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 plastic water bottles

Several readers have sent in questions about the dangers of chemical leaching from plastic bottles. A composite version: Dear Umbra, I’ve read some conflicting things about the risks associated with reusing plastic water bottles. For instance, the generally trustworthy folks at the urban-legends site snopes.com have criticized a widely circulated email that claims regular water bottles are not safe for refilling because the plastic breaks down. The commonly offered solution is to refill only bottles made from stronger plastics, which are meant to be washed and reused, such as Nalgene bottles. But then I read in Daily Grist that even …

Umbra on whole-house fans and their righteousness

Dear Umbra, We just moved to the steamy climate of Washington, D.C., from the other Washington. Faced with our first experience using air-conditioning to cool our home, we’ve got some questions about efficiency. The house we’re renting has a central AC unit that we can control with a thermostat. It also has a roof ventilation system that circulates air under the roof using a fairly noisy and probably pretty old and inefficient fan. Here’s the thing: The fan is on a thermostat, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to control it. (We think there’s a switch in the …

Umbra on opening windows versus running the AC

Dear Umbra, My friend and I have been having a debate that I hope you can help us settle. What is the rule of thumb when turning off the air and opening the windows? I live in Texas and in the spring we have one or two days in a row that are cool enough for open windows followed by four that are not. Should I open the windows when it is nice only to have to close them again and turn the air on in a day or two? Does it cost more to re-cool my apartment than it …

Umbra on swamp coolers and their coolness

Dear Umbra, I recently visited Moab, Utah, and found that many people there use “swamp coolers” rather than conventional air-conditioning systems. Moab is in a near-desert environment and has frequent water-shortage problems. I’m wondering whether this swamp-cooler method of air-conditioning is really greener than the systems most of the rest of us use, and whether it is depleting the already low water supply in these Southwestern desert areas. How does it stack up cost-wise against other types of cooling systems? My AC broke down this spring, and if I am able to get enough money together by next summer, I’d …

Umbra on keeping cool without selling out

Dear Umbra, Please advise me on the best way to beat the summer heat! I live in a rather steamy studio apartment and thus far have been languishing under fans in front of the open window, lapping up ice cream, and taking many cold showers. I feel a tad guilty about the excess use of water in the pursuit of keeping cool. What’s worse — to sell out and buy an electricity-sucking air conditioner or send lots of cold water down the drain? Do you have any other chilling suggestions? Stickily, with much thanks,JoyceNew York, N.Y. Dearest Joyce, Fan-tastic. I …

Umbra on when to retire a fridge

Dear Umbra, I love to freeze fresh veggies at their peak of ripeness during the summer. Then, in the winter, I don’t have to buy commercially frozen veggies or long-distance transported ones. In order to do more of this, I’d like to move my 1985 refrigerator to the basement and use its freezer entirely for this purpose. I would buy a new one designated Energy Star. Would this end up being environmentally a plus, a minus, or a wash? EnidAmherst, Mass. Dearest Enid, Veggie tales. Photo: USDA. Your 1985 refrigerator has passed its own peak of ripeness, as you may …

Advice on natural fabrics vs. polyester

Dear Umbra, I’ve never appreciated human-made fabrics — polyester and its cousins invariably feel less comfortable to me than cotton or wool. Until recently, I thought this personal preference also had the happy side effect of making me a greener clothes shopper, since producing natural fibers doesn’t involve long chains of polymers. A friend recently claimed otherwise, telling me that the growth, harvesting, and shipping of cotton from around the globe (indeed, my very favorite all-cotton shirt was manufactured in Burma — yikes!) means it does more damage to the environment than the factories that produce the artificial fabrics. Is …

Advice on buying aquarium fish

Dear Umbra, I’m an elementary school teacher and I’d like to get a pet fish for my classroom, but I’ve heard tales of such fish being caught by eco-egregious means: dynamite blasting, cyanide dumping, etc. How can I make sure I’m getting happy, healthy, sustainably caught fish for my aquarium? Ginger Dearest Ginger, Is nothing sacred? Apparently not cute aquarium fish, which are wooing consumers to inadvertently destroy remote natural environments. Fish-ful thinking. Salt-water, aquarium-destined fish are indeed caught with cyanide. The fisherperson descends to the reef and squirts cyanide into nooks and crannies, stunning the fish, which naturally become …

Advice on antioxidant-rich foods and why they cost so much

Dear Umbra, Antioxidant foods are “the thing” right now, and I would love to be able to eat as many as I need. However, they are usually the most expensive fruits and vegetables. Would it not make sense for farmers or producers to grow these products in greater volume, so we could all afford them and be able to eat healthier more easily? How difficult would such an adjustment in crops be for farmers in terms of land use, chemicals, etc.? Oxidated Dearest Oxidated, The crux of your question seems to be: Why don’t farmers make my favorite foods less …

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