Advice for the eco-minded.
Can you tell me how I can compost indoors and what I can add to the pile?
—Dan Cook, Denver, CO
You don’t need a backyard and a pitchfork to turn garbage into gardener’s gold. By composting with worms (also known as vermicomposting), you can reduce your overall waste by as much as 12 percent and make a rich fertilizer to boot. “If you have kitchen waste you want to compost, vermicomposting is the way to go,” says Cary Oshins of the U.S. Composting Council.
You’ll need a commercial compost container or a plastic bin with a lid, available at hardware stores, and a pound of red wiggler worms, which can eat up to three pounds of food a day in ideal conditions. City Farmer, a nonprofit group that promotes conservation, is a good place to buy the wigglers. Your pile needs air, so if your lid doesn’t already have them, drill quarter-inch holes every four to six inches.
Wet some paper until it’s as damp as a wrung-out sponge and put it at the bottom of the container. Fill the bin three-quarters full with carbon material—newspaper, straw, or leaves, for example—the so-called “brown matter.” Be sure to maintain this ratio of brown stuff in the bin at all times. Then add food scraps (the “green material”), like eggshells, potato peels, orange rinds, and coffee grounds. These provide the heap with nitrogen. Most experts recommend avoiding dairy products, meat, and spicy foods. Introduce the worms to their new home, and in a few weeks you’ll start to see the food replaced with worm poop, or castings, a highly nutritious fertilizer. To avoid attracting fruit flies, be sure to bury your food scraps in the middle of your carbon material. Start now to give your plants something special this spring.
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I heard that there’s a toxin in plastic water bottles. What is it, and how can I avoid it?
—June Davis, Sioux Falls, SD
Depending on which number is inside the circle of arrows at the bottom of your plastic bottle, you may be swallowing more than just water. Recent studies show that plastic polycarbonate bottles with the number seven on the bottom—that includes a lot of sport and baby bottles—contain bisphenol-A (BPA), which can be harmful to fetuses, infants, and children, according to the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Controversy surrounds the potential health effects of BPA exposure. The Food and Drug Administration, which originally issued a statement saying BPA is safe, warned in October that it will do further studies following evidence that the chemical could be damaging. Canada recently banned it in baby bottles.
BPA in plastic containers can leach into foods and drinks. Scientists are concerned that exposure could lead to brain, behavior, and prostate gland problems in fetuses and infants. “There are still a lot of questions and uncertainties,” says Michael Shelby, director of the NTP’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.
Plastic numbers two, four, and five are the safest, because they haven’t been found to emit harmful chemicals during manufacture or to leach toxins into foods or drinks, and they can be readily recycled. Most beverage containers—soda and water bottles found at the grocery store—are number one plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET), which is light and recyclable.
The best bet is to use plastic alternatives like metal bottles or cups made of glass or ceramic. That way you can fill ’er up and keep your conscience clean.
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How can I identify the sources of energy that provide electricity to my house?
—Cara Fritz, Newport, OR
Figuring out where your power comes from can be a daunting task. Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency’s power profiler website makes it easy to uncover just how much of each fuel your utility company uses to light your lamps and dry your duds. By typing in your zip code and choosing your provider, you can see what percentage of the energy in your region comes from, for instance, coal, natural gas, or nuclear power. Measure your carbon footprint by entering the actual or estimated amount of energy you use. (The average U.S. home draws 11,965 kilowatt-hours in a year.)
Another EPA website lets you see whether utilities in your region offer the option of buying green power: energy generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and landfill gas. “About half of electricity consumers in the U.S. have the ability to buy a green power product,” says James Critchfield, a program manager with the EPA’s green power partnership. “It’s a good policy to look at switching from conventional sources to certified-renewable sources.”
When you purchase green power, the energy making its way to your house through the utility lines doesn’t necessarily come directly from a wind farm or a landfill. Instead, you are supporting and creating overall demand for renewable energy. And that could help lead to a smaller footprint for all of us.
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