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Advice on natural fabrics vs. polyester

Dear Umbra, I've never appreciated human-made fabrics -- polyester and its cousins invariably feel less comfortable to me than cotton or wool. Until recently, I thought this personal preference also had the happy side effect of making me a greener clothes shopper, since producing natural fibers doesn't involve long chains of polymers. A friend recently claimed otherwise, telling me that the growth, harvesting, and shipping of cotton from around the globe (indeed, my very favorite all-cotton shirt was manufactured in Burma -- yikes!) means it does more damage to the environment than the factories that produce the artificial fabrics. Is …

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Advice on buying aquarium fish

Dear Umbra, I'm an elementary school teacher and I'd like to get a pet fish for my classroom, but I've heard tales of such fish being caught by eco-egregious means: dynamite blasting, cyanide dumping, etc. How can I make sure I'm getting happy, healthy, sustainably caught fish for my aquarium? Ginger Dearest Ginger, Is nothing sacred? Apparently not cute aquarium fish, which are wooing consumers to inadvertently destroy remote natural environments. Fish-ful thinking. Salt-water, aquarium-destined fish are indeed caught with cyanide. The fisherperson descends to the reef and squirts cyanide into nooks and crannies, stunning the fish, which naturally become …

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Advice on antioxidant-rich foods and why they cost so much

Dear Umbra, Antioxidant foods are "the thing" right now, and I would love to be able to eat as many as I need. However, they are usually the most expensive fruits and vegetables. Would it not make sense for farmers or producers to grow these products in greater volume, so we could all afford them and be able to eat healthier more easily? How difficult would such an adjustment in crops be for farmers in terms of land use, chemicals, etc.? Oxidated Dearest Oxidated, The crux of your question seems to be: Why don't farmers make my favorite foods less …

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Umbra on recycling videotapes and laser discs

Dear Umbra, I'm a dedicated cineaste, and over the last decade I've built up a large library (around 5,000 titles) of classic films on VHS and old-fashioned laser discs. I have been anxious to start adding DVDs to my collection, with all the extra features they offer, but I've held off because I know that any further expansion of my collection will require me to make more space -- i.e., get rid of a bunch of bulky plastic videocassettes and laser discs. I can probably sell a few of the tapes, and donate some to a library, but I'm fairly …

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Umbra on getting a job in the “eco-field”

Dear Umbra, I'm a conscientious baby boomer who would like to do things to help the planet. I'm simultaneously enjoying a midlife crisis. I have spent more than eight years in college, studying to be a psychologist/chef. Where in the eco-field is there a place for a reformed business owner/computer teacher/chef with years and years of experience in the psychology of women? Dr. Thom Jacksonville, Fla. Dearest Dr. Thom, Get a job that takes the cake. The "eco-field" is not a profession. It's not the Law, or Medicine, or Elementary School Teaching. The eco-field is like unto a mighty river …

Read more: Food, Living

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Answers about thermal depolymerization

Dear Umbra, What is thermal depolymerization? AnnFreehold, N.J. Dearest Ann, A polymer is a large group of linked molecules. We're made of polymers such as protein, eat polymers such as starch, and wear polymers such as leather and nylon. Thermal depolymerization is a heat-driven process that breaks down or transforms polymers into the shorter chains from whence they came: oil. Our planet's automatic transformation of dead dinosaurs and dead cavepeople and other organic matter into petroleum is thermal depolymerization -- the slow conversion of our ancestors into Dodge Caravan fuel. Turning turkey into black gold. Photo: Changing World Technologies. People …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Umbra on strategic voting and writing to legislators

Dear Umbra, I'm a dislocated Texas resident living in Georgia, and I frequently send action emails to congressional leaders on environmental issues. Which leaders should I be sending my emails to: those I vote for in Texas or the Georgia ones? I'm afraid that when I email the Texas leaders they'll see my present Georgia address and ignore my concern, but I also wonder if the Georgia leaders know that I'm a legal resident of Texas (and if they knew, would also ignore my concerns). Maybe it's best to send to both states' leaders? Or is any effort on my …

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Umbra on glitter

Dear Umbra, What is the half-life of glitter and what is the environmental impact of said glitter on the ground? Planet DivaAustin, Texas Dearest Planet Diva, Everyone should know the truth: Write me a question about glitter and I will answer it right away. Glitter floats to the top of thousands of questions and shimmers there, distracting me from analysis of household air samples. Glitter. Glitter is to plastic, glass, and aluminum as sand is to rocks. Normal, everyday materials, colored and cut into tiny shapes and sizes for cosmetic, technologic, and craft purposes -- that is our magical glitter. …

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Umbra on makeup

Dear Umbra, I haven't been reading Grist for very long, so excuse me if you've already addressed this topic, but what are the environmental impacts of using cosmetics such as lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, and especially nail polish? Since becoming an environmentally conscious consumer, I have purchased cruelty-free products, but I have only recently begun to consider the environmental impact of the packaging and the products themselves. Are there products that are "all natural" and do not pose a threat to the environment? Where do all these chemicals in makeup come from (again, especially nail polish!) and what happens …

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Umbra on hair dye

Greetings, O Esteemed Umbra, I decided a while ago that I wouldn't put toxic chemicals down the drain for the sake of vanity. However, I'm a dirty, dirty blond (um, hair color) and was wondering if there is a "safe" way to add some highlights. Besides lemon juice, are there other products or substances that can be used to safely create that sunny look I'd like to have? Dirty HairyCincinnati, Ohio Dearest Dirty Hairy, A strand of hair consists of a cortex surrounded by a protective cuticle. The pigmented cortex is what makes you a dirty blond. It also holds …

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