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

Green in Winter

Air Date: Week of

In this consumer tips segment, Steve Curwood queries writer Hannah Holmes on green ways to deal with cold weather winter concerns from using moth balls to firewoods and snow removal.


CURWOOD: Ah, winter. A good book in front of an open fire, a warm sweater, and this year in the east, at least, lots of snow to move. And as you can imagine, there are ways to survive winter that are more friendly to the environment than others. To find out how to make our winter green, we turn to Hannah Holmes, a former editor of the late Garbage magazine, who writes frequently on environmental issues. One of the best places to start, she says, is by taking your woolens out of mothballs. For good.

HOLMES: It's a great idea to take them out of the mothballs because it's a horrible idea to put them in the mothballs. Anything that says avoid prolonged breathing of vapor is low on my list of things I want sitting around the house all year.

CURWOOD: So what do I do then with my woolens? I mean, because you know, those moths, they like that stuff.

HOLMES: It's not actually the moths that do the damage. They lay eggs and it's the little larvae that hatch while your woolens are supposedly safe in a box somewhere, and the larvae eat holes in your clothes. All you need to do to kill larvae is really bake them a little bit, and you can do that with an iron. You can put them in the oven at about 140 degrees for an hour. You can tumble them dry or even just take them to the dry cleaner.

CURWOOD: Okay, Hannah. Now, once I get my sweaters on, you know, it's wonderful in the winter time to stay warm near an open fire or a wood stove, and burn that nice replenishable wood supply, right?

HOLMES: Oh yeah, if you can manage to find a way to hold your breath through the entire duration of that experience.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) No, really?

HOLMES: Wood is really pretty horrifically polluting. It emits carbon monoxide, which slows your thinking; particulate matter, which causes respiratory distress. In fact there are studies that show that kids from wood burning homes have higher rates of respiratory problems. Wood also releases hydrocarbons and stuff like formaldehyde, polycyclic organic matter, and those are sort of fancy name for gross toxic stuff.

CURWOOD: I'm not supposed to keep my clothes in mothballs and I'm not supposed to use my wood stove?

HOLMES: Well, there are new stoves now that are called catalytic stoves. And much like the car you drive, they've got a catalyst in the stove pipe that allows those nasty gases and stuff that don't burn at the normal temperature to burn at a lower temperature than they would require.

CURWOOD: One thing that happens when winter comes, Hannah, is it seems like every field mouse from miles around finds its way right into my house. What's the best way for me to deal with these little critters?

HOLMES: Well, I'm not sure that we have got a better mousetrap yet. Poisons obviously are poisonous and so they're not great things to have around the house. And they cause the mouse generally to go into the walls and expire, and do some off gassing of its own. The live trap, sort of the humane solution, you trap the mouse and you tenderly relocate him, is not a great solution, either, because they'll generally beat you back to the house. And while most people would say get a cat, someone has actually gone to the trouble of studying the mouse killing efficiency of cats and discovered that they perhaps only get 20% of the population.

CURWOOD: Only 20% efficient? My cat! I mean I should get my cat on the show to defend herself.

HOLMES: Well, the cats were not available for comment. That really leaves us with the good old-fashioned snap trap. Which is quick, it's reusable, it's relly pretty humane, and you know, the bottom line is the mouse is not an endangered species.

CURWOOD: Of course the essential part of winter for some of us, certainly for those of us in the Northeast right now, is snow -- I mean we've had more of the stuff in the last 6 weeks than I think we've had in the last 6 years. What's the best ecologically sound way to get rid of that stuff?

HOLMES: It's the same method you use to get rid of grandma's fruit cake; it's getting out there and shoveling it.

CURWOOD: But what about the snow blower? I mean, for example, one of the people who works for Living on Earth has got a huge, long driveway. I mean you get out there and shovel, you're going to have a backache.

HOLMES: I suppose for those who have tender backs, you may want to rely on a snow blower. There are electric snow blowers which are better than the gas models. But the gas models, small engines in general, are pretty polluting little things compared to your automobile. They just don't burn fuel very efficiently. That's changing, fortunately; in the 1997 model year we'll see snow blowers that are significantly improved in their emissions.

CURWOOD: Now what about my walk? You know, the stuff melts and re-freezes and you start to get a layer of very dangerous ice out there. Now I suppose salt is a no-no.

HOLMES: Salt is not great. In fact, when it runs off into your lawn or garden it's going to densify the soil and that prevents the roots of the plants from taking up water. And this accounts for the death of street trees, which get an awful lot of salt from the roads, too. And it also, when salt runs into streams or ponds or lakes, can cause significant imbalance in that ecosystem.

CURWOOD: So what should I do?

HOLMES: Well, you can work off a few cookies, in this case, with an ice chip or a pick something that you really physically remove the ice. And then it's gone for good. If that's beyond your back's ability, then sand is an excellent solution. If you can find sand at your hardware store and keep it inside when it's warm, when you sprinkle it on the ice it's going to eat into the ice a little bit and it's also going to provide traction. And perhaps my favorite thing about the sand solution is, in the spring time when all the snow's gone you can sweep it up and use it again next year.

CURWOOD: Well Hannah, thank you for taking so much time with us.

HOLMES: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Enviro-friendly winter tips from writer Hannah Holmes. She joined us from member station WMEA in Portland, Maine.



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