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.

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

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 …

Umbra on low-flow flushing

Dear Umbra, I live in an apartment. What can I do to reduce the amount of water that is flushed in the toilet? The landlord will not fix it. AudreyBrookline, Mass. Dearest Audrey, Ooh, more toilet talk. I quote USA Landlord, which supplies landlords and tenants with water-saving devices: “This really is a landlord no-brainer!” And I append, “Especially if he is paying the water bill.” But even if your landlord won’t help, you can adapt your own toilet, and it won’t cost much — maybe $12 max. (If you don’t know how toilets work, go take the lid off …

Umbra on composting toilets, again

Dear Umbra, I’m attempting to “green” my home, room by room. I’ve heard of low-flow toilets, but someone just told me about composting toilets. Do they smell bad? Will my grandmother use it or ask for an outhouse? Thanks for your wisdom! MoiraProvidence, R.I. Dearest Moira, Excellent, manageable room-by-room plan. What in tarnation?! Composting toilets are basically the technology we should have adopted instead of the water closet. Although there’s a wide range of models, all of them compost human waste into a humus-like end product that can go back into the earth whence it came. Essentially a compost pile …

Umbra on heating with bathwater

Dear Umbra, After a hot bath, I leave the water in the tub so the heat will go into the room. My husband says the heat saved is inconsequential. How would one calculate the BTUs saved this way? J. ReimanHelena, Mont. Dearest J., I do that too. I’m trying to heat the entire office building with my baths, and I’ve been making my editor bring me my encyclopedias in the tub. Ay, there’s the tub. Roughly speaking (and cut me a little slack, you professional science geeks), a BTU, or British thermal unit, is the amount of energy needed to …

Umbra on climate confusion

Dear Umbra, Any chance that the most extreme of the peak-oil folks are correct, and that in spite of our thoughtlessness, we just won’t have enough oil to totally destroy the ozone layer? Dan WassonPittsburgh, Penn. Dearest Dan, Oil has very little to do with the ozone layer, but it does have to do with global warming. Global warming and ozone depletion are, for our daily purposes, two separate issues. They both involve gaseous, human-generated emissions, mysterious atmospheric phenomena, and wishing we had paid attention in chemistry class, but the similarity stops there. Psst … remember me? The ozone layer, …

Umbra on coffee

Dear Umbra, I am a seriously indulgent coffee drinker. Lately, there have been a ton of “green” coffee shops popping up. I like to support local coffee shops, and I want to believe that they are “shade-grown, fair-trade, organic,” but I’ve wondered if they are being honest. How do I know if they are legit? Claudia GutierrezSan Diego, Calif. Dearest Claudia, Shade-grown, fair-trade, and organic are certifications, not just buzzwords. All three resulted from our wanting a way to ascertain, when buying coffee, that our addiction supported sustainable agriculture and fair labor standards, rather than displaced workers toiling in serfdom …

Umbra on waiting for warm water

Dear Umbra, You know how, when you turn on the hot water in an old building, it usually takes a while for it to kick in? Well, my question is, if I turn on the tap full blast, will the hot water come sooner? Is it the amount of water you let run, or the amount of time you leave the tap running? I’ve talked to my landlord, but in the meantime, can I save water by letting it run slowly? Sincerely,(No) Hot (water) and bothered Dearest Silly Pun, You know I love to share my water-heater knowledge. There is …

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