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 which plastics to avoid

Dear Umbra, Since you only mention #1 plastics as being safe, I’m assuming I should throw out the #4 I just purchased? SylviaAnn Arbor, Mich. Dearest Sylvia, I confused and frightened and annoyed many of you on the issues of food and plastic. I’m sorry — #4 is OK, as are #2 and #5. Honestly, I can hardly keep the numbers straight myself. I thought about a rhyme (“four and two are fine for you”), but I can’t come up with a good one, and a bad one will just leave us with the familiar cold/fever problem. Feed a cold …

Umbra on plastic water bottles, again

Dear Umbra, After slurping away from a Nalgene bottle all summer, you struck me with the fear of petrochemicals. So I did some quick research on my own. My conclusion is that your Aug. 2 column is misleading, even though I’m very sympathetic to your argument regarding plastics. Upon inspection, I learned that most of my Nalgene water bottles are made of plastic #2, HDPE, which you suggest is relatively benign. Perhaps you should clarify that your criticism and concern is aimed primarily at the newer Lexan product, not Nalgene’s entire line of bottles. Indeed, it seems your recommendation could …

Umbra on composting

Dear Umbra, Can you tell me what is the best and most effective composter for a small urban backyard? JoeBaltimore, Md. Dearest Joe, Sort of. It’s ultimately a very personal choice, and one that depends on what you will try to compost and the amount of time you are willing to spend helping the compost along. You may be familiar with the concepts of “aerobic” and “anaerobic” decomposition. Aerobic is better, and compost bins in this category will either be worm domiciles or will involve some version of constantly turning the compost to integrate oxygen into the mix. Folding air …

Umbra on wind farms

Dear Umbra, I have been reading lots in the media lately about wind farms. As a supporter of green energy, I would obviously like to see a lot more of them and have long believed that people who oppose them are just another example of the “not in my backyard” mentality: they want a constant electricity supply, but not if it spoils the lovely sea view they paid so much for. Permission was given recently by the British government to construct a large wind farm on some moorland near my family home. The plan was all set to go ahead …

Umbra on odd fruit

Dear Umbra, Yesterday in the grocery store I saw a “golden kiwi.” Is there really such a thing? It was over twice the size of a regular kiwi and the familiar fuzz was not there. It was almost as smooth as a nectarine. When I inquired of the produce representative, she told me that it was a “natural” unaltered fruit and that I could taste it if I wanted to. Naturally, I declined. I am very leery of this strange new fruit. And have you seen the pluot? It looks somewhat like a transparent Macintosh apple crossed with a plum …

Umbra on Christmas trees

Dear Umbra, Please settle our office dispute. Which is better for the environment: real or fake Christmas trees? Some believe that cutting down juvenile trees, displaying them for two weeks, then throwing them in the garbage is destructive, wasteful, and highly unfriendly to the environment. Others say that the Christmas-tree business keeps land that would otherwise be developed in trees, if only for a short while. Besides, fake trees are made of plastic, which is made from petroleum. (But you can keep using them for many years.) TrishaWashington, D.C. Dearest Trisha, Ah, yes, that annual question: What does the Gristmas …

Umbra on cat-pee stains and dry cleaning

Dear Umbra, I am aware of how polluting regular dry cleaners can be and therefore make a point to wash clothes at home. Recently, however, my charming cat peed on my comforter. I was wondering if you knew of any environmentally friendly ways to clean “dry clean only” clothes or, in this case, comforters. HeidiFalls Church, Va. Dearest Heidi, I’ve seen feather comforters with both dry-cleaning and home-washer options, so be sure to read the tag. If home washing is an option, plain vinegar in the washer may help remove the odor. Spot application of diluted white vinegar may also …

Umbra on doggie-doo bags

Dear Umbra, For years, I faithfully brought my canvas bags to the grocery store, leaving plastic bags for the environmentally uninformed. A few months ago, though, I adopted a dog, and I now find myself with a dilemma. I need to pick up all of his solid excrement, and having no compost or any other area for it to go (I live in the city), I need to use plastic bags to take care of it. I hope you have another suggestion for something I can use to pick up after my pup (and please don’t say anything that would …

Umbra on Wal-Mart

Dear Umbra, Why is Wal-Mart evil? This is really a request for more information. I have often heard that the company has a weak environmental track record, treats its employees poorly, and generally is Satan incarnate. However, when challenged on this position, I have no data. My opponents argue that shopping in bulk reduces packaging. I also have to admit that a case of Pellegrino for $10 pulls me closer to the dark side. I am growing weak. Please combat my temptation with information. Hurry before I have lost my soul. James Washington, Penn. Dearest James, Why Wal-Mart is evil …

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