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Umbra on mercury in compact fluorescent lights

Dear Umbra, Here in Texas, where it is very hot in the summer (granted, we deserve to be in hell for having produced George Bush), some of us have been enthusiastically switching our light bulbs to cooler compact fluorescents. Is this a bad thing due to the mercury they contain? Lisa Smithville, Texas Dearest Lisa, Thanks for your question, as it will allow me to keep shedding light on the compact fluorescent issue. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) last far longer and use electricity more efficiently than conventional incandescent bulbs. Buy them if you can. They do contain a minuscule amount …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Umbra on turning off fluorescent lights

Dear Umbra, You'd be so proud of us! We just had an hour-long meeting about conservation and environmentalism here in our office. In the course of our discussion, the topic of leaving the lights on came up. I am a religious light-switcher, meaning I turn lights off in the bathroom or wherever they're left on. One of my colleagues was under the impression that it takes more energy to turn fluorescent lights on and off than it does to leave them on. I'm shocked! Is this true? And are there eco-sensitive alternatives to standard fluorescent tubes? In the dark, Matt …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Umbra on skiing

Dear Umbra, With winter fast approaching, I was thinking of learning to ski. I was wondering how skiing ranks among recreational activities in terms of its environmental impact. What are all the effects of clearing ski trails, making snow, and operating ski lifts? Not to mention all the resorts and roads that sprout up to service the skiers. Should I hit the slopes or stay inside sipping hot cocoa (organic, shade-grown, and fairly traded, of course)? Curiously yours, BelindaDavis, Calif. Dearest Belinda, Good news and bad news, as usual. The bad news you already know or can guess: Downhill (or …

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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? …

Read more: Living

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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 …

Read more: Food, Living

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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 …

Read more: Food, Living

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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. …

Read more: Living