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 garden hoses

Dear Umbra, I’m diligently avoiding PVC plastics, but cannot find a good quality non-PVC garden hose. We have particularly high water pressure, so we need a hose that can withstand the pressure. I only need to water the veggie garden a couple of times a week in summer, but it’s not quite feasible to do it with a watering can. To further complicate matters for you, we live in New Zealand, though we are willing to try importing a non-PVC hose if such a thing exists. Judi Wellington, New Zealand Dearest Judi, I’d like to personally accompany a garden hose …

Umbra on taking the next step

Dear Umbra, I’ve noticed that often you tell people “don’t sweat the small stuff” and suggest they focus on the major issues (transportation, housing, etc.). What about those of us who already do that, and want to do even more? I can almost guarantee you we are the ones sending you questions about widgets and all the other seemingly minuscule choices one faces. So what, then, would you recommend for us hard-core, been-there-done-that, already-taking-care-of-the-major-issues, longtime tree-hugging enviros as a “next step” list of things to aim for? WrenAurora, Colo. Dearest Birdy, I have tried my darnedest to never say “don’t …

Umbra on personal actions that make a real difference

Dear Umbra, What are some everyday things I could do to protect the environment? Like choosing plastic or paper, that kind of thing. DominickSpokane, Wash. Dearest Dominick, Your good question has a surprising answer, and it’s one I’m happy to repeat as often as necessary: None of the important things has to do with paper or plastic, or any of the daily choices most of us spend lots of time pondering. We need to think bigger. Think outside the bag. I’ve compared and contrasted a random pile of “Top Ten Things You Can Do” lists — to see how my …

Umbra on biodiesel vs. straight veggie oil

Dear Umbra, I have the opportunity to convert a 1979 non-turbo Mercedes into a non-diesel. The question I have is: to which should I switch, biodiesel or vegetable oil? I can’t seem to find out which one is best, just that these two are better than any petroleum-based fuels, which we already know (thanks for your earlier column on hybrids vs. veggie oil). Also, is it possible to switch from biodiesel to veggie oil, or vice versa, once a conversion is made? MargaretCincinnati, Ohio Dearest Margaret, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about the distinction between straight veggie oil (SVO) …

Umbra on true hybrids

Dear Umbra, I read the New York Times article that reported auto manufacturers are using hybrid technology to boost power rather than improve mileage. It specifically mentioned the Honda Accord, claiming that the mileage difference between the six-cylinder and the hybrid is minimal. What are the facts here? Is there a hybrid that really, actually, no-foolin’-around, gives really good mileage, represents a significant improvement over the regular version, is reasonably safe, and still drives well enough that one may venture onto the interstate without undue fear? JimKalamazoo, Mich. Dearest Jim, I’m glad you wrote. That article stirred some people up, …

Umbra on baking soda

Dear Umbra, I liked your column about homemade cleaning products. I have a question, though: What’s up with baking soda? It’s frequently bandied about as an eco-friendly cleaner, but I have no idea what it is, where it comes from, or how it’s made. AmandaCharlottesville, Va. Dearest Amanda, Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a naturally occurring crystalline compound. I can be unusually precise about where it comes from: Green River, Wyo. Wyoming: what lies beneath? Photo: USDA. Turns out Wyoming holds the world’s largest reserves of trona, otherwise known as sodium sesquicarbonate — a key ingredient in your mysterious household …

Umbra on computer recycling

Dear Umbra, Do you have any suggestions for locating a computer-recycling service in the Piedmont area of North Carolina? Janet Fortune Dearest Janet, Frankly, I couldn’t even have located the Piedmont area of North Carolina before you wrote. With today’s technology, however, such ignorance is no barrier to giving advice. The rest of you, listen up, because Janet’s question will be your question some day. Electronic waste is a big, big problem. Computers are nifty, and it’s astounding how we went from a model as big as a room to one smaller than our hand in a few decades. But …

Umbra on oil subsidies

Dear Umbra, Grist keeps mentioning that the U.S. government gives large subsidies to oil companies, but doesn’t go further into what these subsidies are. I can’t make a good argument against the government’s subsidizing Big Oil if I don’t know more about it: Are the subsidies tax breaks, and if so, for what? Are the tax breaks larger than for most other large companies? How biased is our treatment of Big Oil? ChristineHillsboro, Ore. Dearest Christine, Just as an aside, I’m not sure such a being as Wee Oil exists. Can we get you anything? The word subsidy finds its …

Umbra on utility carts

Dear Umbra, I live less than a half-mile from a supermarket, and prefer to do my errands by foot. Any thoughts on where I could buy a top-of-the-line utility cart? I’m willing to pay a premium for something lightweight, smooth-rolling, stable, foldable, and durable (or if not durable, then easy to recycle when it breaks!). Something stylish would be a bonus: it might just convince my neighbors to follow suit. LizAlexandria, Va. Dearest Liz, Generally I don’t like to shop for people, because it’s so easy to go wrong with brand or site favoritism, but this seems like a safe …

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