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Got questions? Ask the Green Geek

Wondering if your fireplace is harming the environment? What to do with an old ironing board? Whether paper is better than plastic at the grocery store?

Green Geek LogoAsk the Green Geek.

Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column featuring questions and answerson all things green. Our own Green Geek gets assistance on answering your questions from the sustainability experts in Pima County’s Office of Sustainability and Conservation.

Send your questions to And look for the column the second Friday of each month on the left sidebar of the newsletter.

Here are this month’s questions: 

Dear Green Geek,

Does my fireplace contribute to global warming? Thanks.

Yes, but perhaps not in the way you think. Burning wood creates higher direct carbon emissions than any of the major fossil fuels, but its overall carbon profile depends on the sustainability of the wood sourcing.

Even without considering the carbon equation of the actual wood burning, the traditional fireplace is a global warming problem because it loses more heat from your home than it creates. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a blazing fire can send 24,000 cubic feet of air per hour up the chimney, along with about 90 percent of the heat produced by the fire and some of the heat produced by your furnace. And most fireplaces are a big source of air leaks when they’re not in use.

Luckily, if you love the cozy feel of a fire, there are several good ways to increase your home’s energy efficiency and reduce the pollution created by traditional wood fires. One option is to fit a woodstove (or gas stove) insert into your existing fireplace. These units usually have a tempered glass front so you can see the fire burn.

But unlike a traditional open fire, they actually heat your home. And because they burn so much hotter, they create far less air pollution. If you don’t want to purchase an insert, you can still reduce your carbon footprint for relatively little cost by installing tempered glass doors in front of your fireplace and making sure to keep them (and the flue) firmly shut when the fireplace is not in use. Or, if you use your fireplace rarely or not at all, you can put inflatable inserts into the chimney to seal air leaks.

I hope that helps.

Green Geek

Green Geek, 

My ironing board is old and rusting. Is it recyclable?




Hello, Harry:

Most ironing boards are made from metal and can be recycled at your local household waste and recycling center, but it is a good idea to check with the beforehand.

I don’t like plastic grocery bags but I don’t want to bring reusable bags to the grocery store and look like a sanctimonious hippie. Can I ask for paper bags or is that still considered bad?

Unfortunately no, paper bags are still equally if not more detrimental to the environment. While there is no definitive answer as to which is worse, (paper or plastic) the general consensus is that paper bags are worse for the environment when you are comparing them bag for bag.  
LCA graphic
The simple explanation for this is that plastic bags require less material than paper and therefore result in fewer negative impacts. The graphic (at right) helps to illustrate this.  

The best advice I can give you is, just remember why you are bringing your reusable bag and to take pride in the fact that you are making the responsible decision. At some point in time bringing your own bag will become the new norm.

For a great explanation on this, watch this TED Talk on paper vs. plastic.

Dear Green Geek,

I’ve got several half-empty cans of varnish and wood stain at home. I don’t plan to use them. Can I dump them in the wash behind my house or is there a better option to dispose of them?

Please don’t dump them in the wash behind your house!!!! Doing so would be illegal. Instead, you should take them to Household Hazardous Waste

Can I add shredded white paper from envelopes and old bills to my compost heap?

Except for colored and glossy paper, which might contain some toxic heavy metals, newsprint and other paper is safe to use as mulch or in compost. In fact, one study revealed that paper had less toxic material than straw or grass! The only problem with paper is that if you put too much of it in your heap, you could get an unfavorable carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, since paper is high in carbon (one reason it burns).

But unless your finances are of a Bernie Madoffian level of complexity, your financial documents will probably not disturb the ratio! The ideal ratio is 25 carbon to 1 nitrogen. Too much carbon slows down the process. If that happens, you can always add high-nitrogen material such as grass, alfalfa, or manure. As you no doubt have already discovered, well-chopped material and frequent turning is the key to healthy, happy compost.

To chop up stuff like stems and long grass, I place a cross-sectional slab of a log on an upturned milk crate and mince the material with a machete. Better exercise than cramming it into a chipper, and there's a primal thrill in wielding a machete. Now if you're an inaccurate machete-wielder, I recommend thick gloves to keep from severely injuring the hand that feeds the material onto the slab. If you're a hopelessly inaccurate machete-wielder, you can make a wooden rectangle and attach a side of it to the slab so that you have to feed the stems, etc. through it. This will keep the feeding hand far enough away from the machete to insure safety.

(Having grown up in a rural area where more than a few farmers lost fingers, limbs, and life in accidents, I'm a stickler for agricultural safety. And by the way, the agricultural-injury rate is higher than in mining, and while we rightly decry the coal industry for cutting corners on worker safety, the number of fatalities among agricultural laborers is 12 times as high.)
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