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Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve recently moved to Tahoe and, in an energy-saving effort, am trying to keep the heat down in my house. The problem is that now it gets to be around 50 degrees in the bedroom at night, and we need some serious warmth in the blankets! I’d like to get a huge, puffy, and wondrously warm down comforter, but I’m not sure if there are any ethical or environmental problems with getting real goose down and generally eschew synthetic alternatives to anything. A little help?

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Kings Beach, Calif.

A. Dearest Mila,

Umbra on downI wore out my VHS of Mary Poppins. One of my favorite scenes involves Uncle Albert, whose laughter has caused him to levitate. He needs a sad story to bring him off his high, so Bert pipes up with a story about his granddad chewing his pillow to bits.

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“In the morning, I says, ‘How you feel, Granddad?’ He says, ‘Oh, not bad. A little down in the mouth,'” Bert says. “I always say there’s nothing like a good joke.”

“And that was nothing like a good joke,” Uncle Albert says.

You know what else is no joke? How goose and duck down, the soft layer of feathers on the birds’ chests, is obtained. So props to you, Mila, for caring enough to ask (and for braving the bedroom chill to keep the thermostat low).

It would be nice to think there’s just a flock of quiet farmers who wait patiently for the down to fall out on its own. However, here’s the real deal, according to the USDA: When the birds are slaughtered, they are first stunned electrically. After their throats are cut and the birds are bled, they are scalded to facilitate removal of large feathers. To remove fine pinfeathers, the birds are dipped in paraffin wax. Down and feathers are then sorted.

Gosh, that doesn’t sound comfy at all. According to PETA, some countries still practice the painful method of live-plucking on geese from breeding flocks or those raised for meat or foie gras (another nasty can of worms entirely). And in the case of eider ducks, a protected species that lines its nests with feathers, farmers swipe the feathers for bedding and clothing, removing insulation the little eider eggs need to hatch. Not cool.

So what’s a more ethical, still-warm eco-alternative? Organic cotton, humanely harvested wool, or even an electric blanket, which isn’t nearly as big an energy-suck as keeping that thermostat turned up (check out this Treehugger forum piece on what to look for in an electric blanket).

If you’re still into the idea of down but not the ethical ramifications, you could always shop secondhand stores for used down comforters, so at least no additional geese or ducks would be plucked of their feathers for your warmth. After all, our bird friends don’t have the option of an electric blankie — or of not getting tazed if someone wants their feathers.


Q. Dear Umbra,

My apartment has no dishwasher, so my roommates and I are constantly creating a lot of “gray water.” I know the eco-choice here is to collect the dirty rinse water and hydrate the plants, but will the soap hurt them? Will any of the food scraps? We don’t use biodegradable soap, but I don’t know what else to do with it!


A. Dearest Erika,

Why no biodegradable soap? Do you work for a non-biodegradable soap company that gives you a sweet discount on its product?

Whatever the discount is, I say blow it off. Invite your roommates to help you scrounge between the sofa cushions and under the coin-op washing machine for spare change to purchase some more eco-friendly dish suds, because the stuff you’re using now probably isn’t great for your plants. Or for the fish and other creatures who eventually meet it in our waterways. As I’ve suggested before, look for a dish soap without sodium, chlorine, or boron (which is, alas, a major ingredient in the handy cleanser Borax). These are either immediately harmful to plants or will become so over time as they accumulate in the soil.

As for the food waste, scrape what you can off the plates into the composting bin (yes, you can compost in your apartment), except for meat, fish, dairy, and grease. Whatever bits are left in the water post-washing are fine for your plant friends and can even be nutritious, especially when filtered through mulch.

Happy washing and watering! And thanks for not letting it all go down the drain.


I recently visited the topic of BPA in canned foods, and readers MBP1111 and Rachel W. had this to add in the comments section of the column:

MBP1111: Come on Umbra! Just because a reader found her own answer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check her work. This site has much more extensive information on which brands have BPA in their cans.

As it turns out, Eden is not all BPA-free (its tomato cans have BPA), and there are other brands that have some BPA-free canned goods (like Trader Joe’s).

Rachel W.: I’ve done a fair amount of research into BPA in can liners, and I have not been able to find any brand of canned tomatoes that is BPA-free (including Eden and Trader Joe’s). My sense is that this has something to do with the high level of acidity in tomatoes (relative to, say, beans or other vegetables).

A. Dearest MBP and Rachel,

Thank you, my attentive readers. Indeed, I was remiss in not going into further detail about canned tomatoes specifically. It is true that, due to the acidity of tomatoes, Eden Foods’ canned tomato products, as well as all others that are commercially canned in the United States, contain some BPA.

“The FDA hasn’t approved any other type of can lining for highly acidic foods,” says Mike Potter, founder and president of Eden Foods, on the company’s website, though the company also says independent laboratory tests have shown that the amount is in the “non-detectable” range.

So, as best I can tell, if you truly want to avoid the potential of BPA exposure when it comes to tomatoes, the solution is opting for fresh ones, as even the glass jars of tomatoes I found have plastic-lined lids. However, in a canning class I attended recently, the instructor was able to forage her decades-old supplies to find a few porcelain-lined lids — which apparently haven’t been produced since the ’50s. Time for a comeback?