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Umbra on making mulch from paper

Dear Umbra, I know this is a silly question, probably the strangest you've ever gotten, but I'm curious. Where I live, there isn't a place nearby to recycle paper. I reuse most of my paper as scratch paper and have attempted to make my own paper using a blender and a screen. The problem is, making my own paper isn't worthwhile, and I can't possibly use that much scratch paper. Besides, what do I do with the paper after I have used it as scratch paper? My only choice is to throw it out, which I am not happy about. …

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Umbra on cushion planters

Dear Umbra, I have been cutting out old cushions, filling them with dirt, and planting them for some years now. I found the first two floating in the river (while canoeing). Since then, I've gotten them from the trash; I don't pay anything for them. I use them to grow everything from herbs to prairie plants to succulents to water plants. I have even used cut-up, leftover cushions in bog gardens (in the bottom part along with newspaper and cat litter). Most cushions contain mold- and fire retardants, and I understand there was a problem with one fire retardant showing …

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Umbra on used soap

Dear Umbra, At a gym I go to, lots of guys pick up bars of soap, use them for two minutes, and then leave them (even though there is a liquid soap dispenser in the showers). Is there any good use for several pounds of partially used soap per day? DennisSeattle, Wash. Dearest Dennis, I have some harebrained schemes for you, but there are some natural limitations on the success of used-soap projects. First, there is the cost/benefit limitation: As I'm sure you know, the environment would be better served if you spent your valuable time convincing the gym owners …

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Umbra on crows

Dear Umbra, Is there a national increase in the crow population, or am I just noticing them more as I age? JimLa Jolla, Calif. Dearest Jim, Probably both. I'll wager that you have become more observant as the years pass, but it's also the case that, according to various bird counts and surveys, the American crow population is indeed expanding -- although not in all parts of the country. Industrial agriculture provides little friendly habitat in the way of perches, food, and shelter. On the other hand, these social, clever birds are doing a fine job of adapting to life …

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Umbra on corpses

Dear Umbra, What's the greenest method of disposing of one's corpse? I'm just dying to know. BuchachaAustin, Texas Dearest Buchacha, You are not the only one thinking of the Great Green Beyond; there are more choices about the fate of your corpse than you might imagine. Let's start with the traditional options: Cremation is greener than burial, for (at least) three reasons. First, embalming (which is common although not mandatory) uses noxious chemicals to preserve the body. Second, the impenetrable bunkers that are the latest trend in caskets won't biodegrade anytime soon. Finally, cemeteries are usually high-maintenance parks full of …

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Umbra on candles

Dear Umbra, Recently, nature-conscious religions such as Paganism and Wicca are getting a lot of attention. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, such religions inspire love for the environment and have spawned many eco-nuts (myself included, I admit). However, although most of the common practices seem to be eco-friendly enough, I'm concerned about some of the incense and candles being burned. I've heard a lot of nasty rumors about these things being toxic. Personally, whenever I use candles too often, I get a bit sick. Can you tell me what's true about these rumors? And is burning …

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Umbra on water conservation

Dearest Umbra, How can I convince friends to conserve water? I write a column for my church newsletter to encourage responsible environmental practices by church members. One member said recently that he doesn't see any need to conserve water personally; given that our area has plenty of water, why should he turn off the tap when he brushes his teeth? I'm not sure. Our local environmental organization's slogan is, "If we all do a little, we all do a lot," and one of the mantras of environmentalists has been, "Think globally, act locally." In this case, is there an argument …

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Umbra on ground-level ozone

Dear Umbra, Where I live, the air is declared "unhealthful" on many days in the summer due to ground-level ozone pollution. On those days, we have to stay inside until after about 3 p.m. My question is: What causes ground-level ozone to form and what are its reported health effects on adults and children? DeanBakersfield, Calif. Dearest Dean, Ground-level ozone is the unholy love child of fuel combustion and sunlight, and the best prevention technique is abstinence -- from the combustion engine. Smog-tied. Volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides are byproducts of fuel combustion. On sunny, warm days, VOCs and …

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Advice on converting to biodiesel

Umbra, I own a diesel VW Golf, which I bought thinking it was a better choice for the environment than a gasoline engine. Therefore, I was disappointed to read your message that diesel is probably a worse choice. However, you didn't talk at all about biodiesel. Can you give us a rundown on this fuel -- how to get it, how it may be beneficial, and what you might have to do to ensure your car can run on it safely? Thank you. Sputtering in VermontBurlington, Vt. Dearest Sputtering, Here at Grist Command Central, we received an overwhelming number of …

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Umbra on environmentally friendly communities, again

Dearest Readers, In my last column, I received a plea from James "Captain Planet" Fitzpatrick of Florida, a firefighter looking to relocate to a small, friendly, environmentally conscious mountain community with good schools, reasonably clean air and water, and no polluting companies or toxic waste sites. As this was obviously a job for discerning Grist readers, I turned the question over to the multitudes, and letters have been pouring in like Californians fleeing an earthquake. In today's column, I am pleased to convey the results of this informal Grist survey. As with most polls, these results represent the views of …

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