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Umbra on snowy sidewalks

Dear Umbra, Being a new homeowner, I've realized the responsibility of keeping the sidewalk slip-proof during the winter months. Of course, shoveling will be the first line of defense, but that never seems to do the trick, often leaving that thin layer of slippery snow. And then there is the ice. I know that salt and sand can be fairly nasty to local rivers and streams (not to mention the white stains on my floors). So what are the best alternatives? Everything I have been able to find seems to contain something equally scary. Am I doomed to slippery sidewalks? …

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Umbra on wrapping paper

Dear Umbra, Any suggestions on where to find recycled wrapping paper? I know the real environmental choice is to reuse stuff I have around the house, but sometimes newspaper, etc., just doesn't have the right look. Any ideas where I can find recycled/tree-free wrapping paper for the holiday season? I've been looking around (both online and off) but all I can find is rolls of brown packing paper. I want something a little more festive. Thanks, LisaBrooklyn, N.Y. Dearest Lisa, Here at Grist, your holiday needs come first, so I called a few of my favorite paper stores, in New …

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Umbra on organic food and farming

Dear Umbra, I try to buy organic food where possible, but I notice that there is often a tradeoff with other factors. For example, organic food has often been shipped further and/or is more heavily packaged. How do I assess those tradeoffs? EllenWatertown, Mass. Dearest Ellen, As I've mentioned before, the USDA national organic standards came into effect last month, an event that has caused both rejoicing and concern in the organic community. The involvement of the feds in the organic movement reflects the strong market growth of the organic sector, which has been around 20 percent per year. This …

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Umbra on fruit sprays and organic food

Dear Umbra, The tangerines I bought recently had this on the label: "Thiabendazole and/or orthopenylphenol and/or imazalil used as fungicides, and coated with food-grade shellac based wax or resin to maintain freshness." Presumably the shellac stays on the skin and does not affect the fruit, but what about the other products? What are these products and do we know what the impact of spraying or putting them on the fruit is, as well as the overall effect on the environment? Is organic better, as far as these chemicals are concerned? BruceKansas City, Mo. Dearest Bruce, Organic is better, as far …

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Umbra on vegetarianism

Dear Umbra, I have been a vegetarian for a pretty long time, but my uncle told me that if the human is not supposed to eat meat then why do we have teeth. He left me a little confused. Is the human being naturally vegetarian? LaidaSomerville, Mass. Dearest Laida, Your uncle is unkindly denigrating your ideas, and using his authority to confuse you. His comment reminds me of a long-ago MAD Magazine spoof -- to paraphrase, "If the Lord had meant us to have telephones, he would have given us telephones instead of an appendix." If you want my opinion, …

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Umbra on sustainable bunk beds

Dear Umbra, I've been looking for a sustainably harvested bunk bed for my five-year-old son for quite some time now. I have found only one company, Pacific Rim, that makes such an item. It seems like a great company, but it doesn't have exactly what I'm looking for. When I search online, all I read about are "super low, unbeatable prices," rather than the really important details, like whether it's any good for our planet. Do you have a list of businesses that carry sustainably harvested wooden furniture (including bunk beds)? Thanks so much, Sleepless without Sustainable(Kathy, actually) Egg Harbor …

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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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