canisterAs my poor co-workers are only too aware, I have an unholy fondness for potato chips. Few things give me more pleasure at lunchtime than scanning the blogosphere while crunching my way through a bag, dribbling little crumbs down into my keyboard.

Lovely? Oh, yes.

Among other things, it results in a keyboard that needs to be cleaned periodically. Yeck. But last year when I embarked on a little office spring cleaning, I made a shocking discovery: those little compressed chemical dusters (pictured above) are basically greenhouse gas bombs. In some cases, using up just a single canister is the climate equivalent of driving my Honda Civic from Seattle to New York City and then back to Chicago, even allowing for plenty of side trips.

Needless to say, I was apalled. I even briefly considered a mini crusade against the things.

I also ended up having several interesting conversations about the canisters. Two in particular stood out: one with an industry representative and another with an advocate from Australia. In case folks are interested, I’ll share what I learned.

  • First, a little context. The dusting canisters contain one of two kinds of climate-wrecking hydrofluorocarbons, HFC-134a or HFC-152a (these are sometimes called tetrafluoroethane and 1,1-difluoroethane, respectively). Here’s why it matters:

    These chemical compounds are also used in refrigerators, air conditioners (especially in vehicles), some medical devices, and in some industrial applications.

    What I learned from the industry rep. (He was a super nice guy and extremely informative, but he asked not to be named.) I asked why anyone would use 134a when 152a is available.

    The reason, apparently, is manifold. 152a has less “blasting power” and is therefore less useful for removing my potato chip crumbs. It’s also more expensive. There’s also some minor concern with the flammability of the 152a. While both compounds are considered “not flammable” according to government tests—and while 152a spray will extinguish a candle—134a is the only such compound that has a flammability rating of zero. It simply can’t be ignited by a flame, which some people allege is a concern when sprays are being used in heated conditions such as with a copier or overhead projector. Other compounds, or additives to the compounds, generally result in sprays that are cheaper, but that are also odorous, flammable, and less powerful.

    He also insisted that there aren’t good substitutes available for the industrial and refrigerant applications of the compounds. (We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about these uses, as I’m mainly interested in the dusting canisters for now.)

    So that’s basically the schtick. Mind you, I’m not vouching for these explanations, just relaying them to readers. It seems to me that the commenters to my initial post on the subject were exactly right: there are dozens of better and climate-friendlier ways to clean a keyboard including using breakthrough innovations such as “gravity and shaking,” “a damp cloth,” “a feather duster,” and even “a dishwasher.”

    What I learned from Australia, and in particular from Brent Hoare who is the Community, Government and Industry Relations Manager for the Green Cooling Council. Seeing as how Brent knows roughly 9 million times more than I do on this subject, I’m just going to quote liberally from his email to me (with permission, of course):

    While it’s great to see the very powerful global warming HFC gases getting any attention, there are many frivolous uses of these substances, including paint ball guns, spiderman web blaster toys, silly string, window ‘snow’ sprays, wine bottle openers, and yes, even dog poo freeze sprays…

    The far more substantive issue is the use of HFCs in automotive air conditioning and commercial refrigeration because of the very high leakage rates. Domestic and Commercial air con are also big and rapidly growing slices of the HFC emissions pie. Whilst these gases are thought to contribute around 2% of radiative forcing emissions now (let’s remember they’ve been with us for less than 20 years), projections are they could reach 8% or more by 2050, so they must be a priority for phase out now.

    The Europeans are doing this from 2011 in new model vehicles and in all vehicles by 2017, and CO2 is the leading contender to replace HFCs in vehicles, in spite of efforts by DuPont and Honeywell to get a new low GWP HFC-1234yf to market (see www.r744.com). Here in Australia highly purified hydrocarbon refrigerants are widely accepted in the service market, and although available in the US too, still face large regulatory barriers, which is a shame as they have very little environmental impact and great performance and cost advantages.

    CO2 is also making great strides in supermarket refrigeration in Europe and Australia, and is being introduced in Thailand and soon elsewhere in Asia, but very little seems to be happening in the US, in spite of very progressive proposals from the California Air Resources Board to crack down on fluorocarbon emissions…

    What else? For readers who just can’t get enough of this stuff, Brent suggest this blog post, a paper called “F For Forgotten? Why Potent Industrial Greenhouse Gases Need More Attention,” and a paper called “Keeping Cool Without Warming the Planet: Cutting HFCs, PFCs, and SF6 in Europe.”

    So I just thought I’d pass this stuff along to readers. Sure, it’s obscure stuff—and it’s obviously less important than how we treat clean coal or transportation-sector emissions — but as we enter an era of serious climate policy it’s worth getting this kind of information into circulation. It could very well be that one of the many things we should do for climate protection is devise better industrial products. And on a smaller scale, we should probably figure out a smarter way to clean our keyboards too.