Skip to content Skip to site navigation



Ask Umbra: Is it OK to recycle bottles that have been full of chemicals?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Is it safe to recycle plastic jugs that previously held toxic substances? Would the residue from a bottle of automotive antifreeze or household cleaner transfer to next plastic product after recycling? I've thought about washing out the bottles before recycling, but I don't really want to put this into the wastewater system either. Obviously, not using these products is the best way around this problem.

Lincoln, Neb.

A. Dearest Jon,

I’m so glad you asked. A well-meaning person who tosses the wrong item into a recycling bin can do more harm than good -- especially when the item in question may contain toxic residue that can harm waste managers or contaminate other recyclables.

Nobody likes the idea of hazardous chemicals around the house, but many of us may end up harboring some anyway, whether it’s antifreeze, lawn pesticides, drain cleaners, or even nail polish. As you note, Jon, the best thing to do is avoid these products altogether, but more on that in a bit. For now, we’ve got a few jugs to deal with.

Read more: Living


You’ve never seen an LED lamp like this

LED lights often look like glow-in-the-dark Tic Tacs, so this gentle, paperlike design is a much-welcome departure:

Ingo Maurer

Munich-based lighting designer Ingo Maurer created the Dew Drops lamp by integrating a sprinkling of LEDs into a see-through 16.5”x12” plastic sheet. The result is something you might find at IKEA on a good day.


London is installing bus sensors to hopefully kill fewer people

Aditi Rao

Nearly two-thirds of the deaths on London’s roads in 2012 were pedestrians or cyclists (as opposed to drivers), and now the city is doing something about that. You know the parking sensors that help people not back into fire hydrants and stray cats? London’s slapping similar technology on 12 buses this May.

The buses’ sensors will tell the driver when a cyclist, pedestrian, or superhero is getting dangerously close, according to the London Evening Standard. (It’s unclear what proportion of road deaths are caused by buses, but safely steering something as a big as a whale can’t be easy.)

Buses will also get latest-generation closed-circuit TV monitors. Older technology didn’t successfully filter out stoplights and railings, but a new version eliminates this visual clutter and helps drivers see people walking or cycling more clearly.

Read more: Cities, Living


Leaked documents reveal SeaWorld is drugging its orcas


You know those rumblings about Prozac in our drinking water? That might not be too far off for the animals at SeaWorld.

BuzzFeed got its sticky mitts on an affidavit that reveals SeaWorld is giving its orcas benzos to make them chill out and stop attacking each other. It’s basically an attempt to use orca Xanax to numb the animals’ aggression and general pissed-off-ness at being snatched from the ocean, plopped into captivity, and forced to perform.

Writes BuzzFeed’s Justin Carissimo:

Trainers give their orcas, also known as killer whales, the psychoactive drug benzodiazepine, according to the sworn affidavit filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ... The orcas’ mental health issues, SeaWorld’s critics say, are a direct result of their keeping the mammals in captivity.

Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust gave the site a few heart-ripping examples of the stressed-out orca behavior SeaWorld is trying to medicate:

Read more: Living


Light pollution could be contributing to cancer, depression, and obesity


Air and water pollution are pretty understandable health risks. But light pollution? It sounds a little hokey at first. Tons of streetlights and lit-up office buildings make Earth look freakishly nocturnal from space, sure, but could they actually make us sick?

Rebecca Boyle says yes. Those of us staring at our phones, laptops, and iPads until bedtime aren’t just inducing insomnia -- we could be playing with “the major factor in depression, obesity, and cancer,” she writes in Aeon Magazine.

That’s because our bodies need darkness to produce the hormone melatonin, and melatonin protects our DNA, ultimately preventing cancer. If left to nature, our bodies would normally start producing melatonin after sunset. But we can’t all wake with the sunrise like Laura Ingalls Wilder, so we’re surrounded by bluish artificial light. Writes Boyle:

Shift workers, who rise with the night and work awash in blue light, experience not only disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation, but an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer.

Thankfully, it’s not too hard to fix:

Read more: Cities, Living


Japan has been ordered to end its infamous illegal whale hunt

Lonely Bob

The U.N.’s highest court has finally called bullshit on Japan. For nearly 20 years after a worldwide ban on commercial whaling, Japan has continued its annual whale hunt under the pretense of “scientific research.” But people eating whale meat isn’t exactly research, so on Monday the U.N.’s International Court of Justice told Japan to knock it off for realsies this time.

Australia was the country to narc on Japan, noting that right after the 1986 global whaling ban, Japan began issuing lots of permits for large-scale “scientific whaling.” Straining everyone’s credulity, Japan insists that killing 13,000 whales since the ban was the only way to carry out important research about which whales taste the best other stuff.

Read more: Living


Grandparents Just Don't Understand

You can pry my grandkids’ sheet cake from my cold, dead hands


In a last-ditch effort to dissuade millions of American children from a diet of Funyuns and unadulterated corn syrup, the U.S. Department of Agriculture appears to have given up on trying to reach them through their parents. (Cut to rush-hour scene of a bus full of adults gnawing on McRib sandwiches, in unison.)

“Grandparents Help Kids Develop Good Eating Habits,” a blog post by USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion nutritionist Trish Britten, dares to make the suggestion that The Greatest Generation take responsibility for introducing children to fresh fruits and vegetables:

Take your grandchildren shopping at a farmer’s market and the grocery store. Talk about the choices you are making -- choosing the juicier oranges or the fresher vegetables. Help them learn cooking skills, which will benefit them throughout their lives.

While recent CDC data showed a marked drop in obesity rates for very young children*, there are still a number of health-related red flags indicating that American kids might be in need of some guidance in the dietary department. Just this weekend, the Texas Children's Pediatrics Associates clinics presented a study at the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session that showed more than a third of its subjects between the ages of 9 and 11 have borderline or high cholesterol levels.

Read more: Food, Living, Politics


Parks and Reconciliation

To attract minorities, the national parks need some better ideas

confederate soldiers
Larry Darling

Last week, I wrote about the problems the National Park Service is having with hiring people of color. Despite having a major presence in predominantly black and brown cities like Washington, D.C., the Service’s workforce is around 80 percent white across the nation, even in places like New York City. This is obviously not a good look for a taxpayer-funded federal agency that is headed into its 100-year anniversary.

When I spoke with David Vela, the Park Service's associate director for workforce, relevancy, and inclusion, about why that is, he said of the problem, “We know that. We own that and we are developing strategies to deal with it.”

We talked quite a bit about those strategies in our discussion, which ran nearly 60 minutes. I asked about how they addressed legacy racism and current barriers that keep people of color away not only from the parks, but also from park jobs. It was the kind of conversation that helps you understand perfectly well why the Park Service has failed to connect with people who aren’t white.

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics


Cops want you to stop crime by hanging out in sketchy areas

Renee McGurk

The LAPD is giving crowdsourcing a try by asking residents to hang out in high-risk areas. Thankfully, it’s a little different than, “Yo! Can you chill in this scary dark alley for a while?”

The cops are using “predictive policing,” in which a computer analyzes neighborhood crime locations and spits out recommendations of certain blocks where a police presence would prevent future infractions. (“The idea is that the more time spent in the box areas, the more crime will be deterred,” writes the police department.)

But since cops can’t be everywhere at once, the LAPD’s Pacific Division recently asked neighbors to chip in. The police department will post an updated map of suggested hangout spots every day using social media, sending cops to those areas when possible, but also relying on residents to jog or walk their dogs there. Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, for one, is willing:

Read more: Cities, Living


Even better than more cowbell: Doctors are prescribing bikeshare memberships

Mr. TinDC

Feeling the wind in your hair is way more fun than popping a pill. And now Boston residents can say, “I HAVE to go for a bike ride. Doctor’s orders!”

Beantown physicians have started offering poor patients $5 memberships to the Hubway bikesharing program, which normally costs $85 a year. It’s called Prescribe-a-Bike, and the goal is to help reduce obesity. Writes Streetsblog:

The program is being administered by Boston Medical Center in partnership with the city of Boston. Qualifying patients will have access to Hubway’s 1,100 bikes at 130 locations. Participants will also receive a free helmet ...

Local officials hope the program will result in about 1,000 additional memberships.

Read more: Cities, Living