By Scott Smith
Of all the “modern conveniences” ever invented, surely the most odious is the gas-powered leaf blower. After all, who among us hasn’t had some much-needed beauty sleep interrupted on a weekend morning by a squad of mow-and-go blowers marching across the yard next door? Or watched from an office window as a worker wielding a backpack blower relentlessly blasts a stray leaf or two across a parking lot? Or had to roll up the window of your car as you pass by a worker with an industrial-strength walking blower sending a cloud of dust and grass clippings out onto the road?
Based on long-obsolete technology, two-stroke engines burn a mixture of gasoline and oil. Because their combustion process is so inefficient, more than 30 percent of that fuel is released unburnt as an aerosol of toxic fumes. Research has shown these machines emit 23 times more carbon monoxide and nearly 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons than a typical older model car. According to the California Air Resources Board, two-stroke leaf blowers and similar equipment in the state produce more ozone pollution than all of California’s tens of millions of cars, combined.
Noise, pollution and the ecological harm they cause are the chief reasons why communities across the nation are moving to either restrict leaf blowers, switch to less onerous electric versions or ban blowers outright.
As of 2021, more than 100 cities in the U.S. have restricted or banned the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. The states with bans in place include California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Vermont. The Town of Bedford, N.Y., passed a law in 2018 that prohibits the use of leaf blowers from May 15 to Sept. 15. At other times of the year, leaf blowers may only be used at certain times (typically, Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., and Saturdays and holidays between the hours of 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.). On Sundays all year round, there’s no leaf blower use at all. (See the law here.)
Always irritating, the noise from a gas blower, which typically reaches 65 to 80 decibels at 50 feet away, can cause hearing issues such as tinnitus after just two hours. For workers who use their machines for hours every day, often without ear protection, the risks are cumulative and can be downright dangerous. Some of the most powerful models of leaf blowers can produce air that exceeds 200 mph and sounds as high as 112 decibels. Exposure to sounds over 110 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss in just one minute, reports the website for Total Hearing Care.
Indeed, it’s really lawn-care workers who bear the brunt of leaf blowers’ noxious effects. “Since the exhaust gases consist of large fractions of unburned gasoline, there is a likelihood that workers are being adversely exposed to benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and other possible toxic compounds [including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, particulates, and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons] contained in gasoline,” claims an EPA report. The Bedford town government adds: “This pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids, metals, chemicals, soil particles, and allergens (pollen or mold spores). Small particles 10 microns and less in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into the lungs; the smallest particles may even get into the bloodstream, affecting a person’s heart. Larger particles can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and trigger asthma attacks.”
The District of Columbia banned the use gas-powered leaf blowers within district borders and even sales of them in stores, beginning at the start of the year. Notably, the law includes a trade-in and rebate program, run by the Sustainable Energy Utility agency in the district government. The PNC bank is also offering zero-interest loans for the transition. “Compared with any year since the 1980s, there is much less of the noise and fumes of industrialized lawn-grooming. There is distinctly more noise from birds flying, feeding and nesting,” says Washington scribe James Fallows. The details of this innovative program are here.
Across the country in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in October 2021 that would require new small off-road engines, used primarily for landscaping, to be zero-emission by 2024. The legislation comes with $30 million in funding to help aid the transition.
Electric blowers and mowers aren’t cheap — they can cost 25% to 50% more than the gas engines they replace. But prices are coming down every year, and the technology is steadily improving. More powerful engines and more efficient batteries, along with the urging of more and more clients, are leading landscapers to switch to electric lawn-care equipment, regardless of what the law says.
“You can confidently ask your landscaping to go electric,” says Jeff Cordulack, owner of Organic Ways & Means, a landscaping company based in Fairfield County, CT, that only uses electric machinery. “You can reference me and others about how to do it, what equipment I’m buying and where. Costs are coming way down. Electric is as strong or stronger than gas. Anybody drive an electric car? Battery power is strong power, even on a 48-inch mower. A 21-inch lawn mower will get you through any suburban lawn. Charging is not complicated. It’s a single plug to recharge any electric tool you have from trimmer to blower to mower.”
The market is fast gearing up to make the most of this welcome trend. “Manufacturer Stanley Black and Decker estimates that the volume of electric-powered lawn equipment that North American manufacturers shipped jumped from about 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million in 2020 — a leap of more than 75 percent in only five years,” according to The Washington Post. “And during that time electric equipment went from roughly 32 percent to 44 percent of the overall lawn equipment market. Makita, another manufacturer, has said that it ‘will cease production of all gas-powered equipment worldwide’ by March .”
All of this is good news for the environment as well as the living creatures who have suffered through the leaf-blower craze. “When you’re using these leaf blowers, you’re blowing away all the life in your lawn — any firefly or beetle or spider,” Jason Munshi-South, a biologist who lives in Stamford, told the Stamford Advocate recently. Munshi-South is advocating for the town to enact a ban.
“Fireflies, beetles and spiders aren’t the only things getting blown away. Advocates point out that the powerful gas-powered leaf blowers do away with nutrient-rich topsoil, vital for plant growth,” the Advocate further reports. “As a response, people turn to fertilizers — often synthetic, though Stamford in September passed an ordinance mandating that only organic pesticides are used on city-owned land.” (Read our article, “The communities saying no to toxic pesticides.”)
What to Do Instead of Blowing Leaves
There are several alternatives to blowing that both homeowners and landscapers can do to deal with leaves, advises home-improvement guru Bob Vila. From shredding and composting to raking, here are a few of his suggestions:
- Shred leaves with an electric leaf mulcher, which emits noise of around 60 decibels. Use shredded leaves to improve soil, especially soil that tends to be sandy, dry, or contain too much clay.
- Rake leaves the old-fashioned way, which can be a fun healthy activity for kids and for adults.
- Use shredded leaves to mulch flower beds, provide protective coatings for plants and roots over the winter, and even help with weed control.
- Compost leaves to create a healthy mixture of humus for your garden.