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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2007
Table of Contents
The End of the World
The Boar Wars
At Home in the Wild
Landscape Lexicon
Lifetimes With Fire
Decoder: Endangered Species
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Sierra Club Bulletin
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's March 1, 2007, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail

The Latest on Lawns and Lingerie

Every so often, us environmental muckrakers, doomsayers, and alarmists actually get to declare a victory. In my rant against the environmental silliness of lawns, I pointed out that one session with a lawnmower could spew as much pollution as driving a car for 100 miles. But now the EPA has given California permission to require catalytic converters on small engines like those used in mowers, a move that will cut the machines' smog emissions by 40 percent. The EPA is now considering setting national emission standards for small engines.

Also chided here was Victoria's Secret's use of pulp from virgin forests for the 350 million sexy catalogs it sends out every year. Under heavy pressure from ForestEthics and its chainsaw-wielding protestors, the lingerie company has agreed to stop using pulp from Canada's boreal forest, and to use 10 percent post consumer recycled paper or paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, in its catalogs. Now I just have to convince my cousin Nubby that recycled paper is not going to let more of the models' attributes show through their lingerie.

Why We Need Worms

Hey Mr. Green,
I'm surprised that in your recent article you mentioned composting but not worm boxes as an environmentally beneficial way to deal with food waste. Worms eat nearly all of our household garbage, and their beautiful castings are great fertilizer for houseplants. --Carol in Trinidad, California

Hey Carol,
I agree with you, but my editors thought most people were too squeamish about worms to include mention of this laudable practice. They've obviously never been fishing, except maybe with those artsy flies. Nor, apparently, do they pay the slightest heed to Charles Darwin's classic study The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, wherein the great man explains why and how our very survival depends on worms. He even kept them in his office, in dirt-filled containers, and I say if it's good enough for Darwin, it's good enough for any self-respecting environmentalist. Since there's so much more to worms than meets the eye, I'd love to read more of your thoughts on your worm-composting (or vermicomposting) experience.
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
I've been vermicomposting for quite a while (I'm really old), and the process is so clean that you can do it indoors if you have one of those fancy-dancy Australian plastic jobbers like I have. I think the only funny thing that has ever happened is when we caused a population explosion by feeding our worms the pulp from pressed fruit when we were juicing quite a bit. The worms were creeping out of every orifice of their box in a truly horrifying sci-fi manner and making a soft rustling noise as they plotted their escape. Now that would give your editors something to think about!

If people are squeamish about a clean, quiet box of worms, they'd better steel themselves for what is coming down the pike if we don't use sensible nature-based methods to get rid of garbage. And the end product the worms create--soft, fluffy soil--sells for quite a bit at the garden shop. So let's see--what's bad about worms? Free garbage pickup, free potting soil, and liquid fertilizer delivery. Sounds good to me. --Carol in Trinidad, California

Hey Carol,
Thank you for striking a gracious blow against the widespread malady of vermiphobia. But let us not rest easy until the worm composter takes its rightful place in the kitchens of the world and Darwin's worm study takes its rightful place in the minds and hearts of humanity.
Mr. Green

Sludge, Scum, and Septic Systems

Hey Mr. Green,
I hate to belabor the issue, but your discussions of garbage disposals make no mention of their effect on septic systems. This question has become the subject of considerable controversy in the 58-unit townhouse complex where I live. What is your considered opinion on the subject? --Joel in Lincoln, Massachusetts

Hey Joel,
When it comes to environmental quandaries, no issue can be belabored too much. It's rather odd that I failed to mention septic systems, having grown up on a farm where it was a memorable event when we finally replaced the outdoor privy with a septic tank and indoor plumbing! Maybe I'm suffering from the repressed trauma of several unpleasant occasions when our glorious new septic system got plugged up and I was recruited to help root through the sewage in the tanks and pipes to fix the problem. Or maybe I'm showing a culturally insensitive urban bias, assuming that everybody's hooked up to a municipal sewer line, when in fact almost 25 percent of U.S. households use septic tanks or cesspools.

In any event, the biggest problem with garbage disposals is that heavy use of them can double the amount of solids going into your septic tank. (Also, excess grease and oil, which often go down the drain, impair the tank's operation.) These solids come in two categories: sludge that sinks to the bottom and scum that floats to the top. The water runs out to a drainfield. Although the solids are broken down by bacteria, enough remain in the tank so that it has to be pumped out periodically--typically every three to five years. So if you use a garbage disposal frequently, the tank will have to be emptied more often. In my area, the cost of pumping the solids from a 1,500-gallon tank is $400 or $500. Obviously composting is a cheaper and more productive alternative--and maybe your complex would be better off investing in a composting program rather than spending your money on more frequent pumping.

I've talked to sewer guys who pump out the sludge and scum for a living, and they complain, with some frustration, about the public's appalling ignorance of septic tanks and sewage in general. "Some of them don't even know they have a septic operation," one pumper lamented. "It's out of sight, out of mind."

Although garbage disposals themselves don't rank among our worst environmental problems, a lot of the stuff people send down their drains does. "They put all kinds of oddball stuff in there: motor oil, paint, you name it," my source said. He pointed out that some of the chemicals in these substances can kill the septic tank's bacteria, destroying its ability to safely break down the sludge and scum. Other things people dump are just plain toxic. Among the substances that should never go down a drain--whether it flows to a septic tank or a municipal sewage system--are paints, pesticides, oils, varnishes, gasoline, and paint thinners.

Additionally, the sludge removed from septic tanks is often hauled to a municipal sewage-treatment plant. Obviously, if the septic tank material is full of heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, it's that much harder for the plant to produce safe effluent. There is a lot more that can be said about sewage and septic tanks. For more information, download the EPA's comprehensive bulletin, "A Homeowner's Guide to Septic Systems."

You could use it as the basis of a local education program. Finally, if you know any macho do-it-yourselfer who wants to take on septic tank cleaning and maintenance, tell that person to stay inside and call a professional. Messing around with the tank can be lethal. As one maintenance course put it: "Toxic gases are produced by natural treatment processes in septic tanks and can kill humans in minutes."

Make No Bones

Hey Mr. Green,
In talking about various ways of dealing with food waste, don't forget the pressure cooker. It turns bones into mush that can be mixed with animal food, and the crows and seagulls will eat anything ... nothing is wasted at my house --K. J. in Anacortes, Washington

Hey K. J.,
If I had a pressure cooker (should I?), I'd give this interesting idea a try. Do other readers have comments on this practice? Environmentally,
Under Pressure in Berkeley, California (a.k.a. Mr. Green)

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.

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