Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

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

Umbra on reducing emissions, one person at a time

Dear Umbra, I want to adopt the Kyoto treaty myself and adjust my lifestyle accordingly. No waiting, and to hell with George Bush! If my nation had adopted it, I’d have to be doing it anyway. So what is my per-capita fossil-fuel ration for the next 10 years, how do I measure it, how do I account for indirect consumption, etc.? Please advise. Thanks! Hans NoeldnerOregon, Wis. Dearest Hans, Good for you. The average American emits 6.6 tons of greenhouse gases per year. Gadzooks! Lots of room for improvement. Better calculate than never. As you live in an industrialized nation, …

Umbra on unclogging without chemicals

Dear Umbra, How does one unclog a clogged bathtub drain without pouring toxic chemicals directly into the waste stream? Allie CatBoiling Springs, Penn. Dearest Allie Cat, I don’t believe that’s your real name. But yours is a noble question. Let’s get motivated by reviewing a Drano material safety data sheet [PDF], where we find that the product has a hazard rating of “high,” that “mixing with other cleaning products may cause toxic gas,” and that Drano may cause “chemical burns” to the eye, “moderate skin irritation,” or “severe damage to the digestive tract.” Alright! We’re ready to replace toxicity with …

Umbra on the perennial packaging dilemma

Dear Umbra, I was recently elected the social chairperson of my subdivision’s swim/tennis/social club. Now I’m in charge of party planning for a group of about 150 families. While shopping at Costco, I wondered which is better for the environment: several 128-ounce jugs of apple juice plus many plastic cups, or lots of 6.75-ounce juice boxes that would equal the same juice volume, or the equivalent in 10-ounce plastic bottles? (Glass bottles aren’t really an option because most parties are at the pool, where glass isn’t allowed.) As this is just the first of about 10 parties planned for the …

Umbra on whether to visit national parks

Dear Umbra, We are considering a driving vacation this summer with the intent of visiting as many of America’s wonderful national parks as we can — both to enjoy them and to add some money to their coffers, which have been depleted in recent years. But as we all know, burning up lots of gasoline is bad for the environment. My question is: would it be a better environmental choice to drive around and support the national parks, or stay home and not spew all those hydrocarbons into the atmosphere? Jan McCrearySilver City, N.M. Dearest Jan, Our parks are indeed …

Umbra on letter-writing campaigns

Dear Umbra, I just switched to all-natural cleaning products (Seventh Generation, it’s great!) and I wanted my switch to have the most impact possible. I was thinking about sending emails to the companies whose cleaning products I had previously used, telling them why I switched, describing the nasty effects of their products, and encouraging them to change their products to be earth-friendly. I also thought I would send this email to all of my friends, encouraging them to send it to their friends, and cc’ing the company in question each time. Since I have never sent a letter to a …

Umbra on winning environmental arguments

Dear Umbra, I’ve recently been debating my cousin about the merits of environmentalism, and he consistently attacks my positions by claiming that the studies that make the case that the environment is in trouble are funded by groups that have a vested interest in maintaining that position. In other words, groups that are devoted to environmental protection stand to benefit from people believing that the environment is in trouble. He also argues that the environmental movement has strong negative consequences — for example, the deaths in France in the summer of 2003 from lack of air conditioning (which were more …

Umbra on channeling gray water to the garden

Dear Umbra, As part of my water-conservation strategy, I’d like to reuse the rinse water from my laundry machine to water the native plants, many of them edible, in my yard. I’ve heard concerns about the soap (biodegradable) damaging the plants. There are also potentially some regulatory hurdles involved. Can you shed some light on this? Thanks, WendyGray All the WaySeattle, Wash. Dearest Gray All the Way, Congratulations on having a water-conservation strategy. All praise to those with a plan, and all praise to gray-water recycling. Gray water, other dear readers, is all the wastewater from your home excepting the …

Umbra on mulch

Dear Umbra, Spring is upon us and the season for spreading shredded bits of trees around our landscaping is here. How does Umbra feel about the utility of mulching, and what is the environmental impact of mulch production? OmarEllicott City, Md. Dearest Omar, Umbra feels excited about spring, I’ll tell you that much. Umbra is jumping up and down with glee, sometimes on top of slugs. Umbra is very pro-mulch, and very happy to choose mulch questions over diaper questions. (Don’t worry about it, parents!) Mulch — pile it on! Photo: NRCS. Mulching is piling any type of organic material …

Umbra on whether to eco-retrofit an old car

My husband is an environmentalist. He wants one of the new alternative-fuel cars, but I have a dream to surprise him for his birthday with a 1970 muscle car (a Malibu or something like that) from his youth, which I would retrofit with a biodiesel or natural-gas engine. My questions are: 1. Should I put in a biodiesel engine or a natural-gas engine? 2. Who can do this for me in California (preferably the Bay Area)? 3. How much should I expect to pay to have this done? LucyBelvedere, Calif. Dearest Lucy, I’m glad you wrote before rushing out to …

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