Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve taken to washing my hair less and less often to keep it from drying out. Since I’ve switched to the “no-‘poo” method (baking soda followed by a vinegar rinse) it stays cleaner longer. However, I still take a shower (brief and lukewarm) most days. To keep my curly hair from becoming totally frizzy in the humidity of the shower, I typically cover it with a shower cap. My current cap is wearing out and I’m going to need a new one soon — but your simple rule of “no vinyl and that’s final!” keeps resounding in my head. Every shower cap I’ve seen is made of vinyl, except for those cheap plastic ones in hotel rooms. What’s a girl to do?

Curly Girl
Pittsburgh, Penn.

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A. Dearest Curly Girl,

umbra in showerOr a nice felt hat always does the trick.Have you ever noticed that the hair is always greener on the other side of the fence? I know straight-haired gals who would kill to have your tress-related troubles, and I imagine there are days when you wouldn’t mind a mane that’s a bit more manageable.

I commend you on your shift away from conventional beauty products, which are so often toxic, and on your commitment to a vinyl-free lifestyle. How cockle-warming to see my message sinking in!

I’ve done a bit of scouring on your behalf, and I think I’ve found a couple of possible solutions, though they may be difficult to track down. You’re certainly right that vinyl is the most common, but I also came across caps made from other, marginally better materials, including nylon and polypropylene. But here is my big discovery: cotton and silk! It seems counterintuitive, but according to reliable sources, these are lovely materials for shower caps. You can buy cute patterned varieties from various places online, with a little looking. Of course, cotton and silk have their own eco-impacts — so, dearest readers, one of you should create an organic-cotton shower-cap business, stat.

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I suppose your other option might be to … wear a plastic grocery bag over your hair, securing it with clips or a headband? An ingenious reuse for a pesky object.


Q. Dear Umbra,

I started a green team at my office and one of our initiatives is reducing energy consumption. The team had recommended turning off the computers at night and when not in use. Seems logical, right? Well, the IT department denied our efforts and recommends keeping computers on 24/7. I’m horrified! The rationale is that turning on and off your computer changes the internal temperature of the equipment and adds to the wear and tear. I need some data to back up our green claim that it is better and safe to shut down the computers. Can you please help?

Nervously awaiting,

A. Dearest Jennifer,

Little-known fact: I actually keep my computer turned off 24 hours a day. I just peek at my inbox over my editor’s shoulder, scribble my answers on recycled paper, and make her type them in. Saves boatloads of energy.

Congratulations on the formation of your green team, and condolences on the fact that you have already been strongarmed. I suspect it will not be the last time, as earnest eco-efforts are not always welcomed by those whose habits and patterns they affect.

There are two answers to your question, as far as I see it: a factual one and a philosophical one. The factual answer is, reputable sources including the U.S. Department of Energy say it is A-OK to turn your computer off at night, and that the various “wear and tear” arguments are no longer accurate. (Here is a fact sheet from the Oregon DEQ that, while a bit dated, cites many useful resources you might peruse.) The philosophical answer is, don’t ever, ever, ever alienate your IT department. Even for the sake of saving the planet.

I think there may be some middle ground here: more and more computers have a “hibernate” function, which is similar to a sleep function but even, well, sleepier. Talk to your IT people to find out if there’s a way to send all the computers happily into hibernation at the end of the day. Yes, they will still use a bit of energy, but far less than if they were left in full on mode, humming along. Other key things to do: turn off your monitor whenever you won’t be using it for 15 to 20 minutes. And remember that a screen saver is not an energy-saver; in fact, most screen savers are energy hogs.

Now go buy the IT guys some cookies, and keep up the good work.


Q. Dear Umbra,

I am so utterly sick of getting junk mail, is there anything we can do to stop it? In the age of the internet spam, is it really so impossible to just outlaw it? I can swallow deleting junkmail, but I can’t swallow how much of it has to be tossed.

Carey S.
Missoula, Mont.

A. Dearest Carey,

In a sense, old-fashioned junk mail is less offensive than spam. After all, when was the last time an envelope arrived at your house promising to enlarge your manhood or sell you cheap Rolex watches?

On the other hand, the sheer mass of junk mail is offensive indeed: each of us in the U.S. receives about 560 pieces a year, according to Co-op America, and all that “direct mail” (that’s the nice name for it) adds up to the equivalent of more than 100 million trees. While the bad economy has led to a steep decline in junk mail sent this year, “they” predict a comeback; real mail is still considered more effective for advertising than e-mail, which is too easy to delete.

The good news is, there are steps you can take to slow the stream of junk mail to your home. First of all, avoid entering contests, filling out warranties, and giving your address on forms — if you must do so, write “do not rent or sell my information” alongside. Go to the Direct Marketing Assocation site to register your preferences, or use a service such as 41pounds.org (which charges $41 for five years of mail stoppage, but promises a more thorough excavation than DMA). To reduce the catalogues that come (and ’tis the season, ’tisn’t it?), visit Catalog Choice or contact merchandisers directly. To be removed from the list for credit card offers, call 888-5-OPTOUT. And if you’re a business, see this list of tips for junk-mail reduction from our friends here in King County, Washington.

As for outlawing junk mail entirely, it seems unlikely to happen. And various efforts to create a federal “Do Not Mail” list along the lines of the “Do Not Call” list haven’t led to much (except for a suspicious industry-led imitation). If you’re feeling feisty, and you believe in online petitions, you can sign this petition urging Congress to take action. Otherwise, take the steps above — and recycle, recycle, recycle.