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Ask Umbra: Good gracious, is there lead in my fine china?

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Send your question to Umbra!

Q. My mom passed along the set of dishes that my grandmother hand-carried home from China, back when she and my grandfather were among the very first U.S. tourists to travel there in the early ’70s. And they're beautiful, with colorful glazed patterns. The trouble is, the glazes all contain lead. (I checked.) I'd rather not just dump them as household hazardous waste, but I certainly don't want to give them away to someone who might unknowingly use them for food. Any suggestions? I'm not about to take up pique assiette myself, but I suppose I could find someone who does it.

Diana F.
Portland, Ore.

A. Dearest Diana,

We’ve all heard the saying about gift horses and mouths. In your case, I’d like to propose an addendum: “Unless that horse is china set that could be coated in lead.” You were wise to check into the safety of your inherited dinnerware, and you’re right to be concerned -- but I don’t think you necessarily have to kick your lovely heirlooms out of the house.

Read more: Food, Living

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How to catch a coal ash spill? Send lawyers, boats, and airplanes

Waterkeeper Alliance Coal Ash Dumping
Waterkeeper Alliance

Peter Harrison has an enviable life: He spends a lot of time in a boat, exploring the waterways of North Carolina. Peter Harrison also has an interesting life: Other boats sometimes follow his, with huge cameras pointed in his direction, shutters clicking away.

"It's just intimidation," Harrison says. The people with cameras tend to be security guards for Duke Energy, the state's largest electricity provider, and a company that Harrison spends a lot of time investigating.

Over the past few years, environmental groups like the one that Harrison works for, Waterkeeper Alliance, began to notice that every time they have tried to sue Duke over coal ash dumps that are spilling arsenic and mercury into North Carolina's drinking water, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) would find a way to block or delay the lawsuit.

It also did not escape their notice that the state's governor, Pat McCrory, had worked at Duke for 28 years before running for political office. Or that the secretary of DENR was a McCrory appointee who described his approach to running the agency as being “a partner” to those it regulates.

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Citi takes energy efficiency all the way to the bank

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Disclosure: I used to crawl under trailers in poor parts of Western Colorado in a suit made from air-mail envelope material. I wasn’t being a weirdo, at least not intentionally. I had a job as a “weatherization technician,” making these homes more energy efficient, working for the government’s catastrophically acronymed LIHEAP program (for Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program, but still, guys, come on). It was hard work. We had little funding. And the program is now defunct. And yet, that very work is exactly what we ought to be undertaking at huge scale to help solve climate change.

Well, 20 years after I worked those trenches, I have some good news to deliver. Quietly, in the recesses of the financial machine, we've begun to do just that. Few know about it. But you should.

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Animal House

The untold story of deforestation: Slothageddon

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Brian Gratwicke

When a stretch of forest in Suriname was slatted to be cleared in October 2012, Monique Pool, a known sloth caretaker, was asked if she could take in the 14 displaced sloths. Of course she said yes (or she would have faced the wrath of a jealous internet). A machine operator slowly pushed over trees as Pool and a team of volunteers rushed about picking up the sloths that fell out of the canopy. As 14 quickly turned to 200, the sloth lover’s dream come true became the ultimate nightmare: slothageddon (Pool’s word, not mine). From BBC News: Sloths were hanging everywhere -- from the trees in her …

Read more: Living

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FDA tells livestock and dairy farmers: We’re cutting you off — no more beer!

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The United States is about to have a slew of hungry and sober cows on our hands, which, for the record, is not a good combination for any mammal.

The FDA’s proposed Food Safety Modernization Act guidelines would prohibit breweries from sharing their fermented grains with livestock farmers. Farmers have long been using this boozy mash as free feed for their cows, and this relationship has provided an efficient way for the beer industry to repurpose its waste.*

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These little hacks make cities more sustainable and fun

Sometimes all it takes is imagination, some stealth, and a little elbow grease to turn the mundane into something playful. Rotten Apple, an anonymous art project based in New York City, turns ordinary and forgotten city objects into usable, sustainable mini-hacks. Here's how they describe where they land:

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Rotten Apple

So, how does that look on the ground? They added a seat on a hinge to a bicycle rack for a pop-down chair:

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Rotten Apple

They turned a forgotten newspaper kiosk into a cold weather clothing bank:

Read more: Cities, Living

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The Onion manages to make even extinction funny

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Sam Howzit

Shit’s disappearing, and it’s a bummer. We try to stay upbeat, but sometimes all the news of vanishing ecosystem this and endangered that gets us down. Thankfully, the irrepressible Onion has made even biodiversity loss funny with “EPA Announces New Initiative To Conserve Whatever’s Left.”

In the Onion's alternate reality, the EPA has newly devoted $70 million for halfheartedly saving the few remaining trees, animals, or whatever else happens to be lying around:

“By working together with scientists, lawmakers, and various conservation groups, we hope to preserve those ecosystems and forms of wildlife that have actually managed to hang in there for this long,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy ...

“Basically, whichever organisms are living right now, we’re going try to keep them alive,” she continued. “If that’s still a possibility.”

Additionally, the agency affirmed its commitment to deploying its personnel nationwide to do “whatever can be done at this point” to safeguard areas that may still contain clean air, clean water, and land that’s not completely covered in refuse and filth ...

“Of course, that’s only until our funding is cut even further,” McCarthy added. “Then, you know, the environment’s pretty much on its own.”

It’s funny (slash sad) because it’s true! The EPA’s been making some questionable choices lately, from lifting BP’s drilling ban to running a fake clean energy scam. And in light of McCarthy’s comment in September that “Climate change is not about polar bears,” the Onion’s piece doesn’t seem THAT far off.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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This vegan bakery could be the next Cinnabon

vegan-cinnabon-cinnaholic
Cinnaholic

What is it about Cinnabon? THAT SMELL. The doughy simple sugars spiking straight into your system. The extra little container of frosting you can get. Be right back, we have to run to the mall.

Anyway, vegan cinnamon roll shop Cinnaholic just started accepting franchise applications, so your town could get a dairy-free version of our favorite unhealthy treat (no offense, gelato and Pirate’s Booty!). Maybe you’ll even be behind the counter?

Founders Shannon and Florian Radke opened the first Cinnaholic in 2010 in Berkeley (of course). Today, you can pick from almost 30 flavors of frosting and 25 toppings, so if you’ve always wanted a vegan cinnamon roll with pina colada-flavored frosting and cookie dough on top, that clanging you hear is St. Peter throwing open the pearly gates.

Read more: Food, Living

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It helps to like your neighbor during a natural disaster

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"When a storm hits, there are no strangers -- only neighbors helping neighbors, communities rallying to rebuild," says President Obama in a YouTube video, looking out at Americans on the internet. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the White House has gone to some lengths to communicate its long-term strategy on disaster preparedness. You might expect the president to start a speech like this by talking about improving infrastructure, facilitating fast responses from FEMA, or even addressing environmental concerns, but instead, he led with the idea of strong communities. Which raises a question: What does neighborliness have to do with storm preparedness?

Quite a bit, apparently. A June study from the Associated Press and National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that towns and neighborhoods with a strong sense of social connection recovered faster after Hurricane Sandy. People living in the areas that recovered from the storm the fastest were more likely to say that others can be trusted (44 vs. 33 percent) and that the disaster brought out the best in their neighbors (81 vs. 63 percent). In areas that have had a harder time bouncing back, more people reported seeing looting (31 vs. 7 percent), vandalism (21 vs. 5 percent), and hoarding of food and water (47 vs. 25 percent).

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Can you go a day without trash? Try it on April 9

adaywithoutwaste

Two-thirds of our waste doesn’t get recycled or composted. Youth activism nonprofit Global Citizen wants to see if you can get that down to zero on Wednesday, which it’s christened #ADayWithoutWaste.

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Can you go one day without creating any garbage -- or at least using a travel mug instead of a paper coffee cup? How about a reusable shopping bag instead of a plastic one? (Say it with us now: “No straw in my maw!”)

Because if not, no pressure, but your relationship is totally doomed. Case in point: This guy trying to celebrate the most important of anniversaries -- SEVEN MONTHS! -- and being totally foiled by that old supervillain, trash:

Read more: Living