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Q. Dear Umbra,

I work in an office that is fairly environmentally conscious. However, we have a coworker who religiously sprays keyboard cleaner. How do I confront my coworker without sounding like an eco-turd? I’m just not thrilled about becoming infertile or dying.

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Suffocating in Seattle

A. Dearest Suffocating,

Ask UmbraIs she spraying it into her mouth? Or worse yet, into your mouth? Is your coworker’s name Allison the Huffer? One of my fellow Gristies told me about an episode of A&E’s Intervention — I haven’t the stomach for that stuff myself — in which Allison the Huffer enjoyed getting high by spraying keyboard cleaner into her mouth.

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But I digress. Let’s say that your coworker is spraying this cleaner only on his/her computer keyboard. Allow me to arm you with a little info-ammunition before you start your crusade.

While aerosol keyboard sprays may be labeled “canned air,”  they are rarely just that (desperately trying not to use a “full of hot air” pun). Here’s the chemical soup nozzled straight at your nostrils:

  • Poisonous alcohol ethylene glycol, commonly used in antifreeze. Blech.
  • 2-butoxyethanol, which in high doses can cause reproductive damage in animals.
  • And, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a greenhouse gas more potent in the atmosphere than CO2. Bonus ick-factor points for causing headaches and fatigue, and asphyxiation or even cardiac arrest if directly inhaled (ahem, Allison). Double bonus points for the production of one of the HFCs, HFC-134a, which requires the highly potent toxin trichloroethane and puts workers and nearby communities at risk.

OK, time to chat with your coworker. Might I suggest making cookies first and approaching your comrade’s desk with baked goods in-hand? These will surely distract him/her from the daily cleaning ritual momentarily. Then, after having carefully memorized the above treatise on the ills of these spray cleaners, explain to your colleague that you’re simply concerned for his/her well-being as well as that of the rest of the office and Mother Earth. Casually pick up the keyboard cleaner — no sudden movements — and offer to take care of handing over the offending can to your local hazardous waste peeps (if your colleague reaches for the can, turn his/her attention back to the plate of cookies).

Then suggest these much cleaner cleaning options for your tidy officemate. First the simple approach: Turn your keyboard over and give it a gentle shake over a trashcan to get any crumbs and debris out

However, since I’ve read that our keyboards may actually harbor more potentially harmful bacteria than a toilet seat (‘scuse me while I go wash my hands), a deeper clean may be in order. And would you believe I just flipped open a copy of InStyle magazine (choice dentist office reading), which actually clued me in on how to do just that: Spray a mix of Dr. Bronner’s soap and water on a microfiber cloth and gently wipe the keys. A Q-tip dipped in alcohol can clean between the keys, and a makeup brush (or reusable keyboard brush for the makeup brush-less) removes crumbs — perhaps remnants of those cookies you kindly baked.


Q. Dear Umbra,

We’re considering the purchase of a small, electrically powered, automatic composter; this one is made by NatureMill, but I imagine there are other brands. I know composting is good, but is this a good idea?

Donnie D.
Highland Park

A. Dearest Donnie,

Would that be Highland Park, Ill., or Highland Park, Texas? How can I make appropriate mentions of your state song, state flower, or license plate motto?  

Anywho, ah, composting — one of my very favorite topics. So obvs, Donnie, you’re on board with wanting to compost, but for those who don’t know, here’s the deal on why you should: An estimated 13 percent of the nation’s trash is food. And keeping food out of landfills is important, because when it’s in there cut off from air, food releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it breaks down.

What is it that appeals to you about an automatic composter like NatureMill’s? Perhaps you live in a small urban space, in which case, allow me to clue you into some less expensive (NatureMill models run from $300–$400) options presented delightfully in my video on composting: vermicomposting (read: worms!) or countertop composting, in which you just get the composting party started in a small, odor-containing vessel.

Maybe you like the quick food-scraps-turned-compost time that the automatic composter offers. I will say, it’s pretty sweet that in just two weeks time you can get fresh compost with these babies. And despite the fact that an automatic composter is just more stuff, it does potentially make it possible for people who might not be on the composting train (those who don’t want to live with worms, peeps without a yard, folks without a place to dump their countertop composting) to jump on board. And I will say that NatureMill’s composters only require 5 kwh/month, about the same as a typical nightlight — it uses the compost’s heat to drive the reaction. Plus, they’re made from recycled and recyclable polypropylene, food-grade stainless steel, and are meant to last several years. So as far as stuff goes, I’d say it’s not too shabby (aside from that killer price tag — ouch).


The new Ask Umbra’s Book Club has launched and reading is underway. I’ve been getting lots of great feedback about potential books, discussion points, and our first book, Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money, and wanted to share one of them from Bart A.

One of my favorite books ever. I picked up a copy in a used book store maybe 25 years ago and was inspired by it ever since. I didn’t do all the things that Dolly and her father did, but their devil-may-care, to-hell-with-respectability attitudes were infectious.

I always wondered what happened to Dolly. In fact I wondered if she were real or not. I found it hard to believe that an 18-year-old wrote such a great book.

I’m delighted to see that she is a real person and made her life in the mainstream culture.

Hooray Dolly for going public, and hooray for Tin House Books for reprinting the book.

Bart A.

A. Dearest Bart,

Hooray indeed! I’m excited to begin breaking it down on April 6. It’ll be a bulletin-board-style discussion, so you can pop in and out and give comments, feedback, and questions as they come to you. And for those that haven’t started reading yet, you’ve still got time — it’s a quick read. If you have books that you think would be a good fit for the club, hit me up in the comments below.