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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ask Umbra

Air Date: Week of

Grist columnist Umbra Fisk gives ecologically-sound advice about how to clean your house using non-toxic products you already own, and what to do with dog droppings.


CURWOOD: What if you want to do things in a simple life but you don't want to go Amish? And, you're looking for advice. Well, you could ask Umbra Fisk. "Umbra Fisk" is the nom de plume of a woman who offers advice on all things environmental in a column she writes regularly for the online magazine Grist. And, it's called, what else, "Ask Umbra." And, Umbra joins me now to reveal what's on the inquiring minds of green "wannabes" and "seasoned sophisticates of sustainability." Hi there, Umbra.

FISK: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, we've gotten a few letters that people have written to you that we'd like to have you respond to now. You ready?

FISK: I'm ready.

CURWOOD: "Dear Umbra, do you have any tips on dealing with the nasty, black mold that appears in bathrooms without dousing it in highly toxic chemicals?" I don't know what this reader is talking about. I've never seen that in my bathroom.

FISK: (laughs) I think moving is really the most effective way to deal with this mold. But, you know, other than moving, I do whatever I can to help my readers out so I looked it up and hydrogen peroxide is what was recommended. I went to our Grist Magazine test bathroom, which is filled with mold and I, okay, I'm a little less exact than some people might be, so I just took the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and threw it on the tub and left it. And then came back and it didn't work. So, (laughs) it didn't work. So, then I tried Borax, which is a great powder you can use in your laundry; it's an abrasive that's fairly, you know, non-toxic. And, that didn't work either.


FISK: And then I decided..and, Steve, maybe in your very clean bathroom this has not been a situation for you, but I decided the best thing to do was just to rip out the caulk. And, then maybe paint the bathroom black.

CURWOOD: Okay (laughs). Umbra, lots of people want ecologically-sound cleaning products. There's a question from a reader about this. Let me read it to you. She writes, "Dear Umbra, I'd like to start making my own environmentally-friendly cleaning products from my home. Are there any books or web sites you'd recommend for cleaning recipes?"

FISK: This is actually great news because you expect "okay, I'm going to give up on my regular cleaning products. I'm going to go find something and, no doubt, it's going to be really complicated. I'm going to have to read about it in a book." But it's not the case. It's not that hard to clean the house. All the cleaning recipes are very, very simple. They only involve four ingredients. You ready?


FISK: Baking soda, soap, white vinegar and water. That's it.

CURWOOD: That's it?

FISK: So, baking soda is what you use to replace anything that's supposed to scrub. So, if you're using Ajax, but you don't want the chlorine, the bleach, then you would move onto baking soda and it's, you know, you can mix it with water if you want, just sprinkle it on the tub or the stove.

And then, vinegar is the deodorizer and it's a sanitizer, anti-bacteria, anti-fungal, so that would be the toilet or you know, the kitchen sink. It's good for freshening up drains, things like that.

And then, soap is, you know, it gets rid of dirt so that's very handy. Mostly, cleaning recipes recommend a castile soap, which is like a liquid soap. So, all the recipes involved is mixing up all that stuff in various ways. If you do want the recipes, what you can do is you can punch "natural cleaning recipes" into any search engine and they'll come up with some, you know, measurements—put a teaspoon in a cup of water…

CURWOOD: We have a letter now from Megan in Baltimore and she writes, "Dear Umbra, for years I faithfully brought my canvas bags to the grocery store leaving plastic bags for the environmentally uninformed. A few months ago, though, I adopted a dog and now I find myself with a dilemma. I need to pick up all of his solid leave-behinds and I have no compost or any other area for it to go. I live in the city. I need to use plastic bags to take care of it. I hope you have another suggestion of something I can use to pick up after my pup and please don't say anything that would be disgusting."

FISK: Well, I don't think I can. I'm on the radio.

CURWOOD: That's right.

FISK: You know, I think this is a great opportunity for environmental education and bag reuse, Steve, because a lot of people have plastic bag collections, but no dog. So, she could go around to all of her friends and her co-workers and say, "You know, I don't have any plastic bags because I know they are wasteful and so I've just been bringing my canvas bag to the grocery store and now I have a dog. Perhaps you will bring me your plastic bags." And, I think, she could really go for a long time just using up people's bag supply.

CURWOOD: She needs to be polite, though, because if she moralizes, you know, "I'm better than you, I use these things," they're going to throw the bags at her rather than give them to her.

FISK: (laughs) It's true. Either way she will get bags, but maybe she wouldn't get any friends. There is a, sort of, ecological alternative to a regular old plastic bag which is there are biodegradable plastic bags on the market for picking up dog leavings. So, it's a little bit of a dilemma. There are the biodegradable bags. But, you know, I think having a dog means you are going to use plastic bags to pick up its poop.

CURWOOD: Or, you can train the dog to sit on the toilet.

FISK: (laughs).

CURWOOD: Umbra Fisk writes an advice column for Grist Magazine. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

FISK: It was a pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: G Love & Special Sauce "You Shall See" Yeah It's That Easy (Okeh) 1997]



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