If you’ve ever had a peaceful morning or a Zoom call interrupted by the roar of a gas-powered lawn mower, or had to take a detour during a walk, run, or bike ride to avoid the ear-splitting noise, and clouds of dust, allergens, and who- knows -what- else kicked up by a combustion-engine leaf blower, raise your hand — and know that you are not alone.
Gas powered lawn tools have become such an offense to our ears and our lungs that more than 100 US municipalities have banned or limited their use.
For example, in January of this year, Oakland, California enacted an ordinance prohibiting the use of combustion engine-powered leaf blowers and string trimmers. According to the ordinance,
“These devices pose significant health hazards to both equipment operators and Oakland residents, including the discharge of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, unburned fuel, and ozone. They also contribute to climate change by emitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and generate significant noise pollution, a paramount concern for Oakland residents.”
While landscapers have been slower to go emission free, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), reports that more than half of household lawn and garden equipment in the state is already zero emission. According to CARB, the benefits of going electric are:
- Lower cost of ownership over life of equipment
- Lower noise pollution
- Lower exposure to vibration
- No exposure to engine emissions
Gas-Powered Lawn Tools Produce Smog and Noise
As (CARB) also notes on its website,
“Gallon for gallon of gasoline used, the small gasoline engines found in lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other power equipment pollute at a higher rate than other equipment and vehicles.”
Furthermore, According to an article in the Spring 2021 issue of Audubon Magazine, some gas powered leaf blowers,
“… produce more than 100 decibels of low-frequency, wall-penetrating sound — or as much noise as a plane taking off — at levels that can cause tinnitus and hearing loss with long exposure.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that regular exposure to noises above 85 decibels is a health hazard and contributes to hearing loss.
The air and noise pollution produced from these tools is most harmful to the workers who use them on a daily basis, but exposure to these emissions is especially dangerous for children.
Electric and Battery Powered Lawn Tools Are Quieter and Cleaner
At 95 decibels, a typical gas mower is as loud as a motorcycle, while most electric mowers emit noise levels comparable to a washing machine, or about 75 decibels. Furthermore, according to a post on the Washington University at St. Louis website, electric models shift combustion to power plants.
“Power plants are equipped with scrubbers that filter out pollutants, sharply reducing the overall amount of air pollution being released when fossil fuels are burned.”
Rich White, owner of GoodGreen Neighbors, an eco-friendly landscape company in Portland, Oregon, told me that battery powered equipment is lighter, easier to use, quieter, and more economical in the long term.
“With the exception of leaf blowers, all of our battery run lawn mowers, string trimmers, chain saws, hedge trimmers and weed wackers are as quiet as a Prius. The set up for battery equipment is more expensive, but it’s like you are buying the gas up front. Instead of continually filling the tank, you just recharge it every day.”
Leave the Leaves
Yet, whether they run on gas, electricity, or batteries, any leaf blower will stir up an unhealthy stew of chemicals and allergens from the ground. Do we really need to blow, bag, and throw those leaves away?
According to Scott Hoffman-Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, our lawns and gardens will be healthier if we leave the leaves — or at least take a strategic approach to moving them around. He elaborated in a recent phone interview,
“Leaf mulch is really important for insects and other wildlife and for maintaining healthy soil for our garden. It’s a real resource. These leaves provide refuge for butterflies, caterpillars, earthworms, predators of your garden pests. This is where they live most of the year — under leaf litter, piles of branches, where bumblebees nest.”
To that end, he suggests mulching grass clippings and leaves for a healthier lawn and garden, and using some of those leaves as mulch around plants and trees.
Join the Quiet, Clean Revolution
With families spending more time working and attending school from home during the pandemic, the noise and pollution levels produced by gas-powered equipment has become a significant nuisance and health hazard, and citizens are taking action.
For example, fed up by rattling windows and a dead rat that was blown into his yard by a contractor’s high powered leaf blower, Michael Hall helped launch Quiet Clean PDX (QC/PDX) about 4 and a half years ago.
The Portland-based group focuses on education, voluntary action, and legislation. While the goal is to ban all gas-powered lawn tools, QC/PDX is currently targeting gas-powered leaf blowers, because, as Hall, a member of the group’s steering committee, observed, they are “low hanging fruit because they are so universally despised, and provide a wedge into broader issues.”
The QC/PCX website contains a wealth of information, including a list of eco lawn care companies in Portland. The group also has made presentations to neighborhood associations, been on a morning radio talk show, made 10,000 door hangars, 5000 post cards, and worked with leaders and attended hearings at the city, county, and state levels.
Want to foment a lawn care revolution in your own community? Hall has a few tips for getting started:
- Use social media to form a group to take action. (You don’t want to appear to be a single “kook” on the edge, he says).
- Find a champion who can help lead the charge at the city, county, or state level.
- Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.
- Talk to neighbors and lawn care contractors, gently referring them to educational resources.