World on shouldersLet Umbra take a little weight off your shoulders.Dearest readers,

Some people engage in spring cleaning, but I prefer to do a little winter cleaning. I take down the Gristmahanukwanzakah shrub, put away the nog, and tidy up ye olde inbox to prepare for the almost certain Onslaught of Angst in 2012. During this year’s ritual, I noticed a few unanswered questions bearing a hint of stress, or of sadness, or of too many minutes spent on “either-or” conundra. So without further ado, here are some final answers to your burning questions of 2011. I hope they’ll unburden you just a bit, and I look forward to a quandary-filled new year.

Send your question to Umbra!

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Q. Dear Umbra,

Paper-based materials are often both recyclable and compostable. What is the better choice for these go-betweens?

Elizabeth A.

A. Dearest Elizabeth,

A well-timed question, since the holidays leave us awash in a sea of paper. Isn’t it skin-tingling to have two good alternative ends for these products? Composting and recycling are both fine options, and you should probably do a little of each if you can — but recycling boasts a slight edge. When we recycle paper, we help prevent old-growth trees from being cut down willy-nilly, and we support an energy-saving industry. According to our friends at Earth911, making recycled paper “uses 80 percent less water, 65 percent less energy and produces 95 percent less air pollution than virgin paper production.” So recycle! But when you are faced with non-recyclable or soiled paper, toss it in the bin with the broccolini stems — here’s a good overview of how paper can help your compost [PDF]. Whatever you do, don’t put your pages in the circular file.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.


Q. Dear Umbra,

OK, so no more plastic bags — but what are some cheap alternatives for storing and freezing large quantities of produce?

Brattleboro, Vt.

A. Dearest EB,

You are one of several readers who have asked this recently, and I admire your effort to de-plasticize your life. I also picture the rutabagas piling up on your kitchen counter as you await my reply. Going the non-plastic route can be tricky. Even our non-plastic freezer alternatives often contain some toxic detailing, like the BPA in canning jar lids. But you could try stainless steel, glass, aluminum foil (recycled, of course), wax paper, butcher paper, or some combination. Check out this helpful and thorough overview from our friends at Rodale — and happy squirreling.


Q. Dear Umbra,

Do you know if eco-friendly/animal-free “UGG”-type boots exist for kids? If so, can you tell me where to buy them???? Thank you!!!

Heather H.

A. Dearest Heather,

Your exuberant use of punctuation suggests that this is, or was, an urgent issue for your family. While I am no personal shopper, I can tell you that the likelihood of finding UGGs remotely resembling “eco-friendly” is slim — in fact, shoes in general are a bit of an eco-nightmare. The original UGG, created Down Under and now made in China, is a sheepskin boot lined with wool: not animal-free. If you do a Google search for “vegan UGGs,” you will find some. They are expensive, and they do not seem to be in children’s sizes, unless your children have big feet. There are synthetic versions (also versions made from dog, but I digress). I suspect it would not be very hard to find these synthetic models in any of your finer discount shoe stores, American products being what they are. But that is not exactly eco-friendly, given the toxic glues, dyes, and plastics involved. UGG! We should all just wear Mason jars on our feet instead.


Q. Dear Umbra,

I stack my hay, cut side down, on pallets to allow for some air to move below. I’m uncertain if the pallets are all “made in the USA.” Could the hay absorb any of the elements you mentioned? Thanks so much … for my horses.

Carol S.
Buckhannon, W.V.

A. Dearest Carol, and your horses,

I understand that many people with hay-storage needs rely on pallets, which keep the hay off the floor and prevent it from molding. While this is a good idea structurally speaking (and economically speaking, since pallets can often be had for free or cheap), the pesticide- and pathogen-related dangers I mentioned in my column on pallets could certainly apply here. If you can’t be sure of the origins of your pallets, perhaps you could create your own staging from wood whose origins you do know. I’ve heard tell that gravel also works for this purpose, since it offers good drainage.


Q. Dear Umbra,

My husband was a great lover of cologne. He passed away five years ago, leaving me with many partially full bottles. The cologne can’t be any good anymore, so I wouldn’t want to give them away. How do I dispose of the bottles, especially if there is still product in them?

Maureen G.
Philadelphia, Penn.

A. Dearest Maureen,

You are ready to part with a powerful reminder of your late husband, a difficult step indeed. But what to do? I can tell you what to don’t: That cologne should not go down the drain. Instead, treat it as hazardous waste (given the chemical cocktail in many scented products, that classification is not such a stretch). Contact your local agency to see when they have collection days, and bring it on over to them. You might use the opportunity to see whether there are other remnants of days past that you need to be rid of: batteries, paint, medications, and so forth. If you wish to keep the bottles once the cologne is disposed of, clean them out (vinegar or alcohol should help counter the lingering odor) and see whether you can find new uses for them as vases, holiday ornaments, window decorations, or something else creative that suits your needs.


Q. Dear Umbra,

I am considering an electric kettle that can heat water for my tea to just the right temperature, but I also know that the gas for my stove suffers less from transmission losses than electricity, and is never ever generated from coal. What’s the source comparison of efficiency for heating water with an electric kettle vs. a traditional kettle on a gas stove?

Abi D.
Washington, D.C.

A. Dearest Abi, 

Believe it or not, I’ve covered this very topic before, and the electric kettle comes out on top. Now go have a cup of tea, everyone, and try to relax.

Until 2012,

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!