Green Resources Info Service and FAQs
Green Resources Info Service

Green Jean Ponzi is ready to answer your questions
The EarthWays Center's 'Green Jean' Ponzi is at your service with the answers to your sustainable-living questions.
What's "green" about it?
Where can I find it?
What's the most sustainable choice?

Whatever your question, the Garden's sustainable-living experts are at your service!

We can help you:

  • find green products and services
  • evaluate green claims
  • plan your green home or lifestyle project

Contact us today at greenresources@mobot.org or (314) 577-0246.


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How can I save money on my electric bill?
  • Change five lights. Replace your five most used light fixtures with Energy Star qualified products and save up to $75 a year on your energy bill.
     
  • Pull the plug on Phantom Power! Anything with a clock or timer or cube-shaped plug is ALWAYS using power, even when the item is turned off. Plug your TVs, recorders, microwaves, chargers into an easy-to access power strip – and switch the strip off when not in use. You’ll switch this 6% power drain to 6% savings for Earth and your electric bill.

 

Is recycling really improving the environment?
  • The EPA estimates that our current national recycling efforts reduce carbon pollution by 49.9 million metric tons of carbon, which is equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 39.6 million passenger cars!
How can I improve my fuel economy?
  • Go easy on the brakes and gas pedal, avoid hard accelerations, reduce your time spent idling (no more than 30 seconds), and unload unnecessary items in your trunk to reduce weight
     
  • Take the bus, share a ride, ride a bike – or walk there! Using alternative transportation one day a week could become a habit. You’ll save energy and money – and the planet – while you enjoy a more sustainable trip.
How can I reduce my water bill?
  • Try a short shower instead of a bath. Taking a shower uses much less water than filling up a bathtub. In fact, a shower only uses 10 to 25 gallons of water, while a bath uses up to 70 gallons! To save even more water and energy, keep your shower under five minutes long — try timing yourself next time you hop in!
     
  • Wash laundry in cold water – you’ll save up to 90% of the energy your washer uses, just to heat the water. For super-savings, wash only full loads and use the ‘Free Dry” options of a drying rack or fresh-air clothesline.
     
  • Install aerators on your kitchen and bathroom sink faucets and your shower. Today’s high-quality aerators mix air pressure into the flow, so you get the pressure to clean using up to 50% less water. Air and water power combined – how refreshing!
     
  • Do use your dishwasher, especially for family kitchen clean-up – you’ll use less water compared to hand-washing IF you wash only full loads. And DO turn off the drying cycle – let each load air dry.
How can I save money on heating and cooling my house?
  • Heating and cooling accounts for almost half your energy bill – about $1,000 a year! A programmable thermostat is one of the easiest ways you can save energy in your home and help reduce carbon pollution. An Energy Star qualified programmable thermostat helps make it easy for you to save by offering four pre-programmed settings to regulate your home's temperature in both summer and winter - when you are asleep or away.
     
  • Do-it-yourself products to seal leaky windows, walls and doors are inexpensive and easy to use. A weatherized home is more comfortable too.
What should I look for when buying new appliances?
  • Look for the ENERGY STAR logo, up to 50% more efficient than conventional models.
How can I reduce waste around my house?
  • Buy recycled-content products – especially items that will only have one use – like toilet tissue! This is paper at the end of its useful life – designed to be flushed away. “Post-consumer recycled-content” paper means the product was made from paper in YOUR recycling bin. Do we need to use trees for this kind of paper?
     
  • Get the trees out of your mailbox! The average American gets 41 pounds of junk mail a year. Getting off junk mail lists saves paper and the water to make it – fuel for delivery transportation – and saves your precious time. Opt off junk mailing lists at 41pounds.org – and while you’re at it, cut the junk calls – sign up for donotcall.gov.
Where does my food come from?
  • This year, it could be your own back yard! Try growing tomato plants in a container – or get involved in a neighborhood garden. And shop your local farmers’ markets for healthy foods, grown close to home. Good for you – and for the planet!
Where can I recycle batteries?

Rechargeable batteries of all kinds –and cell phones - can be properly recycled for free at many retail stores. See www.Call2Recycle.org – the North American partnership for battery recovery and recycling – for the location nearest you, and for GREAT battery information!

Will the places that take my rechargeable batteries also recycle my AA and other regular batteries?

Single-use alkaline batteries (AA, AAA, C, D-cells) may or may not be welcome in your nearest store’s battery recycling bin. If they are accepted, it may be just a “goodwill gesture” rather than real recycling. Individuals and organizations can recycle alkaline cells, but there is ALWAYS a cost to do so. 

Why are rechargeable and single-use battery recycling options different?

Rechargeable types contain valuable materials (like lithium, nickel, zinc) that are rare and in demand to manufacture new batteries and other products. This makes the recycling process cost-effective enough to be offered as a free service to battery consumers. By contrast, alkaline cells contain some metal, plastic and acid but not much else. Alkaline cell materials have little recovery value, are not rare, and are not defined as hazardous, so at this point, in the U.S., alkaline cells only get recycled when consumers choose to pay for the service.

So how can I responsibly deal with my batteries?

Prioritize using the “Three Rs” before you turn to the trash bin.

•             REDUCE: minimize use of items that require batteries – this is challenging in today’s remote-control society, but it’s worth the attention and effort!

•             REUSE: purchase and use rechargeable batteries; they are widely available, cost has come way down, and they are engineered for long service.

•             RECYCLE your spent rechargeable batteries.

If you want to go the extra mile by recycling alkaline cells, pre-paid mail-in recycling containers are available from www.batterysolutions.com, a reliable recycler of alkaline cells. If you do dispose of single-use batteries in your landfill trash, this choice is within federally defined bounds of waste handling safety.

How can I responsibly dispose of electronic items and appliances?

Recycle them, every time! Most U.S. communities now have electronic recycling service providers. Many will take “anything with a cord.” Public recycling drives for E-Waste are becoming commonplace, with many funded by grants and other sources to be able to accept items at no charge. But all E-Waste recyclers are not equal! Federal certifications  (sometimes also state and local programs) provide independent third-party documentation of a recycler’s processes. In addition, Product Stewardship programs in some states are prompting manufacturer take-back programs and waste-reducing product design. Make sure your E-Waste contractor documents data destruction to federal standards, either by shredding or wiping hard drives. And hold back on constantly updating to the latest hardware – save money and the planet by curbing your electronic appetites!

Electronics collection drives are hosted by varied community partners, spring through fall – hang onto your stuff and plan to take advantage of one of these drives near you!

The Garden recycles our E-Waste through MRC – Midwest Recycling Center – which maintains rigorous national certifications, and frequently services community collections; dates are posted on their website. For other service options, see listings at eCycle Missouri, where information is maintained by the MO Department of Natural Resources.

Where can I recycle the fluorescent tube lights from my home?

In St. Louis, locally-owned Metro Lighting will accept consumer fluorescent tubes for free if you buy new tubes, or for a small fee if you just want to recycle them. In other areas, check with Earth 911 about this service. Big-box stores that recycle compact fluorescent bulbs do NOT accept the tubular bulbs, due to handling issues.

FYI, by law individuals may dispose of fluorescent tubes in your landfill trash. Large-quantity generators of this waste stream – including the Missouri Botanical Garden - have to contract with a fluorescent bulb recycling service, but homeowners legally do not. When a tube is burned out, the mercury gas that was sealed in the tube to make the tube coating fluoresce is fused to the glass - which is why the bulb no longer produces light. So breaking a burned-out bulb into a dumpster is no longer an air quality issue.

You take an extra step of environmental protection when you recycle your household tubes. And the recycling technology that recovers formerly gaseous mercury from the shattered glass is amazing! When transporting tubular bulbs to a location for recycling, always transport them in a box – save a box for recycling when you buy new tubes – to avoid a broken glass hazard.

Learn more about fluorescent lighting efficiency and handling safety from the US Environmental Protection Agency, including details for a few states that prohibit any fluorescent bulb disposal in landfills.

Where can I recycle compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs?

Simply take your burned-out bulb(s) to any Home Depot or Lowe’s store and deposit them in the CFL bulb recycling container, usually located in the entrance vestibule or near the Customer Service counter. For your safety in transporting light bulbs, carry them in a paper bag or small box. Tip: save the packaging of CFL bulbs to transport them later on for recycling once they are spent. 

CFL disposal used to be a big concern that prevented many people from switching to more efficient CFLs from conventional incandescent bulbs: What about the Mercury in the bulb? It’s a hazard that we don’t want released into the environment! Home Depot overturned this obstacle to lighting efficiency upgrades in 2009, by establishing CFL recycling collection in all stores. Lowe's established a program soon after. These big box stores are required by law to recycle all of their fluorescent bulbs – as are all “large quantity generators” of this kind of commonly occurring hazardous waste. It was a sensible, and very beneficial, modification to their collection system for tubular fluorescent bulbs to add capacity to collect CFLs from customers.

Why should I recycle compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs?

Gaseous Mercury works in the vacuum tube of a fluorescent light bulb by exciting the electrons of other gases and making them emit light, or fluoresce. The bulb burns out when these gases eventually fuse to the glass. A fascinating, high-tech recycling process recovers the gaseous Mercury from the shattered glass of fluorescent tube bulbs. The minute amount of elemental Mercury used in a CFL ballast is also recovered. Individual consumers (defined as “small quantity generators” of this kind of hazardous waste) are not required by law to recycle this material. But the simple and very convenient option to merge your burned-out bulbs with the bulb waste streams of the retail chains (Home Depot, Lowe’s) that accept CFLs from customers, means that much more valuable Mercury can be recovered, incorporated into new products, and kept from polluting the environment.

If fluorescent light bulbs contain hazardous mercury, why do we use them? Isn’t mercury a hazard in landfills?

Fluorescent lighting technology is not the ultimate option for generating light where the sun can’t shine, but it’s an energy-smart and environmentally sensible alternative to less efficient “conventional” types of lighting. Fluorescent bulbs use 75% less energy than the incandescent bulbs people have used since Thomas Edison perfected them in the 1870s. Couple this efficiency with the fact that incandescent bulbs waste up to 90% of the energy they consume by producing heat (counter-acting air conditioners!)you’re your energy bills will make the case for changing up your light bulbs.

Yes, it’s true that fluorescent bulbs of every size and shape contain mercury. Mercury is the gas that makes the coating inside the tube “fluoresce” and produce light, when the gases are excited by a bulb’s electric current. Other, less hazardous materials and technology produce light in LED bulbs (which use 90% less energy than Edison’s classic and now historic incandescent). Your choice to phase in LED bulbs, as these products become more widely available and affordable, will leap-frog over your mercury concerns and further boost your lighting efficiency! 

But if you can’t completely switch to LED bulbs, absolutely swap your Edison specials for CFL, or compact fluorescent, bulbs in your home lighting fixtures. The amount of mercury in a CFL is 100 times less than the mercury in old-style fever thermometers and – most importantly – is a minute, miniscule, infinitesimal source of pollution compared to the mercury (released by burning coal) you would send up the smoke stacks of your local power plant by using inefficient lighting technologies – and having your lights compete with your AC in a typical steamy St. Louis summer.

Less of an issue – not quite a non-issue – but an important mercury pollution difference to understand.

Modern landfills are constructed and monitored to safely contain the stuff disposed there – but when you recycle your CFL bulbs, the mercury in the lamps you used will be safely and efficiently recovered. Find convenient CFL recycling drop-off kiosks in every U.S. Lowe’s and Home Depot store - and some local hardware and lighting stores as well.

Energy efficient lighting is a bright idea!

Do I have to call the Haz-Mat Unit when I break a fluorescent light bulb?

 NO! That is a myth sadly perpetuated by media hype!  

Here are the safe, sensible, simple steps to handle a broken CFL – compact fluorescent light bulb – in your home.

1.     Open a window or door and leave the room for 10 or 15 minutes. Natural ventilation will dilute and disperse any mercury gas released from the broken bulb.

2.     Sweep up – don’t vacuum - glass and other broken bulb pieces. Air flow from a vacuum cleaner may blow any remaining mercury gas up into breathing space.

3.     If a bulb breaks on carpeting or upholstery, use masking tape to pick up glass bits and wait a little longer to completely vacuum the area.

4.     Use a towel to grasp and unscrew the ballast from the light fixture, to protect your hands from any glass fragments remaining on the ballast.

5.     Wrap all bulb pieces in newspaper or a paper bag and dispose in your landfill trash; recycling programs only accept whole CFL bulbs.

6.     Replace the broken bulb with another energy-efficient CFL – or try an even more efficient LED bulb in your fixture!

What’s the Green way to dispose of CDs and DVDs and their cases?

Plastics in both discs and their cases is a material that is in some demand, and can find a “new life” through the recycling process. Your local electronics recycler - especially those businesses that earn and maintain R2 and RIOS (national-level) certifications (in St. Louis these are EPC USA and MRC), should be willing recipients of your disc waste. Or you can send discs for recycling to an organization like GreenDisk, a non-profit that specializes in recycling “techno-trash). Fees may apply to recycle disc materials locally – for sure through a mail-in program. As long as the plastic resins in discs and cases have some value on recycled-material markets, you should be able to find a convenient option to recycle them.

*These referrals are current as of August 2015; please contact EPC USA and MRC to confirm, as eCycling service offerings can fluctuate.
 

What are the Greenest options for removing winter ice for pet, plant, and walking safety?

The Garden's Planet Doctor checked her sources, from enviro-groups, to a Vermont municipality, to companies that make the melting-stuff. On only one point is eco-consensus clear: THE SHOVEL!

Considerations for best product choice include temperature range, pet-paws (and playing children) protection, cost - and of course, impacts on plants, soil and water. Our Q&A colleague Umbra Fisk sums it up the best we've seen, in her Grist Magazine column "Ask Umbra.” And our friends at the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance provide some extra notes.

Can I recycle audio cassette tapes and VCR tapes?

Cassette tapes are a “magnetic media” that is just about extinct in common use – but the zillions of audio cassettes and “VCR tapes” still stored in our collective basements constitute a huge disposal issue. Here’s a little history to help explain

This technology uses a thin coating of particles that can be magnetized embedded on thin strips of plastic. Magnetic tape for sound recording was invented in Germany in 1928. After World War II this technology – along with many others including use of plastics, the artificial intelligence that has powered our digital communication revolution, and “rocket science” – came into popular use. As television advanced into popular culture, magnetic media and equipment were evolved to record, store and play back images as well as sound. Whether the tape was wide or narrow, stored on “open reels” or packaged into “cassettes,” magnetic media helped revolutionize portable and DIY communications. But the advent of digital audio and video technology using computerized and optical signal processing, this technology’s CD and DVD equipment and storage media replaced their magnetic predecessors.

Yes, you may still have a VCR hooked up to a TV somewhere, and a working boom box – but this equipment, and its massive supply of tape-storage programming, is pretty much obsolete. Being sustainably-minded, you will want to responsibly recycle your old cassettes and VHS tapes when you clean out that basement corner – but it probably won’t be easy or free.

“There’s this massive amount of media tapes, but no great solution for recycling them,” says Mickey Friedman, COO for GreenDisk, one of the largest e-waste recyclers in the U.S. Friedman says it’s been hard for the company to recycle all of the pieces associated with magnetic media. “The outside casing is made from different types of plastic and that can be recycled; it’s the Mylar tape that really can’t be,” he says. “We do about as good as you can.” Friedman says products with profitable metals, like cell phones and computers, are much easier to find recyclers for, because money can be made from the materials. Magnetic media requires a lot of labor to deconstruct, and these items just don’t contain enough valuable components to make recycling them worthwhile. GreenDisk sells containers that you can fill to a designated weight and mail in for recycling. They are a specialized recycler that has taken on the challenge of deconstructing and recovering materials in magnetic (and digital disc) media – using a very specific process, for a fee. This reference came from Earth911.

In a national search, your St. Louis Green Resources Answer Service found one free public recycling option for audio and video cassettes:  in San Francisco, CA, where waste minimization is about as advanced as it gets, in a state with some of the nation’s highest landfill fees. We include it here so you can see what’s involved in dealing with this kind of waste item – or to help you plan your cassette recycling when you move to the Bay Area.

St. Louis area residents and businesses can get cassette media recycled properly – including receiving data destruction verification – by EPC USA*, a locally-owned eCycler providing national service. There will be a fee associated. If you are considering dealing with an electronics recycler who says they recycle cassette media for no charge, think twice about this claim. Your home stash of VHS movies will not include any material security risks, but corporate or business media should be recycled with a guarantee of both responsible material recycling and data destruction – an area of recycling where there is No Free Lunch. Really.

One important answer to this kind of problem is the Product Stewardship Initiative.  Also called “Producer Responsibility,” these are programs growing notably in the electronics industry, partnering sustainability and waste minimization experts with manufacturers to prompt design-for-recycling, and to help manufacturers evaluate material choices with an eye toward “cradle-to-cradle” responsibility for products at the end of their useful life. But this is a very new development in manufacturing. It was NOT in the thinking of product designers back when cassette tapes popped to the top of our media charts. Consumer preference for products that are designed for deconstruction and recycling is a powerful force to drive this Product Stewardship ethic into really common practice.

One last option for recycling your cassettes: their tape is an excellent medium for crochet. Would this mode of DIY fashion give you magnetic appeal?

*This referral is current as of August 2015; please contact EPC to confirm, as eCycling service offerings can fluctuate.

What are the greenest options for dry cleaning – and why should we seek them out?

According to the US EPA, as reported on the non-profit website Treehugger.com, the dry cleaning industry offers two environmentally preferable alternatives, a cleaning process that uses liquid CO2 as a cleaning solvent and a wet cleaning process. The EPA explains, "Wet cleaning uses water, along with computer-controlled washers and dryers, specialized detergents that are milder than home laundry products, and professional pressing and finishing equipment."

Health concerns focus on perchloroethylene, the chemical most widely used in conventional dry cleaning. In laboratory studies, “perc” has been shown to cause cancer in animals. In EPA’s consumer cautions about products that emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), they say recent studies indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical both in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored and as they wear dry-cleaned clothing. Dry cleaners recapture the perchloroethylene during the dry-cleaning process so they can save money by re-using it, and they remove more of the chemical during the pressing and finishing processes. Some dry cleaners, however, do not remove as much “perc” as possible all of the time.

When using a conventional dry cleaner, take steps to minimize your “perc” exposure:

·         If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them up, do not accept them until they have been properly dried.

·         If goods with a chemical odor are returned to you on subsequent visits, try a different dry cleaner.

One big Green option: evaluate your wardrobe. When do clothes really need to be dry-cleaned?

Apparel manufacturers can only cite one cleaning option on clothing labels, so they label to avoid being held liable for damage. (Really, are you gonna sue Target or Liz Claiborne if your top shrinks? How much energy, time and disposable income do you have?) Materials that could be hand-washed or even gentle-cycle machine washed are labeled Dry Clean Only because it’s the manufacturer’s safest choice, not because it’s the most effective (or healthiest) option for you.

Personal experience has not taken your Planet Doctor to the cleaners.  I can count on one hand the items I’ve taken to a dry cleaners over 30 years. I do wish I had hand-washed, not gentle-cycle/Woolite machine washed, my royal blue boiled wool vest last winter - it did shrink just a tiny bit - and I have two textured silk shirts I’ll take to a cleaners when they need it (I don’t run marathons in them). The items I want to take SPECIAL care of, I hand-wash in cold water and Woolite. Most delicates I’m Ok with machine-washing cold gentle cycle with Woolite, and they do fine. Including wool sweaters. With wool, though, you always run the risk of a little shrinkage with even a little agitation. It’s the motion that shrinks, not the moisture or detergent. I don’t own leather or suede items, but they are materials that should only be professionally cleaned.

Many people send clothing to the cleaners to get items pressed as well as cleaned. Jeans? Yes, I guess so. That’s a lot of expense, in my view. Shirts for professionals – well, who personally irons their shirts anymore? You can, I did. When I wash my cotton shirts – including the kind typically sent out for pressing, I tumble them in the dryer for a few minutes to take out the washing wrinkles, then hang them to dry. I stretch and flatten out the collars and plackets and while these shirts are not knife-pressed, they do come out nicely clean and not wrinkled. Ditto for skirts, and all my tops go through this process, then I hang them on the clothes line to air dry.

Choosing clothing that doesn’t need to be dry-cleaned, for cost-savings as well as environmental impact, sure makes the most sense to me. Even fine fabrics like silks, linens, woolens, can be cleaned at home with a little care and good sense about what the fabric is and how it behaves.

In St. Louis, as of fall 2015, the only “Green Dry Cleaning” business we know of is Banner Cleaners on Brentwood advertising wet cleaning.

Be wary of other “green” claims. In researching this post, I reviewed a cleaning outfit that advertises Green Cleaning – and has an unvalidated Green Earth Seal posted about it - but their brochure says the process uses liquid silicon. This is not one of the methods EPA cites, so I wouldn’t drive out of my way or pay a premium fee for it.

Answers provided by:

Jean Ponzi
Green Resources Manager, EarthWays Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden
  Marcus G. Rivas
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Learn more from Marcus "Dr. Detox" Rivas on how to "Detox Your Domicile"
Green To Go: Public Talks

EarthWays Center offers inspiring, interactive one-hour adult-audience virtual presentations. 

Schedule by calling (314) 577-0246 or email greenresources@mobot.org

2021 Virtual Topics

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  • Energy in Buildings: Clean, Green, Economical
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  • The Dirt on Compost
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  • Smarter—Greener—Cleaner
  • Monarchs and Mosquitoes
  • Good Green News: Food!
  • Earth's Climate: Facts, Myths, Opportunities
  • Green Means Business!
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