Green Living
Eco-friendly tips for a greener lifestyle

Katharine Wroth
Tuesday, April 21, 2009 12:00 PM

Katharine Wroth, the editor behind virtual columnist Umbra Fisk at, an online resource dedicated to environmental issues, was online Tuesday, April 21, to discuss how to live green.

Katharine was also a co-editor of Grist's book Wake Up and Smell the Planet: The Nonpompous, Nonpreachy Grist Guide to Greening Your Day. From now through April 23, the book is available as a free download when you register for a free user account at Grist.


North Bethesda, Md.: I've tried purchasing paper products at Whole Foods (i think it was Seventh Generation) and to be honest, they're not that soft - especially when it comes to tissues, toilet paper, etc. If I want to be eco-conscience but still maintain my (ahem) comfort, is there a brand out there you suggest? .

Also if for paper towels, etc., I use a dish cloth instead, isn't that doing more harm because I'll wind up having to rush my washing machine more?

Katharine Wroth: Hi there - Yours is a great question, and one that a lot of people wonder about. You're right: recycled paper products can seem like a bum deal. (Am I allowed to make such terrible puns here? It's our specialty at Grist.) Anyhow, the bottom line is that most such products are just not going to feel as fluffy and cushy as their conventional counterparts, because of the fibers they use. That doesn't mean they don't work well -- it just means they take some getting used to. At Grist, we've run tests on recycled toilet paper and facial tissue to see not only which ones work the best, but which ones feel the best. Overshare alert: In my house, we use recycled TP as a rule, but we do keep a backup package of softer stuff around for those low moments when nothing else will do.


Arlington, Va.: Everyone is looking for easy things they can do to reduce their energy diet. Here's a simple one -- take the roof rack off your car when you aren't using it. I frequently have a rack on my car for transporting a sea kayak, but the empty rack comes off if I'll be taking the car anywhere that I might drive over 45 mph. Yeah, it's cool to let the world know you ski, bike, or paddle -- do it with a bumper sticker instead.

Katharine Wroth: Arlington, this is a great suggestion -- and one endorsed by several sources, including the guys at Car Talk. An empty roof rack can reduce your fuel efficiency by about 5 percent -- and a full one by even more. Do consider taking the rack off when you're not using it, even though it seems like an extra step. If you're really inspired, you can run your own mileage experiments to see how your rack is affecting your wallet.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Hi Ms. Wroth,

We just moved into our first house, and a new location for us as well. Where we live in CO, the days tend to be sunny and warm or hot, and the nights cool. I was wondering if you can recommend any ways we can take advantage of this heat differential to keep our house at the best temperature. For instance, on summer nights, I wish we could cool our house more readily with the cool night air; and on Winter days I wish we could take advantage of all the sunshine. I know there are passive solar houses and solar water heaters, all of which seem ideal for this location, but we don't have loads of money, so we're hoping to make a house wish list and get to things when we can. What would you recommend specifically to take advantage of our favorable environment?

Katharine Wroth: Congrats on the new house! With everything that entails, I'm impressed that you have time to think about energy efficiency. It's taking me years just to unpack the boxes from my last move ... but I digress.

Obviously you can't undertake a major overhaul at this point, but there are a few things you can do. First and foremost, make sure your house is properly insulated. This will help save heating and cooling costs all year round. I'd also recommend a programmable thermostat if you don't have one -- it's inexpensive, easy to install (we just put one in at my house, and we're no tech wizards) and saves money. And finally, I'd say don't be too quick to write off solar gizmos like a water heater. These things are getting more affordable all the time, and the savings really do add up. I bet there are great resources around Fort Collins -- or try this Colorado association as a starting place.


Annandale, Va.: Do you know of any good alternatives to using plastic bags to pickup pet waste? Currently, we use produce bags as they are thinner and, hopefully, have less of an environmental impact. However, we would like to not use plastic altogether. The 'eco-friendly' bags I see online either are shipped from far away countries (i.e. corn-based bags), and/or are not really practical (i.e. the water-soluble 'flushable' bags that present a problem with premature dissolving on rainy or otherwise wet days). Any ideas?

Katharine Wroth: This is a tough one -- to my knowledge, there's no good solution out there other than the tried-and-true plastic bag. Do check with your local pet store to see if they have any of the corn-based bags -- they seem to be gaining some traction, and are at least better than petroleum-based plastic. A really ... intriguing option is composting pet waste, but that raises all sorts of issues related to health ("no, kids, don't play in that corner of the yard") and water table quality, so I can't condone it with an easy heart. Pet owners out there, anyone have other solutions?


Wheaton, Md.: Hope this question isn't too boring! We are getting attic insulation, which I understand is the top way to improve energy efficiency in the home. I'm getting conflicting info about cellulose vs.. fiberglass and blown-in vs. batts -- any recommendations? I'm weighing cost-effectiveness (I'm unemployed), health issues, and our future ability to use attic for storage.

Katharine Wroth: Insulation, boring? Impossible. It is indeed one of the most important things you can do to make your house more efficient, which saves you money. Saving money = exciting. So hooray for insulation!

Unfortunately, I can't claim to be an expert on the various types. From what I've read, fiberglass is really the worst option, health-wise -- and of course, it tends to be the cheapest. If it's at all possible to spend a little more on a different material, I would; the Green Home Guide has a useful chart that compares conventional and eco options. That said, it's my understanding that the biggest health risk with fiberglass -- especially in an attic -- is during the installation process itself. So if you wear proper protection or get professional help, it might be an OK choice. I'm sorry that you're getting conflicting info, but please do consult someone who knows the ins and outs of insulation better than I do before you make your final choice. Good luck!


Fairfax, Va.: What are some of your favorite tips -- as in the little things we can do -- to reduce our carbon footprint, that many people don't realize can help.

Katharine Wroth: This is a great question, and one we get a lot at Grist. In fact, we published a whole book about it -- which you can download for free if you register for a free Grist account in the next two days! (

Now that I've got my shilling out of the way, I think there are three important things to think about: what you eat, how you get around, and how you use energy at home. These are pretty big at first glance, but if you can make even small changes, it helps a ton. For instance [if each American] skipped meat one day a week, it's like taking 8 million cars off the road, Environmental Defense tells us. Not bad for one missed burger, eh? In terms of transportation, driving as little as possible is key. Using public transportation, walking, and biking are all better options -- even bundling your errands if you go by car means taking one trip instead of three or four. It does all add up.


Rhode Island: I am all in favor of buying greener cleaning products, as long as they get the job done. I am stumped about what to use as kitchen and bathroom cleaners. Both areas are um, prone to be rather germy and need regular cleaning. Do I need to purchase products labeled "disinfectant", or are there greener products that clean up the nasties as well as shine up the sink?

Katharine Wroth: The good news about today's green cleaning products is they do tend to work well. The even better news is that everyday stuff like baking soda and vinegar works even better -- and is often cheaper. Here are some tips from our advice columnist Umbra on making your own cleaners, and some great "recipes" from the folks at Consumer Reports Greener Choices . This stuff really does work -- even in the grossest places.


Alexandria, Va.: Am I correct in thinking that LED lights are the best choice environmentally? The CFL bulbs have a couple issues that make me not want to switch as my incandescent bulbs burn out (i.e. mercury content & manufactures recommend leaving them on for 10 - 15 minutes as to extend their life). Are there LED lights available for home use?

Katharine Wroth: Ultimately I think LEDs will be the big winners in the Great 21st Century Light Bulb Smackdown. But right now, they're still more expensive than CFLs, and not as widely available. There definitely are LED lights for home use, though -- check with your home supply or hardware store, or poke around online. And don't be too afraid of the mercury in CFLs -- it does require proper disposal (you can't just chuck those bulbs in the trash), but CFLs are still way more cost-effective and efficient than incandescents.


Southern Maryland: I'd really like to get into composting but the Home Owners Assocation won't allow a compost "pile." I've looked at Home Depot/Lowes for compost bins but no luck. Sources?


Katharine Wroth: Great project for spring! I'm surprised you weren't able to find bins at those stores -- maybe if you try their websites you'll have better luck, as I'm quite sure they both stock them. For more info about how to get started, including region-specific details, check out this site from the EPA .


Re: Annandale, Va: In response to Annandale's question about pet waste bags...

What about buying a "pooper scooper" and disposing of the waste in a composter? Most good electric composters can be stored outside and are able to compost pet waste in addition to food scraps. This will keep you from having to use grocery bags and only incures a moderate one time cost for the composter and an even smaller one time cost for "scooper".

Katharine Wroth: A pet-poop composter speaks!


Silver Spring, Md.: This isn't for dogs.. but I've had good luck so far with the Swheat Scoop cat litter - it's flushable (my cats are indoor only so no disease issues there). It smells pretty good, clumps fine, and has a much smaller environmental impact- clay cat litters, besides being toxic and dusty, so you and your cats inhale it, are strip-mined and therefore really bad for the environment!

Katharine Wroth: Thanks for writing in -- check out Grist's test of several non-clay cat litters. Swheat Scoop won our affections too!


Washington, D.C.: There was a story in yesterday's Washington Post about people who "take green to the extreme" and conflicts that take place in families when one family member is very vigilant of being eco-friendly, while others are not. Do you have any advice to help families cope -- is there a middle ground worth coming to? And honestly, are these extreme-green folks just going too far at times? D.C. Area Families Take Green to the Extreme (By David A. Fahrenthold, April 20)

Katharine Wroth: I saw that story -- some pretty funny anecdotes, and I certainly know couples who live in a bit of eco-imbalance themselves. I wouldn't presume to interfere in anyone's personal relationship, but I think what we do at Grist applies here. We try, whenever possible, to have fun and to not take ourselves too seriously. We take the issues seriously, yes, but we know that if we preach and howl and boss people around, we'll scare them away. So I'd say to the extremists out there, keep up the good work -- but just make sure you have a laugh or two along the way.


pet waste: If you combine your compostables, just be careful where you put them. Any carnivore's pet waste, even composted, may be hazardous in a veggie garden. Lawn/trees/shrubs is fine, though. I prefer to keep my food waste separate so I can add it to my veggie garden.

Katharine Wroth: That's a good and important point -- here's a helpful resource with a few more guidelines and related links.


Washington, D.C.: In Washington, DC, only people who live in houses can recycle a very wide array of products like cardboard, office paper, and plastics over number three. For the rest of the population (apartment dwellers, in other words), nothing. Not even a recycle center provided by the city. How do you recommend people recycle their plastics, office papers and cardboard? Thank you!

Katharine Wroth: It's definitely tough when you're keen on recycling, but your municipality is not. A few steps to think about: lobby your city or town to expand their recycling program (may not be an easy sell in this economy, but at least they'll know there's demand when things turn around). Collect your recyclables and periodically bring them to the house of a friend in a town that does have a thorough program (just don't tell them I sent you). Bring your recyclables to work (definitely don't tell them I sent you). Or, more practically, contact local organizations to see if they can use the materials: places like animal hospitals, homeless shelters, and schools can often use items that are old news to you. One last suggestion for bigger-ticket items: check for the where and how of proper disposal.


Katharine Wroth: Thanks, everyone, for your great questions -- and for wanting to green your lives. It's not so hard, I promise. For more tips and ideas, check out Grist's book Wake Up and Smell the Planet. Remember: You can download it for free if you register for a free Grist account by April 23 (

Take care of yourselves, and of your place.


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