Umbra Fisk

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Advice for Living Green

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

Umbra on environmental print magazines

Dear Umbra, Can you recommend a paper magazine dedicated to environmental/social-justice issues that has the same kind of light touch and zany humor that Grist has? I’ve found that getting really good reading material into the house and just leaving it around is a sure way to hook my two children, who are both avid readers. They’re both computer literate, but won’t go to a website I recommend, whereas they do read enticing stuff that’s left around — devour it, in fact! I’d really appreciate any pointers you could give us. We’re in New Zealand, but I wouldn’t mind importing …

Umbra on freshwater

Dear Umbra, What percentage of the Earth’s water is drinkable? What are the remaining percents in categories, such as salt water, polluted water (polluted with what?), and frozen water? And where can I find these statistics? ScottBozeman, Mont. Dearest Scott, About 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is constantly wet. Of all that water, only 2.5 percent, or 8.4 million cubic miles, is not salty. Quite a bit of the freshwater is rather stale, since it’s been stuck for eons in glaciers, ice caps, and Siberia: 5.9 million cubic miles, to be exact. Still more freshwater is too far from …

Umbra on reusable recycling bags

Dear Umbra, I am the cofounder and current president of the Recycling Club at R.L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth, Texas. We have started collecting cell phones and plan to donate them to Verizon, since they refurbish and recycle or sell them. With the money they make, they buy new ones with airtime for (in our town) ladies at the Women’s Haven shelter. We plan to start recycling plastics too. I need a bag for all this paper. Anyway, the reason I’m writing you is because we don’t know where to start with one of our plans for the …

Umbra on making eco-friendly cleaning products

Dear Umbra, I’d like to start making my own environmentally friendly cleaning products for my home. Are there any books or websites you would recommend for cleaning “recipes”? Rachel P.S. — Thanks ever so much for your mention of the Keeper in one of your columns. Quite possibly the most useful device ever invented. Why aren’t more people talking about this? Dearest Rachel, Go, Keeper, go! You’ll be disappointed if you were expecting elaborate, paella-like recipes to replace the commercial products we’re told are essential to germ-free living. Turns out the steel wool has been pulled over our eyes. Without …

Umbra on leather upholstery

Dear Umbra, It seems everyone is getting leather upholstery in their cars and on their couches these days. Where is it coming from — the same cows that are being slaughtered for hamburgers, or special cows that are raised for their hides? What is the environmental impact of all this luxurious leather? SharonCollegeville, Penn. Dearest Sharon, Hides are a byproduct of food-related animal processing. Cattle are large, expensive animals, and using every last piece of a slaughtered cow yields the best payoff for all the labor and financial investment. Note, though, that not all leather is from bovine animals; you …

Umbra on the outcome of the last pollutocrat contest

Dear Umbra, So, what were the results of the “pollutocrat” contest? I recall seeing several web postings by editors to “watch out” for this term, as if the rest of a letter’s content was somehow invalid if it was written as part of a contest. Sad. Did someone win or not? KevinParma, Ohio Dearest Kevin, I get hundreds of email letters every month, and can answer only eight (give or take). My job forces me to cruelly ignore the bulk of my readers. I am benumbed to the resultant emotional turmoil. In other words, I could have ignored this email …

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 …

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