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Umbra on recycling widgets

Dear Umbra, I am a huge fan of Guinness, often referring to it as Nectar of the Gods. Question is, are the cans with the cool nitrous plastic doohickeys in them recyclable? I've got a bet riding on this with the significant other. Thanks for enlightenment. MelissaDenver, Colo. Dearest Melissa, Yes. Guinness recycling is good for you. That little ball is known as a widget, which is another word for doohickey. It's made of polypropylene, has a small hole, and, during the canning process, gets filled with nitrogen gas and a teeny-tiny bit of Guinness itself. The pressure in the …

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Umbra on beer containers

Dear Umbra, My friends and I consume a fair amount of beer, and we're wondering: What's worse for the environment, buying beer in cans or in bottles? KellyManitoba, Canada Dearest Kelly, Thank you for giving me a reason to look up the Earth's mineral-reserves map in my atlas. I've learned fascinating things about aluminum and glass and discussed the whole matter with lifecycle analysis experts and recycling folks (including my pal Peke the recycling expert, who just biked over in freezing weather; let us all be inspired by Peke). The clear answer is: Drink locally bottled beer in glass bottles …

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Umbra on water heaters

Dear Umbra, I have a question that's been nagging at me for some time. Since I have a water heater inside my house, any waste heat from the water heater contributes to heating the house. Does it still make sense in terms of energy savings to put an insulating blanket on the water heater? KurtLittleton, Colo. Dearest Kurt, Getting tanked.Photo: PNNL. After space heat -- that is, heating your entire home -- water heaters are the largest household energy consumers. Part of the reason the bill and the environmental burden are so high is that a tank water heater keeps …

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Umbra on turning down the thermostat

Dear Umbra, My housemates and I are engaged in an ongoing argument about the heat (gas) in our somewhat old house. I argue that for the minimum eight hours that we are out of the house during the day, we should turn our heat down to at least 62 degrees. They argue that we should leave it at 68 at all times, because it takes more energy to heat up the house later when we all arrive home. Not surprisingly, we can't agree about a sleeping temperature at night, either. Can you settle this "heated" debate? Will B. ColdWashington, D.C. …

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Umbra on home heating

Dear Umbra, Can you shed some light (or some warmth) on the most environmentally sound ways to heat one's home this winter? Natural gas over coal and oil for its lower carbon (and particulate) content? What about fireplaces: good or bad? Would burning gas logs be a good alternative to burning real wood? Thanks for your help! JanetWashington, D.C. Dearest Janet, What we cold eco-folks are looking for is a heat source that is clean to produce, clean to burn, energy-efficient, affordable, and renewable. Look back at your choices with that in mind, and you'll see that natural gas, although …

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Umbra on washing produce

Dear Umbra, Does one really need to wash produce off the shelf or out of the bag? I've been eating vegetables as they are for years. Does it really do any good to wash them? If they are contaminated internally, then washing the outside won't help, will it? JaneSteubenville, Ohio Dearest Jane, Please wash your veggies. Internal contamination from pesticides, herbicides, waxes, and the wages of sin won't be washed away, but some life-threatening external contamination will. You'll want to wash these greens. Trust us.Photo: USDA Think about your produce. It may have traveled from Mexico, China, California, or Chile. …

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Umbra on eco-friendly meat

Dear Umbra, While I'm not a vegetarian, I try to choose my foods based on their environmental impact. For me, most non-organic meat doesn't make the cut: It uses too much water, land, and other resources, and it pollutes our land and water. I know this because I know about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which are the sources of the bulk of the chicken, pork, and beef that Americans eat. But what about lamb? I've never seen a picture of lambs crowded together in a feedlot the way hogs, chickens, turkeys, and just about everything else seems to be. …

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Umbra on food storage

Dear Umbra, I recently read about the possible effects of plastics on women and the fetuses they may be carrying. I'm ready to change my ways, but I'm not sure how. Do you have some good suggestions about other ways we can package our leftovers or pack foods for lunch at school and work? NataliePortland, Ore. Dearest Natalie, Time to go old school, perhaps literally. If plastic is the problem, the answer may be one compound word: ante-plastics. Before plastic became omnipresent, workers and students transported prepared foods in containers made from other materials. Those antiquated containers may be just …

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How to streamline your life and still enjoy the heck out of it

Editor's note: Ever wonder when We the People stopped being called citizens and started being called consumers? Take back your real identity, and take the consumption-crazy days from Thanksgiving to New Year's in stride -- with Umbra Fisk's guide to graceful (and limited) consuming. Consumption is one of life's great pleasures. Buying things we crave, traveling to beautiful places, eating delectable food, owning every Stevie Wonder album: icing on the cake of life. But too often the effects of our blissful consumption make for a sad story. Giant cars exhaling dangerous exhaust, hog farms pumping out noxious pollutants, toxic trash …

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Umbra on microwaves

Dear Umbra, We recently bought a new (to us) house and acquired a microwave oven. Having gotten this far in life without one, we figured we wouldn't use it all that much. Ha. We use it all the time. It's just so much faster than heating things on the stove. I do wonder, though, which is more energy-efficient. Is it more eco-friendly to heat milk for a minute in the microwave, or five minutes on the gas stove? And is there anything to the persistent rumors of stray radiation from microwaves? Z.B.Pittsburgh, Penn. Dearest Z.B., Microwaves and their ovens remind …