It’s no secret that Americans are obsessed with lawns and their care, and Chicagoans are no exception. For better or worse, a homeowner’s lawn signals their status in and relationship with the community. It’s a physical manifestation of “success” — at least, according to the 20th-century American Dream, and 18th-century European elites before that. Because lawns require a lot of resources and maintenance to stay green (that’s the point, after all!) they incur environmental harm in the form of high water usage, pollution, and the displacement of native habitats with ecological “dead zones”. These harms are even more significant when viewed in the aggregate: there are more than 40 million acres of turf grass in the United States alone!
Setting aside the demands on time, money, and resources, one aspect of lawn maintenance is particularly harmful: the use of gas-powered landscaping equipment for mowing, trimming, and blowing. According to the EPA, Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline to power these tools, and spill an additional 17 million gallons in the process, every year. The combustion of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide (CO2), directly contributing to global climate change. Gas-powered equipment also emits high levels of localized air pollutants, including benzene and formaldehyde, ozone-forming nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter (PM). These pollutants are known to cause or contribute to cancer, asthma, heart attack, and early death; they pose an acute health risk for landscapers, as well as anyone in their vicinity. Collectively, the emissions from lawn and garden equipment represent 30–40% of all non-road emissions in the country.
Worse still, many models use archaic two-stroke engines, which burn a mixture of oil and gas and exhaust a large portion of it unburned as toxic aerosols. Such engines have a higher power-to-weight ratio than modern (four-stroke) engines and are inexpensive to manufacture, but at the cost of lower efficiency and higher emissions, especially PM2.5. A 2011 experiment compared the emissions of gas-powered leaf blowers to a 6200-pound Ford F-150 truck: the 4-stroke model emitted 13 times as much carbon monoxide (CO) and 36 times as much hydrocarbons as the F-150, while the 2-stroke fared even worse with 23x the CO and 300x (!!!) the hydrocarbons. To put it another way: Using a 2-stroke, gas-powered leaf blower for 30 minutes produces as much pollution as driving a Ford F-150 from Texas to Alaska. Yikes!
And then there’s the noise: Gas-powered mowers range from 80 to 90 decibels, while leaf blowers can produce upwards of 100 decibels — almost as loud as a rock concert! Scientists have shown that gas-powered leaf blowers produce lower-frequency noise, which travels farther through a neighborhood and deeper into homes than higher pitches. This is a nuisance, for sure, but it’s also a public health issue: noise pollution is known to cause stress, tinnitus, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, as well as hearing loss. Gas-powered landscaping equipment, and leaf blowers in particular, are among the worst contributors to noise pollution in communities like Edgewater. It’s important to note that hearing damage is caused by prolonged exposure to noise of just ~85 decibels and higher, and it’s both permanent and cumulative. As a result, landscapers again take the brunt of the damage, but everyone within earshot suffers.
Given these significant contributions to local air and noise pollution, many communities have been passing restrictions or outright bans on gas-powered landscaping equipment. For example, Washington, DC has banned the use and sale of gas-powered leaf blowers since January 2022 (and the strategy that activists took in securing it is a solid template for other groups to follow). Notably, the state of California will require that all new small-engine landscaping equipment be zero-emission by around 2024, effectively banning gas-powered models. Closer to home, the Evanston City Council approved a phase-out of gas-powered leaf blowers by April 2023, and several other municipalities in Illinois have seasonal bans to at least contain the damage. A state-wide ban was proposed in the Illinois Senate in 2020, but it went nowhere.
In the absence of a local ordinance or state law, individuals can and should take action to reduce their exposure to these harmful tools. An easy fix is to replace gas-powered equipment with electric equivalents, which are zero-emission, significantly quieter, and lower maintenance. This applies when buying your own equipment or hiring a landscaping company. Even better, use people-powered rakes, mowers, and clippers when doing your landscaping — there’s no noise or pollution, and it’s a good workout! You can also choose to landscape less often and/or less intensively: for example, mowing only when the grass gets tall (or not at all, as in No Mow May), and mulching leaves rather than forcibly blowing them away.
Although gas-powered landscaping equipment may seem like an inescapable fact of life, a growing movement of individuals and communities is proving that there’s another, cleaner-and-quieter, better way.