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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to reuse biodegradable plastic spoons?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. We get cute, colorful, (supposedly) biodegradable plastic spoons at a local frozen yogurt joint. They would be perfect to reuse for my 2-year-old son, except that I'm worried about the chemicals they may be releasing, especially in response to the high temps of the dishwasher. Should I steer clear or is it OK to reuse this biodegradable product?

Jess W.
St. Louis, Mo.

A. Dearest Jess,

Read more: Food, Living



These artists will take you on a journey to the melting Arctic

Banks' ink-on-mylar painting "Micro/Macro" hangs in one of the gallery's windows. It depicts the effect of climate change on Arctic ice.

If you've always wanted to visit the Arctic, you might have to hustle, because climate change will eventually render the region unrecognizable. But if you don't have the time, money, or inclination it takes to burn carbon getting to one of the most remote places on Earth, an art exhibit at the American Association for the Advancement of Science is investigating the ways that global warming will change this iconic landscape.

Watch a video of the artists talking about the exhibition:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Spiderwebs don’t work as well in cities

Jamie Millar Photography

Imagine you’re a spider. You get to the big city all bright-eyed, like an eight-legged Carrie Bradshaw, dazzled by the skyscrapers and the buzz of activity. Then you realize you can’t eat.

It’s not that spiders can’t find acting gigs and end up too poor for ramen. Rather, the concrete jungle messes with their webs. Specifically, concrete lowers the vibrations that a spiderweb might otherwise pick up, making it harder for spiders to sense prey. PLUS, the hubbub of a city adds in extra, erroneous vibrations, getting a spider’s hopes up that a meal is near, only to viciously crush them (it’s only me, running by to catch the bus -- sorry!).

That’s basically a slightly more colorful version of what UC Berkeley researchers recently found. Here’s the background:

Read more: Cities, Living


This is what you’d get if Wes Anderson rode a fixie and spray-painted walls

Mart Love him or hate him, Wes Anderson is the king of twee. We doubt the filmmaker has ever met Mart, an Argentinian street artist, but Mart’s delicate bike murals would definitely be at home gracing the Tenenbaums’ walls: Mart Mart made his first foray into graffiti at age 12. In 2007, he shifted from traditional graffiti to the more delicate painting style you see here. Mart The 28-year-old artist describes his work with words like “magic,” “dreamlike,” and “playful.” Sounds like someone else who shares his love of pastels and fantasy ... Mart Aaand now we want to spend …

Read more: Cities, Living


So long, and thanks for all the tree lobsters

What rough beast...?
What rough beast ...?

In September 2011, I joined Grist as its executive editor. It was an eventful time. President Obama was soon to make a momentous decision about the Keystone XL pipeline. Congress was beginning to wrestle with a new farm bill. The clock had basically run out for our species to act to stop global climate change.

It's two and a half years later. Keystone? That decision still looms. Farm bill? We got that, finally, though it was touch and go. The climate? Still not looking good.

Despite the Groundhog-Day-ish nature of this apparently static reality -- the Eternal Gloom of the Sustainable Mind -- I have never felt a sense of futility as I've overseen Grist's coverage. On the contrary, it's been a blast. Laughing over the abyss is what we do here -- even as we're trying to picture the distance between the two sides accurately, and crossing our fingers that we'll make it safely across.

At the end of next week, I'll be leaving this editor's job for personal reasons. I love Grist and will continue to do some part-time editing work; but the organization is based in Seattle, I'm based in the Bay Area, and it's time for me to stop pretending that it's possible to be in two places at once. Therefore, this brief stock-taking.

Read more: Uncategorized


“More fish in the sea” is not a reason to keep overfishing

Yum, elongated bristlemouth.
Yum, elongated bristlemouth.

Bristlemouth à la beurre. Miso-seared mola mola. Lanternfish tartare.

If you’ve never seen these things on a menu, that’s probably because humans don’t generally catch or eat the denizens of the mesopelagic zone, that slice of sea about 656 to 3,280 feet below the ocean surface (also known as 200 to 1000 meters, which is much easier to remember). Lying just below the pelagic, the top layer of the open sea where most of the fish we’re familiar with live, the mesopelagic is apparently much more lively than we thought.

paper published last month in the journal Nature Communications revised the estimate of biomass in this “twilight zone” of the ocean up from 1 billion tons to more than 10 billion -- meaning these deep-dwellers actually make up something like 95 percent of the total fish in the sea.

This might sound like good news -- lots more fish! -- but it's not nearly as good as some news outlets would have you believe. The right-wing blog Powerline optimistically asserted that “maybe overfishing of tuna won’t turn out to be quite the crisis we thought it was,” while The National Review’s Greg Pollowitz told us to stop worrying about ocean pollution since deep-water “deserts” under trash gyres turn out to be chock-full of fish. Even Popular Science overplayed the positive angle in its subhead: “Good news for fish. And humans who like fish.” (To be fair, a caveat followed in the piece itself: “This study doesn’t have much relevance for the issue of overfishing, which is an enormous and still growing problem.”)


That new-car smell is making Hurricane Katrina survivors sick

Guian Bolisay

New-car smell reminds you that you get to be the first person EVER to spill Doritos crumbs into the long-lost valleys of seat cushions; YOUR library books will be the first to get irrevocably stuck under the passenger seat. Unfortunately it also means you’re breathing in a bouquet of chemicals, including formaldehyde.

The scent's not that dangerous in a car, Oxford anthropologist Nick Shapiro told The New Republic, because most people don’t live in their cars. It’s much more toxic in the brand new mobile homes FEMA distributed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The poorly ventilated FEMA trailers have “the new car smell times 10,” as one trailer resident puts it.

Formaldehyde is just one part of the chemical soup comprising the iconic new-car smell -- plasticizers also play a role -- but it IS a carcinogen. Shapiro describes the toll the scent is taking on health:

Read more: Living


Can this coal plant save the climate?

Climate Desk coal
Climate Desk

This story was written by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg. It was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk initiative. The video was produced by Climate Desk’Tim McDonnell.

The massive block of steel towers and pipes rises out of the morning fog like a sci-fi fantasy. But this coal-fired power plant could help save the climate, or at least that's the hope of the Obama administration.

The plant in Mississippi was repeatedly invoked by the Environmental Protection Agency to justify sweeping new climate change rules. When it comes online later this year, Kemper will be the first power plant in the U.S. capable of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions.

The EPA says the Kemper County Energy Facility offers a real-life example that it is possible to go on burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels and still make the cuts in carbon dioxide emissions needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.

But with staggering costs -- $5 billion and rising -- and pushback from industry and environmental groups who say carbon capture is an unproven technology, now even the company that built Kemper is having second thoughts about the future of "clean coal."


Gold-medal skier Ted Ligety raps with a snowflake to save winter


Shit just got real in the climate fight, people. Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project has teamed up with the company founded by legendary ski movie maker Warren Miller to bring you “I am Pro Snow,” an effort to save the white dust that has kept Miller and his protégés busy -- and skiers and boarders coming back for their cinematic antics and epic powder shots -- for decades.

Here’s the latest Pro Snow video, featuring one of our highest profile snow pros -- Ted Ligety, who just won his gajillionth gold medal in Sochi, Russia -- rocking the thigh drums with a slightly depressed cartoon snowflake.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Watch a pangolin play in the mud like a puppy

Pangolins are shy, scaled African anteaters that heartless people will pay hundreds of dollars to eat. (They sort of resemble artichokes with legs, but that’s no excuse.) But even though they look like metallic pinecones that belong in a sci-fi film, all they want to do is roll around in the mud like a giddy pup. Watch the cuteness:

The footage is courtesy of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, which filmed the pangolin in Namibia. Eight species of the mammal exist in Asia and Africa, but they’re quickly dwindling due to poachers, as Chinese medicine makes use of their scales. (What else is new? Sob!) This playful pangolin’s antics may serve a useful purpose, according to Earth Touch:

[H]e may be rolling in the mud for more than just fun. The mud may help with fighting parasites in between the pangolin's scales as well as cooling him down.

Read more: Living