Petition Calls for Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers to be Blown Out of Rhode Island
January 27, 2023
Of all the nature-spoiling, public-health-degrading tools of the lawn-care industry, gasoline-powered leaf blowers easily generate the most disdain. They are noisy, stinky, and obnoxious. They’re not tolerated like lawn mowers, weed whackers, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
George Voutes discovered their true unpleasantness when the pandemic changed how the corporate engineer worked.
“Working at home the last couple of years, it really became obvious that these things are terribly annoying and, more than that, they’re incredibly horrifying from an ecological perspective,” he said. “People have become accustomed to using these machines that blow the hell out of everything in existence and the awful pollution and noise that emits from these disruptive machines.”
The Barrington resident began researching the environmental impact the machines inflict. He learned leaf-blowers powered by gasoline are epic polluters, “given the antiquated design of the 2-stroke engine that mixes oil and gas, burning some of it and aerosolizing the rest.”
He also found a growing amount of evidence that implicates 2-stroke engines in increased risk of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease, and cancer.
Voutes recently started a petition to stop the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers in Rhode Island. He said gas-powered lawn equipment has become an “offense to our ears and our lungs.” He believes the time has come for Rhode Islanders to “demand cleaner, quieter lawn and leaf equipment for municipal, commercial, and residential use.”
But his focus at the moment is phasing out the sale and use of the petroleum-powered leaf blower, which first appeared for general use in the 1970s.
“I don’t like the idea of applying it to all gas-powered lawn equipment right now,” Voutes said. “That’s really difficult for the people making their livelihood to swallow.”
The amount of harm created to maintain immaculate green expanses of lifeless space is stunning. Pesticides prevent wildflower seeds from germinating and poison the insects, including pollinators, that feed birds, other wildlife, and ultimately humans. Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer, carried by stormwater runoff into streams and rivers and eventually into larger waterbodies such as Narragansett Bay, impact ecosystems and fuel toxic algal blooms.
Much of the country’s lawn-care efforts are powered by or made from fossil fuels. For instance, much of the 90 million pounds or so of fertilizer dumped on lawns annually are fossil-fuel products. Nitrogen fertilizer, for example, is made primarily from methane.
Gas-powered lawn-care equipment typically runs on 2-stroke (more powerful) or more recently 4-stroke (more durable) engines. These engines are cheap, compact, lightweight, and simple. They’re also highly polluting, generating up to 5% of the country’s air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Each weekend for much of the year, some 54 million Americans, according to estimates, mow their lawns. All this weekend grass cutting uses some 800 million gallons of gasoline annually. That doesn’t include the gas used to blow grass clippings, fallen leaves, dust, and insects around. Green trimmings on black asphalt or gray concrete isn’t a suitable outdoor decor.
A 2011 report found that a consumer-grade leaf blower emits more pollutants than a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 SVT Raptor pickup. Tests also found that a Ryobi 4-stroke leaf blower spewed out almost seven times more oxides of nitrogen and 13.5 times more carbon monoxide than the pickup. An Echo 2-stroke leaf blower performed even worse, generating 23 times more carbon monoxide and nearly 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons than the truck.
Among the carcinogenic compounds emitted by leaf blowers are benzene, butadiene, and formaldehyde. The other hazards created by leaf blowers, especially for those who operate them, include potential hearing loss and the inhalation of toxic particulate matter — i.e., the dust clouds that often accompany the blowing.
These controversial pieces of lawn-care equipment emit, on average, between 80 and 85 decibels, though cheap or mid-range leaf blowers can emit up to 112 decibels. Lawn mowers and weed whackers also emit the same range of noise, but few if any ordinances are introduced to ban or limit their use.
In 2021, an ordinance introduced by a Providence City Council member would have prohibited the use of leaf blowers with an average sound level exceeding 65 decibels in residential zones, and prohibited the operation of leaf blowers throughout the city from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m.
Ward 1 council member John Goncalves, who sponsored the ordinance, said it could have gone further and banned leaf blower use entirely, but it was drafted with the needs of landscaping companies in mind.
Although the ordinance took the lawn-care industry into consideration, a few landscapers who testified in opposition during a public hearing said if it became law small landscaping companies could be put out of business. One claimed the ordinance would reduce productive works hours by 20%, increase landscaping costs, and increase the physical burden placed upon landscape workers. He didn’t mention the health impacts of operating toxic-spewing, noisy leaf blowers or spraying poisons to kill bugs and weeds.
Another landscaper said the use of electric leaf blowers is not practical and claimed that without the use of gas-powered ones, landscaping jobs now billed at $200 or $300 could increase to $900 or $1,000.
About 100 municipalities have banned gas-powered leaf blowers or limited their use. On Jan. 1, 2022, for instance, Larchmont, N.Y., became one of the first Northeast communities to begin enforcing a complete ban. The District of Columbia’s ban on the sale or use of gas-powered leaf blowers, except on federal land, began the same time as Larchmont’s.
In 2021, California became the first state to outlaw all gasoline-powered lawn equipment, requiring new lawn mowers and leaf blowers to be zero-emission by 2024, to help reduce exhaust emissions from small engines that create smog and contribute to the climate crisis.
Alternatives to polluting gas-powered leaf blowers include electric or hand-powered tools and/or approaches that lead to less work and a healthier environment: allowing leaves to remain where they fall to provide habitat for overwintering insects; returning mulched leaves to garden beds to act as fertilizer for plants and habitat for salamanders, snails, and toads; and waiting for spring to cut back perennials to give insect egg sacs a place to survive the fall and winter and to continue to provide a source of food for birds.
Another alternative, according to Voutes, is for a homeowner to demand their landscape contractor use more environmentally friendly practices.
“The homeowner can and should really be the the one that, you know, engages with their contractor and says, ‘Can you provide me with a green option?’ If the answer is no, find someone who can,” he said. “Don’t let them tell you it’s going to cost two or three times more. Baloney. I work with a green contractor now and it costs me the same if not less than before.”