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Ask Umbra: Which kitty litter option is best?

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Q. I've been using a clumping, scoopable cat litter that is made primarily from corn. Recently my local pet stores were out of that brand, so I switched to one made primarily from wheat. The grain-based formulas seem to work better than the synthetic kinds, and they're not perfumed -- and I've assumed they're at least marginally better for the rest of the planet than, say, clay varieties, both to manufacture and to dispose of. However, I've been wondering about where that corn comes from: Am I contributing to GMOs and other horrendous farming practices by using the corn variety? Is the wheat any better? Am I starving hungry families by using a food crop so I don't have to live with the smell of cat poop? Please pour out your answer ...

Tonia P.
Port Washington

kitty litter
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A. Dearest Tonia,

Your question echoes several others I’ve received recently dealing with the unpleasant problem of, well, poop. We’ve covered composting toilets and doggy doo, so why not address man’s other best friend and her litter box, too?

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Is there such thing as an eco-friendly cellphone?

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Q. Have you thought about doing a review of cellphones for environmentalists? I’d love to know a) what the environmental impact is, and b) which phone does the least damage in terms of both materials and energy use.

Peter W.

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A. Dearest Peter,

Finally, an easy question! The greenest cellphone is no cellphone at all. I think I may just close up shop early today and browse my favorite vintage shops for a new cardigan.

Just kidding, of course. Though it’s true that you would be sidestepping the resource-intensive, landfill-clogging problems associated with cellphones by just not buying one, good luck with that in the real world. Like it or not (and put me in the not column), the mighty mobile has spread far and wide: According to the latest from the Pew Research Center, a whopping 91 percent of U.S. adults own a cellphone, with 56 percent of us opting for smartphones. And more than a third of our households are now wireless-only. Resistance may not be futile, but it is tough.

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Ask Umbra: Can you help us find a super new pooper?

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Q. We are wanting to build a small, environmentally friendly cottage, something for one person to live in. We're currently researching composting toilets and getting quite confused by all the contradictory information. Suppliers of course claim how perfect their product is, while competitors and consumers give voice to contradictory claims. Do composting toilets actually work? Are they a viable option? What about cost effectiveness? Are they truly better than septic systems?

Cedar United Church
Cedar, BC

green-bathroom-people-withbackground
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A. Dearest Cedar United,

My readers seem to have potty topics on the brain lately -- first this question about doggie doo, and now your query on the even less appealing topic of what to do with our own unmentionables. But as much as we’d all like to pretend this isn’t an issue, my favorite children’s book has it right: Everyone poops. Now what are we to do about it?

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Ask Umbra: Which is better, plastic or compostable forks?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

The Green Team at my church campaigned unsuccessfully for a policy of using -- and washing -- reusable dinnerware at church functions. Then we campaigned successfully for a policy of using all compostable dinnerware (plates, cups, and utensils) at church functions. The compostables are added to the bin that Cedar Grove Compost collects regularly. The compostable dinnerware costs a whole lot more than regular plastic-coated paper plates, plastic forks, and cups. Is using compostable dinnerware just greenwashing our church dinners? Is it really a significant improvement? Maybe we could use the cheap stuff and spend the savings on a better dishwasher...

Carolyn C.
Edmonds, WA

plastic forks
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A. Dearest Carolyn,

First, may I commend your church for supporting a capital-G Green Team? I like to imagine you and your compatriots as the eco-version of the Avengers, protecting your community from oil spills and the scourge of idling cars. Well done.

Yours is one of a few recent letters I’ve received on compostable dinnerware and entertaining -- and with the party-filled holidays just around the corner, now is a good time to devise a plan of attack for the mountains of dirty dishes looming in our future. (And while we’re in planning mode, here’s a refresher on greening your Halloween shindigs.)

Let’s start with the first part of your question: Is compostable dinnerware better than plastic? This is more complicated than it first appears.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: What do I do with my old shoes?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

What can I do with my old tennis shoes? I have a closet full of shoes that are way too weathered and beaten up to donate to a food pantry or Goodwill, but are still quality material that I feel shouldn't go to a landfill. Can shoe soles or leather uppers be upcycled?

Alison A.
Madison, WI

sneakers
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A. Dearest Alison,

One of my most cherished dreams is to design an entirely biodegradable line of shoes. But until my efforts with baking-soda paste and threads woven from invasive vines pay off, I share your common dilemma -- a few too many pairs of tired tennies cluttering up the closet.

When you look at shoes in the broader context of the rest of our clothing, we’re shamelessly wasteful: According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American tosses 70 pounds of clothing per year. Of that, a mere 15 percent finds new life as industrial rags, insulation, carpet padding [PDF], seat stuffing, and even paper. The other 85 percent? Landfill.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to dispose of dog poop?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Although I set up our town’s recycling system and have followed updates in the waste management field with interest, I was at a loss when my neighbor asked me what to do with dog doo-doo. I know it’s not great for our gardens, and therefore not a superb compost amendment. Can you give us some ideas?

Jule A.
Slave Lake, Alberta

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A. Dearest Jule,

How wonderful to hear from a fellow waste-management enthusiast. I thought the latest issue of Municipal Excrement Weekly was divine, didn’t you?

Jule, you are right that dog waste presents environmental concerns. The average canine produces three-quarters of a pound of fecal matter every day. That makes for 274 pounds of unpleasantness each year -- which, besides its obvious drawbacks, is crawling with pathogens such as Giardia, salmonella, E.coli, and (brace yourself) roundworms [PDF]. And since I assume life in your North Country town demands strong, sturdy dogs such as huskies and St. Bernards, your neighbor’s problem may be, as Garrison Keillor would say, above average.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Which gas station is the least evil?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Although I am trying to drive down my usage, I still buy gasoline to put in my car. Every time I pull up to the BP station, I cringe at the destruction their firm wrought in the Gulf. I wonder if there is any benefit to taking my dollars elsewhere. Is there a lesser evil among gas stations out there?

Jennifer R.
Chicago, Ill.

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A. Dearest Jennifer,

Loyal readers might see this first bit of advice coming down the pike: Drive less. From your opening line, I gather you have been trying to do just that, to which I say huzzah!

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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to eat gummy bears?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I have a huge sweet tooth. Yesterday, I told a co-worker I try to buy treats like gummy bears over chocolate, for ethical reasons. Is that completely ridiculous?

Elena V.
Seattle, Wash.

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A. Dearest Elena,

See, I asked for a break from serious issues, and gummy bears rained down upon me. Truly a confectionary miracle. Thank you.

Your question might seem trivial to the untrained eye, but I believe it’s worth exploring. More than 75 percent of Americans eat candy [PDF]. More than half of us at least 10 times a month. We buy 600 million pounds of sweets for Halloween, which is fast approaching. So we should know what we are popping into our mouths. (Better yet, we should cut down on the stuff. Why yes, I am your mother.)

Read more: Uncategorized

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Ask Umbra: Which carbon-offset programs are best?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I know carbon offsets don't give us a "free pass" to travel by car and plane and consume indiscriminately. However, I'd still like to offset the travel that I must do and would like to know what new or extant programs are best. Thanks for your advice.

Heather H.
Austin, Texas

hat-and-skirt-in-sun-umbra
kazoka

A. Dearest Heather,

It must be Serious Issues Month here at Ask Umbra headquarters. First we had Fukushima, then GMO beets, then natural gas, now carbon offsets. We’re nearly done testing the fit of my thinking cap (still a bit snug around the temples), and I’m ready to go back to pondering flatulence and party balloons for a while. [Ed. note: She looks great in that thinking cap -- send questions of all kinds!]

The basic idea behind carbon offsets, for those unfamiliar with the term, is that you spend money to make up for putting carbon into the atmosphere. Perhaps you have put this carbon into the atmosphere by flying to Ontario to see your great aunt, or perhaps you are a business that cranks out a lot of pollution. You have your reasons. Anyhow, the money you spend “offsets” your carbon belching by supporting projects that produce clean energy or reduce carbon in other ways.

So your investment -- and it can be as little as $5 or so -- might help build wind turbines, or capture methane from a landfill, or distribute solar cookers in a developing country. Or it might go toward land protection or reforestation. Or truck-stop electrification! You help a good project happen, ideally, and in theory that helps make up for your dirty deeds.

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Ask Umbra: Is there an easier way to get natural gas?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Why are companies so determined to violate the geological structure of the planet in search of methane when almost everything that is alive or decaying produces it naturally? Would it not be cheaper and safer and cooler to just use what is already being produced limitlessly?

Anusha
Melbourne, Australia

methane-sign-large
Jeremy Buckingham MLC

A. Dearest Anusha,

Listen, I don’t want to freak you out. But you know how everyone talks about carbon this, carbon that when it comes to climate change? Methane is in some ways far creepier. It’s the second-most abundant greenhouse gas, and the U.S. EPA says it can have 20 times the climate impact of carbon over time. It’s like the cackling villain hiding in the wings.

Except! Methane also happens to be a cleaner-burning fuel source than coal or oil. How delightfully complicated. Now we have to picture it wearing that Phantom of the Opera mask in the wings.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living