Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

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

Umbra on recycling pencil stubs

Dear Umbra, I’m looking for a place that accepts pencil stubs (one to two inches long) to recycle into new pencils. I’ve found recycled pencils online — made from denim, plastic, recovered wood, and paper currency. But what can I do with my stubs? PhoenixCovington, Ky. Dearest Phoenix, All the waste-reduction tips tell you to stop using wooden pencils, but that doesn’t help with the ones you already have. Plus wooden pencils are chewable, a vital aspect for many scriveners. A pencil holder may be just the retro gizmo for you. I refer not to a jar to hold the …

Umbra on whether to leave the engine running

Dear Umbra, I have a question that has been nagging me for a while, and I would really like to have it answered once and for all. You see, I deliver pizzas for a living right now, and so I make many frequent stops and starts at people’s houses during a shift. I always turn off my engine whenever I make a delivery or am waiting at the store for the next order to come up, because I believe in doing my part to keep our air clean and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But I keep hearing the argument that turning …

Umbra on choosing the least evil gasoline company

Dear Umbra, Every week I scan the gasoline signs looking for the cheapest deal, while knowing that what I pay in rock-bottom prices may come at the expense of environmental integrity and social justice. I’d like to choose my brand of gas with more conscience. Would you help? I’d love to see a ranking or rating system of the major gasoline brands. It could let us know which ones are meaningfully pursuing renewable energy sources, protecting indigenous political and property rights at the source, and making efforts to minimize the environmental impact of their oil extraction and refinement. Are any …

Umbra on finding solar-power stats

Dear Umbra, Are there any statistics that show what percentage of solar power is generated state by state, and which states are more solar-friendly? Also, do power companies give out any figures on how much energy they buy back from home solar producers? Thanks from Los Angeles, Calif. Dearest Los Angeles, Life is great. As your researcher, I get paid to find previously obscure (to me) gems like today’s favorite website: the Energy Information Administration, an entire government agency dedicated to answering your question. Isn’t that just so 1977? Not made in the shade. Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. I …

Umbra on installing solar panels

Dear Umbra, My husband and I have decided to install a solar electric system. We live in the high desert and enjoy sun 360 or more days a year. We have been surfing to find information and are increasingly befuddled. Nanosys will have new technology out, but I don’t know when. Should we wait a year or two for new, less expensive technology or go with existing solar panels? KathyJoshua Tree, Calif. Dearest Kathy, How exciting. One obvious source of information is the internet, which is particularly helpful for understanding the big picture or getting the gist of a new …

Umbra on ecological footprints

Dear Umbra, I just took the Ecological Footprint Quiz, feeling rather confident that I’ve been doing my part to minimize my personal impact on environmental despoliation. But my results weren’t reassuring. My ecological footprint is nine acres, which is much better than the U.S. national average of 24 acres per person, but still twice what the planet could sustain. In short, the quiz tells me, if everyone lived like me, we would need two planets. I’m not sure I can make any more big changes — I take public transportation when I can, I’ve kept my 10-year-old Honda, which still …

Umbra on organic syrup

Dear Umbra, I saw at the store there is “organic” maple syrup. Is there really a difference between organic and non-organic maple syrup? Do conventional farms spray the trees with massive amounts of pesticides? I don’t have much money (poor college student) so I was just trying to buy organic for things like apples and milk, which I’ve heard should only be bought in organic form. BriannaFarmington Hills, Mich. Dearest Brianna, Good to the last drop. You’ll never hear me saying anything negative about maple syrup (except maybe “it’s all gone”). The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently regulates use of …

Umbra on Energy Star labels

Dear Umbra, When I see the Energy Star rating on an appliance, can I trust that some government or consumer group is monitoring the ratings, or is that just a commercial ploy? Who profits from the Energy Star thing? Not Starry-EyedBridgewater, N.J. Dearest Not Starry-Eyed, A green screen. Photo: EnergyStar.gov. Energy Star is a project of our very own U.S. EPA, with assistance from the Department of Energy. Products that meet Energy Star standards are permitted to carry a flier that displays the Energy Star logo and compares the energy use of the product against other similar products, usually in …

Umbra on hydroponic farming

Dear Umbra, What are the advantages of hydroponics, and if it is so good, why isn’t it used more? LukeMitchellville, Iowa Dearest Luke, Plants take up most of their nutrients through their roots, despite all we learned in elementary school about leaves making food from the sun. Soil is a complex conglomeration of minerals, nutrients, bugs, and fungi that deliver nutrients to plants via the root system. Farmers and gardeners labor to stuff their soil with the perfect blend of nutrients for each plant. Look ma, no soil! Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Hydroponics grew out of the logical idea …