How to get rid of ratty old clothes and hairballs. Plus: the case for dimmers.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
June 8 2010 6:50 AM

Dim Bulbs, Old Clothes, and Hairballs

Three questions in one column.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Here are some quick answers to questions from the Lantern's inbox.

Do I save electricity when I use a dimmer switch on my lights? Or am I using the same amount of electricity no matter where I have it set?

Unless your dimmer dates to the 1970s, it will save some energy. The more you lower the lights, the less power they use—although the savings won't be as large as the reduction in brightness. (At a light level of 50 percent, you'll be using more than half the electricity.)If you're using incandescent lights, a dimmer switch can also extend the life of your bulbs. According to Francis Rubinstein, a lighting researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an incandescent bulb that's kept at 50 percent brightness should last roughly 10 times longer than one burning at full capacity.

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Things are a little different with compact fluorescent bulbs. In the first place, not all of these work with dimmers. Among those that do, the energy savings are a little better, but you won't get any extension in bulb life. At the lowest dimmer settings, an incandescent bulb will cast an especially warm glow, but the quality of light from a CFL remains the same no matter how it's set. There may also be some flickering with the fluorescents. However, if saving energy is your main concern, ditch the old-fashioned bulbs: An incandescent will always be less efficient than a CFL, no matter what kind of light switch you're using.

Can you recycle clothes?

Yup. Textiles that are still relatively intact can be cut up into wiping rags, which are sold to gas stations and paint shops. Ratty clothes are shredded, and the resulting fibers can be used in things like carpet padding or soundproofing insulation. Some fibers, like wool, can be re-spun, re-dyed, and re-woven into brand-new clothes.

Unless you live in one of the handful of counties that has curbside textile recycling, it may be tricky to get your closet cast-offs to the people who recycle them. Many organizations that collect used clothing, like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, have relationships with textile recyclers, which take anything the charities can't sell in their stores. But it's not always a good idea to drop a bag of single socks or tattered gym clothes at your local charity shop. For one thing, not all of them have agreements with recyclers—which means your discarded duds could end up in the trash—and second, overtaxed workers might not appreciate being asked to sort through your detritus, only to discover that they can't sell any of it. (Stained or unstylish clothing is usually OK, but a sweater your dog mauled probably isn't.)

If you can't find ways to reuse the clothes in your own home, the Lantern recommends calling the shops in your area to see which ones recycle their unwanted donations and whether they'd be willing to take what you have. Sometimes you can send your stuff directly to a recycler by using their 24-hour drop-off bins in parking lots and other central locations. You can find local listings for both charity shops and drop-off bins on Earth911.com. (Meanwhile, if you have old, hole-y athletic shoes of any brand, Nike will take them off your hands.) Just make sure your clothes aren't moldy, smelly, or wet—even recyclers will toss those in the trash.

What's the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of the hair from my brush or comb? In lieu of trashing it, I've been flushing it down the toilet, but something tells me that can't be right.

Trust your instinct: The toilet is not the proper place for hairballs. First of all, it could lead to clogs in your plumbing. The wastewater treatment plant, in turn, will just try to screen out your hair and truck it off to the landfill along with the Q-tips, condoms, and other sundry interlopers that get flushed every day. In other words, the hair will quite likely end up in the same place whether you flush it or toss it in the garbage, but flushed hair wastes energy and fuel on its circuitous journey.

The best way to dispose of hair is by composting it. Hairballs are rich in nitrogen, a key ingredient in every compost pile. Just make sure to cut your tresses into small pieces and spread them around the pile, so they don't form clumps. (Matted hair will biodegrade much more slowly.) You can also throw in wet hair from your shower drain as long as you cut it up first. In fact, dampness helps speed up the decomposition process. On the question of what to do with gelled or hairsprayed hair, the experts the Lantern polled were somewhat divided. Some said you could toss it in, no problem; others expressed concern that the ingredients in those products would persist in the environment or else result in lower-quality compost. If you use a lot of products in your hair, you might want to give your hairballs a rinse before adding them to the pile.

In the early days of the Gulf oil spill, there was a lot of buzz about how human hair was going to be used to sop up the mess. But in recent weeks, engineers involved in the cleanup have determined that homemade "hair booms" aren't a feasible option in the Gulf (since they don't work as well as the commercial kind), and donated locks are now piling up in area warehouses. As of May 23, Matter of Trust, the organization that's been spearheading the collection, said that it won't accept hair from new donors until it's worked through the tons that it already has.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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