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Ask Umbra: Is it safe to use newspaper as garden mulch?

Weeding Veg Patch Gardener from Overhead

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Q. I am able to buy from our local newspaper company the ends of their rolls of newsprint. They are too small to be run through the machinery, so they are not printed on. I am considering using long strips of this unused newsprint as mulch in my vegetable garden, but I'm wondering if it will supply dioxins or other undesirable chemicals to the soil as it degrades?

Greensboro, N.C.

A. Dearest Peter,

What’s black and white and read all over, and protects your veggies from weeds? Newsprint, that liner of birdcages and bulker of papier-mache projects everywhere, is also often touted as a useful garden or compost additive. But is it really safe to lay the classifieds alongside your cucumbers?

Read more: Food, Living


Meet the sisters who put the rad in radical vintage

Pendarvis Harshaw

The Drakeford sisters didn't start thrifting because it was the environmentally friendly thing to do. They just had a fashionable reputation to keep up in Oakland, and vintage threads were affordable, unique, and helped them stand out. "People knew us -- 'Oh, the Drakeford sisters,'" Dominique Drakeford told me over the phone recently. "We had this really cool identity."

It wasn't until she was studying business and environmental management in college that everything clicked. "I decided vintage is one of the most radical forms of sustainable fashion," she said. There's no production with used clothing, she says, and the price point makes it more accessible than new green fashion choices.

Read more: Living


Sport fishing

This fishy World Cup bracket ranks countries by their ocean goals

Pallet surgeon fish, symbolising Japan's national soccer team's "Blue Samurai", swim around a ball beside a goal at the Sea Paradise aquarium in Hakkeijima, west of Tokyo June 8, 2006.
Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa

With the World Cup rolling into its second week, you are probably already tired of the endless internet commentary but ... TOO BAD. Some of us are into it, and we've only got two more weeks to view the whole world through a football/soccer/spending-the-day-at-the-pub lens.

Since we've seen so much good news on the oceans this week, it seems only appropriate to match up the disparate but burgeoning American interests of marine health and European team sports (feel free to match this one up with a cool beverage, too).

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Read more: Food, Living


out damn spot

Federal bill would wash away plastic microbead problem

products containing microbeads
Eric T. Schneiderman Facebook page

Could America's bathroom cabinets finally be cleansed of tiny ecosystem-disrupting plastic beads?

Ecologists, activists, and lawmakers in a number of states have grown increasingly alarmed at exfoliating plastic microbeads in products such as face wash, toothpaste, and shampoo, which wash down drains and end up in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state to outlaw the manufacture and sale of grooming products containing the microbeads, starting in 2017.

Now microbead worries have simmered up to Congress. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) on Wednesday introduced a bead-banning bill. From his press release:


to bee or not to bee

This is what your dairy aisle would look like if all the bees died off

Remember the last time we freaked out about what would happen if the world's pollinators suddenly perished? Someone get me a paper bag, because I'm starting to hyperventilate again.

To raise awareness about colony collapse disorder, a mysterious disease that started taking out entire beehives in 2006, Whole Foods brought the fight to suburban grocery aisle by showing us what our supermarkets would look like without any food that had been helped along by a bee. That's right: Your greek yogurt, butter, cream cheese, organic milk, and -- gasp -- ice cream, are in peril.

Whole Foods Market/PRNewsFoto  Huffington Post

Read more: Food, Living


Buying a bike? Now you can use Twitter to find out if it’s stolen property


Back in the olden days of 2005, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, bicyclist and web developer Bryan Hance had his bike stolen yet again in Portland, Ore. In response, he did what web developers so often do as a part of their grieving process: He built a website.

Hance wasn't the only person doing this. The rise of bicycling and everyone crowding onto the internet meant that anyone who had their bike stolen found themselves wading through a plethora of bike forums and Google groups dedicated to tracking down bikes and bike thieves. There were plenty of websites, but there wasn't a widely used database for stolen bikes, the way that there was for cars. While there was a national site affiliated with McGruff the Crimefighting Dog, it charged a stiff fee and only let law enforcement run searches through its database.

But Hance's database was particularly popular, even with people outside of Portland. When Hance announced early this week that his site had joined forces with an another bike registry -- a company named, which has ambitious plans to register bikes before they even reach their first owners -- it became, arguably, the closest thing we have to a national bicycle registry. From now on, whether you're looking at a bike in a used bike shop, or in someone's suburban garage, you can post the serial number to @isitstolen on Twitter, and a bot will report back to you on whether or not it's been reported stolen. (I just tried it and the bot told me that my bike isn't stolen, but sent me some depressing pictures of stolen bikes that look like mine.)

Read more: Cities, Living


Ask Umbra: How can I find a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck (electricity)?


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Q. Any idea which vacuum cleaners are more environmentally friendly? I'm thinking made with postconsumer recycled materials, reusable filters, and low energy use, maybe other factors? Thanks!

Concord, N.H.

A. Dearest Nick,

Back in the olden days, all we needed to keep our floors dirt-free was a stick and some bundled straw. Now, we (the carpeted among us, anyway) must rely on electricity and plastic suction machines, some of which cost hundreds of dollars, to get the house ready for company. Oh, the complications of modern life.

But if carpets you have, Nick, then vacuum you must. The three Dirty Ds -- dust, dirt, and dog hair – aren’t going to remove themselves from your home. And if you or anyone you live with has asthma or allergies, this chore becomes even more important. So what’s an environmentally conscious housecleaner to do?

It is possible to procure a mechanical carpet sweeper, which looks kind of like a regular vacuum but works by sweeping up debris with rotating bristles. I use the word “works” loosely, though: My weekly allowance used to depend on carpet sweeping, and I can tell you it leaves a lot to be desired in the effectiveness department. (These commenters largely agree with me.) Grandmothers everywhere also once used the old “beat the rug with a stick” trick, but alas, that won’t work for non-movable carpets either.

So we’re left with choosing the best vacuum cleaner we can find. You’ve identified some of the major variables already, Nick: recycled materials, reusable filters, and energy use. To that I’ll add another factor: durability. There are also a few habits you can adopt to maximize the efficiency of your hoover and cut down on your vacuum time.

Read more: Living


Killing is the sweetest thing there is

Philadelphia Zoo names adorable kittens after Game of Thrones’ deadliest pets

The Philadelphia Zoo is really playing with fire these days. The zoo’s resident black-footed cats, Ascari and Aza, gave birth to three kittens on April 8. Because the zoo employees enjoy goading the Old Gods and the New, they named the kittens Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion.

“Wow, those names are pretty goofy!” you may be thinking. O, blissful ignorance! They’re taken from Game of Thrones, and are the names of Daenerys Targaryen’s three pet dragons.

Here are a few reasons one may find it appropriate to name a cuddly, sweet kitten after an extremely destructive mythical creature:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Breastfeeding: Good for babies, the environment, and justice, too

Black Women Do Breastfeed

Last week, a bunch of people were bellyaching on the networks about Karlesha Thurman, the recent California State University Long Beach grad immortalized in a photo capturing Thurman breastfeeding her infant daughter during her graduation ceremony. When she posted the picture to the Facebook page “Black Women Do Breastfeed” (I know, here we are again, having to explain what we do and don’t do), some viewers went apoplectic. Thurman’s chiders were apparently offended that she dared to bare a breast while helping her daughter live. (You can read and see plenty of that vitriol at Buzzfeed.)

Thurman’s actions were not owed to a lack of home training or sluttiness, as some of her critics argued. The public breastfeeding was intentional. She was pregnant in her last year in college and delivered in her final academic semester. “She was my motivation to keep going,” Thurman wrote in an open letter about her daughter to her haters on Facebook, “so me receiving my BA was OUR moment.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Facebook was banning photos of breastfeeding, claiming they were vulgar. But Thurman is part of a movement to normalize public breastfeeding, resisting those who can only view breasts through a sexual lens. But breastfeeding is not only about resisting the policing of women’s bodies -- and in Thurman’s case, black women’s bodies, whose policing basically became codified during the slave trade. It’s also a health issue, an environmental issue, and a justice issue as well.

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: Why is my face scrub full of tiny plastic beads?


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Q. There has been a lot of talk about the damage those tiny plastic beads in beauty products are doing to our waterways, especially the Great Lakes region. What sorts of alternatives are out there? I've heard of jojoba beans and nutshells being used, but are they really any better?

Madison, WI

A. Dearest Danni,

You’ve certainly got your finger on the pulse of aquatic pollutant news. First, your letter – then, last week, Illinois became the first state to ban the sale of products containing those tiny plastic beads you speak of. More states may soon follow suit, making microbeads (as they’re officially called) the villain du jour of our waterways. High time, if you ask me.

For those not as up on soap trends as Danni, in recent years, cosmetics companies have flooded hundreds of products – primarily face scrubs, but also shampoo, toothpaste, lip gloss, and sunblock – with diminutive balls of plastic meant to exfoliate our skin. Manufacturers like 'em because they’re smooth and easy to produce, but that’s pretty much where the benefits end. Once they’ve done their thing on our faces, these microbeads go down the drain, through the filters at the treatment plant (they’re typically too small to be snared), and into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. There, they soak up environmental pollutants like DDT and flame retardants before unsuspecting fish gobble them up, and then other fish (or maybe even you and I) gobble them in turn.

Read more: Living