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Wool balls keep your laundry soft, and maaaaybe save energy

When I was taught to do laundry, I was told that a Bounce dryer sheet went into the dryer with every load of wet clothes. But the green-minded among us have come up with a better solution to keeping your clothes static-free and soft (without involving PVC in the process): wool dryer balls.


Get a few of these thingies, and you will not need to buy dryer sheets for years. You can even make your own, with minimum craftiness required.

The companies that make balls like these claim that they save energy, too, which would be great if it were true, since dryers suck up a ton of electricity. But the few industrious people who've tried to confirm this claim have come up way short.

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Ask Umbra: What’s up with those ‘DO NOT EAT’ packets in shoeboxes and pill bottles?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Do you have any advice on disposal/recycling of those gel packs that come with our pills/vitamins/shoes/protein powders/etc? Surely just throwing them away cannot be safe (wildlife consumption is my biggest worry) -- is there anything you can recommend? Also, I feel like I am wasting those cotton balls that come in vitamin and pill bottles, too. I surely couldn’t reuse them as cotton balls, could I?

Casie
La Verne, Calif.

Photo by jojomelons.

A. Dearest Casie,

While I admire your instincts and commitment, I wish I could invent a Take-a-Deep-Breath-It’ll-Be-Okay vitamin, mass produce it today, and mail you a case. I can think of a few others who might benefit from this miracle pill, too. I would not, of course, include silica gel or wads of cotton in said packages.

I know those of us who care deeply about the planet tend to worry about throwing anything away, but I also occasionally encourage people to give themselves a break. This is one of those moments. You are lovely to worry about wildlife eating these little packets, but you needn’t: I checked with two people from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), whose slightly bewildered responses amounted to, “No, not a concern.” We hope the solid-waste authorities there in La Verne are keeping your garbage under wraps, but even if they’re not, my NWF friends say animals would be unlikely to eat silica gel, because it’s odorless. The ASPCA also says silica gel is relatively harmless, unless large quantities are eaten by tiny animals.

In fact, Casie, I think you’ve unearthed the world’s first case of an industry overhyping its dangers, rather than downplaying or denying them.

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Umbra’s second helpings: Keeping your cool without air-conditioning

On the East Coast, our news blogger has been valiantly toiling away at the Gristmill despite the heat wave. His dry dispatches have us thinking about the best ways to beat the heat. From a fan in New York:

"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?"

Read on for Umbra's response. She gets heated over window shades and lightens up the mood by suggesting a switch from incandescents to fluorescent bulbs.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of our Ask Umbra advice column, and to celebrate, we’re pulling a favorite gem of eco-advice out of the archives each week.

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Good clean fun: Can green gadgets replace the washing machine?

Toilet plunger? Or magical efficient clothes washer? (Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.)

If you ranked a list of household chores in order of how much dread they inspire in me, laundry falls somewhere between “feeding the cat” and “eating the leftover cupcakes before they get stale.” In other words, not so bad. Perhaps it’s because conventional clothes-cleaning is so automated these days. You don’t have to do or even think much about it, especially if your building or (oh, the luxury!) home has a washer and dryer: Load it, soap it, come back and tumble-dry it.

Convenient as it is, though, all that laundry demands an ecological tariff payable in loads of water and electricity. Once you put a little thought into reducing the impact of your hamper, getting your tighty-whities sparkling clean isn’t quite so simple anymore. In fact, if your solution is a handheld washing stick, it can be downright exhausting.

I didn’t know products like the Breathing Mobile Washer existed before my mom showed me an ad last week. "This glorified toilet plunger thinks it can improve on my laundry habits, huh?" I thought at first. But when I heard the washer’s claims to de-stankify my clothes without using any electricity and very little water -- while providing a solid arm workout to boot -- I knew I had to try it.

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Ask Umbra: How can I get my neighbors to stop spraying pesticides?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I live in a pretty nice trailer park with lots of room to grow beautiful organic food. My neighbors spray pesticides at the fence line, and the pesticide drift has poisoned some of my vegetables and the soil. I stopped talking to them the second time it happened. The park manager has told them not to do it. But they continue. How can I stop them from trying to poison me? I talked with the mayor and she didn’t know what I should do, as there are no city laws addressing the problem. And what do I do with the soil and the plants that have been poisoned?

Patricia
Lafayette, Colo.

A. Dearest Patricia,

I am going to let you in on a little secret. There are times when I dole out advice from up here on the Advice Doling Console and I think to myself, “Hmm, easier said than done.” I know this is going to be one of those times, because it is hard to find a confident-yet-not-overly-confrontational way to talk to people about their habits, especially people with whom you share a fence line. But let’s take a look at how you can protect yourself and your veggies.

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Dress shirt uses spacesuit technology to keep you dry on your bike commute

You know how you don't bike to work because you get hot and sweaty and gross? A group of MIT graduates has stolen that excuse. They copied technology from spacesuits and used it to make what BikeBlogNYC has rightly dubbed "the TANG of dress shirts" -- a sharp-looking top that regulates your body heat. No sweaty pit spots! No overheating before your meeting! Now helmet up.


The shirt's called the Apollo shirt, because it's space technology and presumably also makes you look like a Greek god. The creators, whose company is called the Ministry of Supply, say that it pulls heat away from your body and stores it "like a battery" -- when you get into your badly climate controlled office, you get that heat back to battle the A/C. (Although you, Grist reader, of course work in an office that properly manages its temperature in a sustainable way.) Also there are vents for airflow, and we're going to give the Ministry of Supply bonus points for creating a wrinkle-free shirt without formaldehyde.

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Umbra’s second helpings: How to recycle beer bottles with limes

Let's face it: Some beers only taste right with a wedge of lime. But does that little slice of green mean that the bottle has to have a not-so-green ending? Umbra squeezes in a little research on this wedge issue.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of our Ask Umbra advice column, and to celebrate, we’re pulling a favorite gem of eco-advice out of the archives each week.

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Canadian high-schooler makes her own graduation dress out of old homework

Kara Koskowich is going to take the world by storm. Girlfriend just graduated from high school in Canada, and instead of shelling out for a fancy graduation dress, she decided to reuse old homework and post-it notes to make one herself:


The dress took almost 75 pieces of paper to make, Koskowich said. She started back in March but, in true teenage style, finished it the night before she needed to wear it. She also broke her sewing machine in the process of putting it together and had to hand stitch the last bits.

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‘Himalayan Viagra’ is going extinct

A parasitic caterpillar fungus that grows in the Himalayas has many names, according to Scientific American -- yarsagumba, yarchagumba, yartsa gunba, yatsa gunbu. But we are only going to remember one name: Himalayan Viagra.

This fungus, which leeches off of Tibetan ghost moth larvae, is said to get the fellas going when boiled and consumed in tea or soup. Oh, it also cures cancer and fights fatigue. Miracle drug! (Scientific American -- always with the science! -- notes, "These medical claims have not been borne out scientifically.")

As a result of its awesome properties of making everything sexy and cancer-free and sexy, this stuff is almost worth its weight in gold. (The price per gram puts its worth between silver and gold, Agence France Presse says.) And there's a global market for it worth between $5 billion and $11 billion.

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Ask Umbra: Is my single-serve coffeemaker wasteful?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

 My grandparents just gave me a Keurig single-cup coffee machine for my birthday. I would have said no thanks had they asked, but I have to admit that it’s pretty handy. So which is more wasteful: Throwing away the non-recyclable pods, or dumping out leftover coffee from an old pot gone cold? With a Keurig, there’s never any risk of making a pot too large and throwing some out. Since coffee beans are an extremely water-intensive crop to grow, pouring out those two cups is a much bigger waste than it may seem.

Nathan E.
Washington, D.C.

Photo by Patrick Gensel.

A. Dearest Nathan,

This is what our friends on Twitter call, I believe, a #firstworldproblem. You Keurig users worry a lot, and you’ve made this question something of a spring ritual hereabouts. Given the recent surge in sales of Keurigs and their ilk, however, I’ve decided to dive into the brew-haha once more.

Let’s look at the scenario you have identified. On the one hand, we have a nifty machine that uses less energy than a traditional coffee pot. According to a detailed comparison [PDF] from the Energy Star program, estimated annual household energy use for a 10-to-12-cup drip filter coffeemaker is 100-150 kilowatt-hours (kWh), compared to 45-65 kWh for a single-serve coffeemaker. However, your little machine generates untold waste in the form of ridiculously unrecyclable plastic-and-foil pods. It also makes you spend silly amounts of money. Americans bought $715 million worth of K-cups during the last quarter of 2011. That translates to about $50 per pound of coffee, The New York Times helpfully tells us, versus the typical $8-$12 per pound you pay when you buy coffee in bulk.

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