my home in northern Manhattan to my job in Westchester. (My job, not just the commute, …

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Advice on heating tiny urban dwellings

OK, Umbra, I live in a building in Brooklyn where, in typical Brooklyn style, we do not control our own heat. That is, there is no thermostat in our apartment. Thus, our only options for regulating the temperature in the winter are turning off the radiators or opening the windows. Obviously the latter is an absurd waste of energy; I don't want my poor radiator trying to heat all of the outer boroughs of New York City. Trouble with the former option is that turning my radiator on and off causes it to leak, resulting in a steady wintertime river …

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Umbra on packaging peanuts

Dear Umbra, I was wondering whether you could provide me with advice about packaging materials. You see, I was recently married and my wife and I now find ourselves buried under packaging peanuts, Styrofoam, and other such materials, much as we tried to avoid the fate (of receiving loads of store-bought gifts, that is, not of being hitched). What do you suggest we do with boxes and boxes of this post-nuptial detritus? Chip Giller Grist Editor Seattle, Wash. Dearest Chip, Ahem, if you read your own publication, you would no doubt recall my trenchant, award-deserving 2003 column explicating the Styrofoam …

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Umbra on fabric softening

Dear Umbra, With winter upon us, I'm thinking about a serious matter: fabric softener. During the summer, I don't use any. However, with snow looming, static cling is on my mind. Long story short, which is better: liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets? AllieShippensburg, Penn. Dearest Allie, Your home will be a happier, healthier place if no fabric softener darkens your dryer. Both liquid and sheet contain a stunning amount of notoriously toxic chemicals, which often serve to make the softener smell pretty. Turns out fragrances are usually composed of a witch's brew of solvents -- which explains why some …

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Umbra on composting paper

Dear Umbra, Two questions: Does the colored ink in newspapers still contain chemicals bad for a compost pile? Also, what about the colored ink printed on cardboard boxes? I want to have a safe compost pile to use in a garden. Anonymous Dearest Mysterious Reader, Some readers may find gardening questions in February a bit jarring. By choosing to answer this one, I'm taunting those of you who don't live in the Pacific Northwest. True, we may be moistly imprisoned under an unrelenting steely sky, daylight may be a dim memory, and mildew may be our constant companion, but at …

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Umbra on diaperless parenting

Dear Umbra, I have a baby on the way. Due to prodding by my wife, I have begun to think about things such as diapers. Babies make a lot of boom-boom, and wrapping it all up in a bundle of plastic diaperness, tossing that in a plastic sack, and then tossing the lot in a landfill seems eco-unfriendly. And reusable diapers are definitely parent-unfriendly, insists my wife. I have seen some all-cotton and paper disposable diapers, but at $1 a pop, I'd have to sell the child to pay for the diapers. Besides, I can't imagine anything biodegrades 100 feet …

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More advice on recycling batteries

Dear Umbra, I've been turning in my used alkaline batteries at the local drug store's photo department, mine being Savon here in Southern California. It appears they recycle their spent film cans and cartridges, as well as cameras and batteries. At least this is what I have surmised when I have dropped off my used batteries and the attendants have not refused me. It wouldn't hurt for others to do the same. Besides, once when asking a local recycler what they accepted, the response was, "If we get enough of anything, we'll do our damnedest to find a user!" JanetSherman …

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Umbra on tankless water heaters

Dear Umbra, While you were warning folks to plan ahead for a potential water-tank failure, I thought you should mention the natural gas heat-on-demand systems that they should use to replace their tanks. Last spring, when our 50-gallon tank decided to give our basement floor a thorough cleaning, we had to scramble to find an energy-efficient alternative. First, we had trouble finding a plumber who knew how to install the new energy-friendly heat-on-demand systems. Then, we ended up paying a premium price because it seems these systems are all the rage in new McMansion construction. The suppliers were having a …

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