I have an untidy habit of eating while I’m working on my computer. Heck, right now I’m eating a doughnut while I write this post.
Unfortunately, my habit inevitably results in little crumbs of sandwich or potato chips or whatever making their way onto my computer keyboard. Every once in a while I look down at my crumb-ridden keyboard, get disgusted, and then embark on a cleaning frenzy. And, as many office workers may know, one of the easiest ways to clean a keyboard is with those compressed chemical canister thingies (pictured above). So the other day, while I was merrily blasting away at my keyboard I decided to read the contents. Big mistake.
My little 10-ounce canister contains 100 percent tetrafluoroethane, a greenhouse gas that’s sometimes known as HFC-134a (meaning it’s a form of hydrofluorocarbon). Before your eyes glaze over, just keep in mind that over a 20 year period, HFC-134a is roughly 3,300 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Nice.
So unless I missed something in the number crunching, using up my 10-ounce can of cleaner will have the same climate-changing effect over the next 20 years as burning at least 100 gallons of gasoline. With that much gas I could drive my trusty Honda Civic from Seattle to New York City. And then back to Chicago. And I would likely still have plenty of fuel leftover for side-trips.
All that, packed into a canister retailing for $10.99 at the Office Depot around the corner.
This is not a good idea.
And it strikes me as an instance where the best remedy is pretty simple: just ban it.
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Now, it may not be possible to completely ban HFC-134a. It’s also used in refrigerators, auto A/Cs, some medical devices, and in some industrial applications. I have no idea how feasible it would be to ban or reduce HFC-134a in those uses. But there is absolutely no good reason why a keyboard cleaner should pack that kind of climate wallop. A feather duster works just as well.
Interestingly, there’s a backstory here that’s sort of tragic. The reason the manufacturer put HFC-134a in my air canister wasn’t out of some nefarious plain to despoil the environment. It was actually to avoid ozone depletion. (HFCs and some other compounds were introduced on a large scale in the 1990s to replace ozone-damaging CFCs.) While HFC-134a is awful for the climate, it’s almost totally benign when it comes to the ozone layer. In fact, my canister even sports a little “non-ozone depleting” label. It’s a sad example of how our attempts to invent our way out of a jam, led us into another problem.
And here’s another reason to ban these little canisters: getting high with them is dangerous.
Update: Please read my follow up to this post here.
Update 2: Over at Gristmill, JMG urges Costco to ban the cannisters. My post is here.
I wonder if simply taxing the chemical would work. It strikes me that the cost of a canister of cleaner wouldn’t have to increase by more than a couple of dollars to push manufacturers into using a different gas, but the coolant for a fridge must be a much smaller proportion of the ultimate cost, so if HFCs have to be used in fridges they still could be.
Matt the Engineer
There’s a whole product class (“Dust-off”, etc.) that uses refrigerant HFC152A, which has about 10% the global warming potential as HFC132A, but that still represents a huge amount of driving all for moderate (at best) use.I’ve never used the things. Every few weeks I turn my keyboard upside down and shake it. Isn’t gravity convienent?
Eric de Place
Gravity… sigh… I am a terrible person.Matt, thanks for the tip about HFC-152a. Good to know. It seems like the existence of a far superior substitute product is reason alone to ban 134a. Still, even 10% is far too high.Eldan, normally I’m a fan of using market-based mechanisms, such as taxes. But in this instance, the tax would have to be so astonishingly high that it would probably be tantamount to a ban. More to the point, I don’t see a good reason not to flat-out ban 134a in compressed air dusters. It’s not like these little canisters are a critical part of our economy or identity or something. I think in some cases it’s appropriate for us, as a society, to say, “this is a stupid and harmful product that serves very little use: stop it.”
Matt the Engineer
Regarding legislation, phasing out of R-22 was a very successful strategy. As new refrigeration systems were built, it was almost trivial to just switch refrigerants. Of course, at some point there is a trade off between energy use and greenhouse gas impact. Perhaps the best option is to completely switch technologies (ammonia refrigeration? peltier heat pumps? ice, carried down from Mt. Rainier on the backs of sustainably farmed alpacas?).
Eric de Place
Only if the ice is carried in organic hemp saddle bags.
Though I’m a huge fan of green fees, I can’t see a reason not to simply ban the use of mock-freon dusters for general public use. Especially after reading about the 14 year old boy in Salem who died from inhaling the gases.What I’m wondering is. What do we do with the canisters already sold?Refrigerator and air conditioner repair firms recapture coolants, as best they can. Is there a place consumers can take their partly used spray dusters? What’s Eric supposed to do with his canister?I’ve been storing a can of real-McCoy CFC camera lens duster in the back of my desk drawer for a decade, waiting for an anser to this question. The can is more than 20 years old now, from the days before the Montreal Protocol and the CFC phaseout.Any blog readers volunteer to research this question?Oh, and someone needs to organize a campaign against the canister spray dusters. Volunteers?
Wow. Some pretty heavy stuff being discussed here! I’ve never even heard of “those compressed chemical canister thingies” (fortunately). But I have heard of other compressed (non-chemical) canister thingies, like dust-busters and vacuum cleaners … Ah, suction!
Eric de Place
In comment #2, above, Matt clued me into to something fairly interesting. At home, I found another canister and it contains 100% 1,1-difluoroethane, which is sometimes called HFC-152 or simply R-152. (That’s the product Matt mentioned.) The global warming potential depends on the precise formualtion of the compound, but it appears to be far, far lower than HFC-134a. In fact, some manufacturers appear to be switching to avoid the climate impacts.So this makes the case for a ban even stronger: 152 is apparently able to do all, or at least most, of what 134a can do. So why in the heck would we allow 134a into circulation? Especially in these ridiculous little dusting canisters. I’m taking a trip to Office Depot this afternoon. I’ll report back what I find.
As with most things, the most environmentally friendly approach is the one that does NOT involve getting out the wallet. Writing a law to ban every hair-brained product/chemical seems to make for a ridiculously complex legal system, and I’d rather try to dismantle the manufactured need first. How? Asking ourselves “is there another way I can accomplish this without buying yet another thing?” The answer is almost always yes, and almost always easier on the earth and society. (It takes more time and effort, but you’d have less need to work, so you’d have the time and health… Or you could employ someone with a feather duster and boost the economy.)
The best Dust-Off alternative: take a deep breath and blow really hard on it!Policy-wise, let’s not write a new law for every possible use of every harmful chemical. This becomes a command economy in which the laws become complex and inconsistent, and lawmakers are tempted to fund their campaigns by selling loopholes to lobbyists.We need a broader policy framework that covers multiple climate-harmful chemicals and treats them consistently according to their climate impact.
Matt the Engineer
[rhughes] Although that’s how I try to live life, and it does feel like I’m helping, it usually does far too little. Take these air dusters as an example. Clearly even this nearly useless thing has a market. Could we create a campaign to raise awareness and try to get people not to buy the things? Sure. And it might help. But it probably won’t help much, as most people just don’t have the time or attention span to care about every little detail of their lives. I’d argue that “writing a law to ban every hair-brained product/chemical” takes far less human effort than educating every person about every heir-brained product/chemical, then hoping all these people remember all of these details when they’re at the store.Side note: Eric’s post has inspired me to post the following note on my office’s can of air duster, and I suggest everyone reading this does the same:Warning: This can of refrigerant has the same greenhouse impact as driving a Honda Civic from Seattle to New York, then back to Chicago. Please use a feather duster instead.
Eric de Place
Nice going, Matt. And I completely agree w/r/t public awareness campaigns. I’ve been a full-time environmental researcher for 5+ years—so I would imagine I’m among the more informed group of people—and I had no idea that I was using such a destructive product. Folks are already suffering information overload in a major way. Jonathan, I completely agree that we need a broader policy framework, etc. Absolutely. But it seems to me that a key part of that framework should include an outright ban on highly damaging chemicals that are in use for no good reason. That’s a far cry from creating a “command economy”—it’s just common sense.
Back to the point of cleaning keyboards. Using the dishwasher is effective. I recommend a back up plan though, the risk is losing keys or getting a piece of plastic too close to the heating element. I’m one of the “be wary of regulation” types here, but I can’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be banned. With kids “dusting off” I don’t see a march in the streets when this does finally get pulled.
And there I was yesterday feeling bummed to discover that what I was using to clean shocking amounts of dust out of my computer’s innards was compressed CO2. Apparently, I got off light. Is there some reason they couldn’t just use compressed air?
Eric de Place
I have no idea, Kevin. I actually (naively, I guess) thought the canisters contained compressed air or, at worst, CO-2. I’m doing an informal survey of office supply shops around Seattle and I’ll report back my findings later. So far, I’ve found only 134a and 152 (both mentioned earlier in comments) but nothing with just CO-2. There are also, I should mention, lots and lots of safe and clean alternatives—mini-vacuums, dusters, cleaning pads, etc. Or, as Arie points out, the trusty dishwasher. Good tip.I’d be curious to know if Canadian retailers are selling different products. If you happen to pass by an office supply store, maybe you could take a look for me?
Hey, mini-vacuums (i.e. dust-busters) was my tip! I learned about using vacuum cleaners, and the like, from an office I used to work at in Eugene….Jeez, sometimes I feel so ignored on Sightline 🙂
Wow, I have one of those little greenhouse bombs on my shelf. Even though I use it so infrequently that it’s lasted 6 years so far, now I want to get rid of it. But I guess I gotta hang onto it until someone figures out how to neutralize HFC-134a (doesn’t seem too likely, does it?).I can’t believe kids are huffing this stuff and dropping dead and it hasn’t been banned yet. And according to Wikipedia, at high concentrations it causes testicular tumors.Here’s a recommendation from Cool Tools: Vacuum Micro Attachment Kit. Cheaper than a can and more effective.There are lots of pro options too—these for example.
Matt the Engineer
“Is there some reason they couldn’t just use compressed air?” No reason you couldn’t use it. It just wouldn’t be easy to market since they would run out quickly. The change of state (liquid->gas) involved in using refrigerants comes with a nice 30x volume increase, compared to perhaps 2x with compressed air.I would think you’d need a strong container to use CO2, if the little bicycle-repair-kit-cartridges are any indication. (oh, and don’t feel bad Kevin – the CO2 used may not be from ground sources and is often a byproduct from industrial sources like beer breweries)
Maybe one of the offset companies can create an offset for the use of this can?
Tho general solution is education about the specific solution: re-fillable air canisters! I don’t know where I got mine. Maybe Harbor Freight or JC Whitney. It’s an aluminum bottle with a normal “spray paint” nozzle on the top, and a Schrader valve (as for filling tires) on the side of the top. You pump it up with a compressor or hand pump and voila—environmentally safe air dusting!If you do a great deal of this sort of thing (as I do, scanning slides and such), you can get a 5 gallon air reservoir from The Usual Suspects that you fill up and use similarly, but it holds a lot more.So please, don’t use ANY chemicals in your air dusting, and don’t throw out (or AT BEST, recycle, which still consumes lots of energy) those empty air dusting cans!
Here is another case of an environmantal problem caused by a man-made chemical being used for an un-necessary product. The solution is up to us individually and collectively. We obviously don’t need strong global-warming subtances to clean our keyboards.A few more facts: HFC-134a (which is 1300 times as strong as CO2 for capturing heat in the atmosphere) was developed and marketed world-wide to replace the nasty, ozone-depleting CFC-12 used in auto air-conditioners. It’s been put in those AC systems globally since the CFCs were banned in 1995. The European Union is looking closely at a timeline to ban the HFC-134a in vehicles. It’s been tough to find a suitable replacement. They are considering approving HFC-152a, even though that is also a global warming gas (only 140 times as strong as CO2).The US EPA has approved HFC-152a as a substitute for the CFC-12, but I’ve not heard of any vehicles that are using it yet. The EPA also has approved CO2 for use in vehicle ACs. I’ve heard Toyota has built it into some vehicles on a trial basis. That would be a much more acceptable refrigerant, since the amount would be minscule compared to fossil fuel emmisions. ther could be other technical and sfaety problems.See this EPA website for more info:http://www.epa.gov/ozone/snap/regulations.htmlAnd go here to see how the HFCs contribute to global warming:http://www.epa.gov/ozone/geninfo/gwps.htmlSo yes, use another method to clean your keyboard. And tell your U.S. Representatives and Senators that we should ban products that release global-warming gases, especially when there are simple, low-impact alternatives. That’s the same approach we’ve used to successfully stop releasing the ozone-depleting chemicals these HFCs have replaced.But we’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire…
Matt: Thanks for the state change explanation. I’m happy to assume my emissions are virtuous, at least to the degree that anything associated with beer can possess virtue. The CO2 containers look the same as those used to inflate bike tires quickly. No doubt they just created a device to fit those cartridges.Eric: It’s doubtful that there are different products in “Canadian” office supply stores as the vast majority of these are same ones you have in the States and its safe to assume they push the same products as much as possible. The CO2 duster I bought is made by Digital Innovations, which is based in Illinois. I checked a couple office supply companies’ Canadian websites, and all the other dusters I found used HFC-152. I also found a Vancouver-based manufacturer of an HFC-134 duster, so there doesn’t seem to be any legislative control on this use of it in Canada, either.
Matt the Engineer
[Jan] Great solution! I found a similar solution – though it doesn’t list a standard port:link
The original poster cross-posted on this other site.. In the discussion, someone mentioned what looks to me like a perfectly fine solution. All you need is a bicycle pump (preferably the kind that stands on the floor).If you go to the site. and search for “ReAir”, you will find it.If you don’t own a bicycle pump, they aren’t that expensive, and they’re very handy, if you’re a cyclist. But the quality varies greatly because each manufacturer uses a different mechanism for attaching to the valve. i use the Topeak “Joe Blow” floor pump, available at Performance Bike for $30 plus shipping. it works extremely well with presta valves (the skinny kind used on racing tires). it seems to work well with schrader valves (the kind probably on the ReAir canister), although i haven’t used it nearly as often on those.
I am going through court concering this clean air spray! Band it.