By Scott Smith 

If the machines you use in your yard are burning fossil fuels, it’s time to consider replacing them with electric versions. Lawn care shouldn’t pollute the air or contribute to warming the Earth. 

Gas-powered leaf blowers, for example, emit 23 times more carbon monoxide and 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons than a typical older model car. Because the combustion process of the two-stroke engine, which burns a mixture of gasoline and oil, is so inefficient and without the pollution controls used on cars such as catalytic converters, more than 30 percent of that fuel is released unburnt as an aerosol of toxic fumes. 

A new report released last month by U.S. Public Interest Research Groups Education Fund estimates that lawn and garden equipment powered by gasoline and other fossil fuels released more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020 – more than all the greenhouse gas emissions from the city of Los Angeles. 

In addition to contributing to the climate crisis, there is also risk from the dust the two-stroke engines stir up—pollen, mold, animal feces, chemicals from herbicides and pesticides, and road dust laden with toxic particles from rubber tires. This means an increased risk of asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.  

In terms of noise, for workers who use their machines for hours every day, the risks can be dangerous. The most powerful gas-powered 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 Total Hearing Care website. 

More than 200 cities in the U.S. have restricted or banned the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Outright bans have recently taken effect in Washington, D.C., Miami Beach, Florida and Evanston, Illinois. States where bans are in place include California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Vermont. California will require that most small off-road engines sold, including those in lawn equipment, be zero emission starting in 2024. The legislation comes with $30 million in funding to help aid the transition. 

Recognizing that internal-combustion leaf blowers are as “hyper-polluters,” in October 2023, Norwalk, CT, the town next to our headquarters in Darien, passed a year-round ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. Friends of Animals advocated for the ban and for it to go into effect in a year. Unfortunately, enactment will take three to four years, allowing landscapers a too-lengthy grace period to replace their current gas-fueled equipment.  

The good news is as of January gas-powered leaf blowers are banned in Norwalk from June 1 to Oct 15 and from Dec 15 to April. Electric leaf blowers will be prohibited during those months unless they are used on impervious surfaces like patios.  

“For those who know that reducing our carbon emissions should be a priority, this is a hopeful development. But we don’t have that long,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, based in Darien, CT. “Lawn care doesn’t have to pollute the air or deafen our ears. For us, to protect the planet and all creatures who call it home, air quality is the priority.” 

Incentives to go green 

To spur the transition, some states are creating financial incentives to encourage the purchase of electric lawn equipment, reports U.S. PIRG. In 2023, for example, Colorado adopted legislation that will provide a 30% discount on electric lawn mowers, leaf blowers, trimmers and snow blowers. The District of Columbia’s ban prohibits the use of gas-powered leaf blowers within district borders and even sales of them in stores. The law, which went into effect in 2022, includes a trade-in and rebate program, run by the Sustainable Energy Utility agency in the district government. PNC bank is also offering zero-interest loans for the transition.  

The good news is many electric leaf blowers now offer power on a par with gas models, advises Consumer Reports. But they are quieter and greener. Battery life is steadily improving, and commercial landscapers are adapting by simply having more batteries on hand, just as the tank of a two-stroke blower using a gas-oil mix needs frequent refilling. 

“You can confidently ask your landscaper to go electric,” says Jeff Cordulack, owner of Organic Ways & Means, a landscaping company based in Fairfield County, CT, that uses only 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 case for leaving the leaves 

It’s going to take a massive culture shift to get people to view fallen leaves as something other than a nuisance to remove because they cover up their “perfect” lawns. But we’ll keep educating to change hearts and minds.  

As an avid backyard gardener myself, there was a time every fall when I would fire up the leaf blower to blast any leaves that had fallen atop the perennial flower beds out onto the lawn where I would mulch them with the mower. But once I learned that such delicate creatures as luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalises as dried leaves, it got harder to go scorched earth.  

“The leaves also serve as a habitat for wildlife including lizards, birds, turtles, frogs, and insects that overwinter in the fallen leaves,” advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “These living creatures help keep pests down and increase pollination in your garden, so having a habitat for them in the fallen leaves can help to keep them around when you need them the most.”  

So now the mulched flower beds in my backyard keep their clutches of wind-blown leaves and the bugs and critters get their leaf litter to protect themselves through winter. 

As summer approaches, remember the “leave leaves be” approach applies to grass clippings in as well. “Not all grass clippings should be removed from the lawn,” say the garden experts at Rodale. “When left after mowing, their nutrients enrich the lawn itself, without the application of chemical fertilizers.” 

See also: USA Today: Time to ditch your gas-powered leaf blower—here’s why