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Government spends $40 million mowing lawns of empty homes

The U.S. government owns 200,000 foreclosed homes. And to keep those empty homes looking spiffy for would-be buyers, the government has to keep up appearances -- including the appearance of the lawn. As a result, we taxpayers are forking over $40 million for lawn-mowing at these uninhabited houses.

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Ask Umbra: What should I do with my old bike helmet?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

 I bought a new bicycle helmet, and I’m wondering what to do with my old one. I worry that donating it is irresponsible, since I am no longer confident in its noggin-protecting abilities. But sending it to the landfill isn’t a good option either. What is the best thing to do?

 Anne D.
Seattle, Wash.

A. Dearest Anne,

You know what you could do with your old bike helmet? Use it as a chafing dish for the beautiful cake you are going to bake for the 10th anniversary of Ask Umbra this month!

OK, fine, I have some other ideas too. But readers, don’t forget to send anniversary greetings my way -- the most creative will be featured on Grist.

Anne, you get points for being a responsible cyclist and replacing your brain bucket (see these guidelines for when to do it). As I’ve said before, bike helmets are not easily recyclable, but we should try not to lose too much sleep over sending helmets to the landfill, given the many, many other ecological (and economic) benefits of the bicycling habit. However, I’ve unpacked a few new thoughts from my pannier:

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Flame retardants can turn a burning room into a gas chamber

The Station nightclub fire at 40 seconds. (Photo by Daniel R. Davidson.)

You know brominated and chlorinated flame retardants are bad when when even Walmart bans them from its products. Unfortunately, some fire codes require them. But we’ll see how long that lasts, says Environmental Health News, given that new research indicates burning flame-retardant items makes them emit the same poisons used in Nazi gas chambers.

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Potty talk: How best to green up your bathroom business

You guys, I just can't use a pee rag.

Yes, I love the trees. No, I don't want to waste paper. Yes, I want to green up my life, bathroom habits included. But the conventional go-wipe-flush routine has served me well since toilet training, and I've gotta say, switching to an old strip of cloth in lieu of toilet paper isn't an easy transition. Today's hardcore greenies have dreamed up plenty of other TP alternatives, but you know, none of those look so great, either.

I know I've pledged to try out green lifestyle practices, but when an editor suggested the ol' pee rag, I hit a serious brick wall. Still, while researching the many other low-waste bathroom habits I could be adopting instead, it struck me that perhaps these TP tricks fall into a natural progression. One can't be expected to go from 0 to 60 immediately. Better to identify your comfortable cruising speed first, then gradually amp it up, step by step.

Two environmental offenses accompany the call of nature, of course: wasting paper (all that wiping) and water (all that flushing). The methods below, arranged from least to most radical, aim to reduce waste on one or both fronts.

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Ask Umbra: When should an old refrigerator be replaced?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve been in my rental apartment for 20 years and have had the same refrigerator the whole time. A friend told me a new refrigerator would be much more energy-efficient. While it leaks a bit now and then, my current refrigerator works fine, and my electric bill is OK – about $30 a month. Should I buy a new one for the efficiency? Would that offset my old but still-functioning refrigerator being landfilled?

Tam T.
San Francisco, Ca.

Photo by Matt McGee.

A. Dearest Tam,

Before we get to poking around in your refrigerator, let me leak a big secret: April is my birthday month! In a few weeks, Grist will be celebrating 10 years of Ask Umbra -- so please feel free to shower me with warm wishes, surprise me with incredibly original questions, or pen a birthday haiku in my honor. The most creative notes I get will be featured on the site.

Now back to our regular programming. Tam, you had me at “it leaks a bit now and then.” I’m wondering what it leaks. Coolant? Water? The last remnants of soup from a forgotten meal? Whatever the substance, it indicates that your fridge, besides being a hulking old energy-sucking dinosaur, is probably operating even less efficiently than it should.

Your friend is right: It is time for a new refrigerator.

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Wilderness therapist: Good job or BEST job?

If you're like me, when you're finished reading Noah Davis's interview with "wilderness therapist" Brad Reedy, you're going to be thinking "yeah, I could use a month or two of that."

Wilderness therapy involves taking kids out into nature. Which, some studies suggest, is not only beneficial for children with difficulties like ADHD, but might actually be necessary for most of us to remain productive and functional human beings.

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Good housekeeping: Spring cleaning the DIY way

Natural born cleaners. (Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.)

Things I know, but wish I didn’t: Cake frosting is full of trans fat. Too many martinis can give you cancer [PDF]. Zillions of mites make their homes in our eyebrows. And, of particular concern during spring-cleaning season, common household cleaning products contain a host of nasty stuff.

What a buzzkill. Just as I can’t in good conscience eat spoonfuls of cake frosting straight from the jar, neither can I simply squirt easy-to-find, grime-zapping conventional cleaners all over the counters and be done with it. Up ‘til now, I’ve addressed this problem with nontoxic (if still store-bought) products from the likes of Seventh Generation and Method. But this year, I’ve decided to take the natural cleaning thing the next logical step, which explains why I spent the other night rubbing half a lemon into the shower tiles.

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Mercury-loaded cosmetics target minority communities

Beauty may only be skin deep, but the damage from cosmetics reaches way down into the kidneys, brains, and other organs -- at least, it does if those cosmetics contain mercury, as several brands do, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What’s even worse is that these mercury-loaded cosmetics are targeted specifically towards historically marginalized communities.

The recent FDA report found that heavy-metal-filled skin care products, soaps, and cosmetics are found mainly in stores frequented by people of Latino, African-American, Asian, and Middle Eastern descent.

The FDA has counted 35 potentially poisonous products, which include goods made by the brands Diana, Stillman’s, Lusco and Crema Aguamary, that are manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the U.S. They may claim to lighten skin, cure acne and reduce wrinkles.

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Pro hockey player loves organic food and worms

Andrew Ference plays defense for the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, so you'd think he'd be a meathead who mostly drinks beer and scratches his balls. But it turns out he shops with his kids at Whole Foods like all the other bobos -- not just because he likes fancy cheeses, but because he thinks eating organic gives him a performance edge on the ice. Plus, he's a vermicomposter!

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Ask Umbra: Is it bad to leave chargers plugged in?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I know it’s supposed to be bad to leave your cell phone charger plugged in when it’s not charging, but here’s something I find myself wondering often: Is it as bad to leave it plugged in with your phone attached after it’s been charged? And what about my laptop charger? Does that leak energy? Can’t remember if you’ve covered this before.

T.G.
Oakland, Calif.

A. Dearest T.G.,

I have indeed covered some of this before, once or twice, but your question is timely: Just last month, your fine state adopted new energy-efficiency rules for chargers, citing potential residential and commercial savings of $306 million a year. Also, I am all zinged up by your question about leaving chargers attached to gadgets when their job is done -- an important, but often overlooked, variable in this multi-pronged energy equation.