I have an untidy habit of eating while I’m working on my computer. Heck, 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 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 left over 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.
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 plan 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.