St. Paul politicians talk big about climate action. But on one policy issue, the city has fallen behind: allowing the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers.
At the beginning of 2022, Washington, D.C. began enforcing a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers that the D.C. City Council had approved in 2018. “It’s time to phase out the use of these noisy, polluting leaf blowers,” D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh said upon the council’s approval of the bill in 2018.
More areas are recognizing that it is indeed time. Last December, regulators in the state of California voted to ban the sale of gas-powered landscaping equipment, including leaf blowers, starting in 2024. In the same month, county commissioners in Multnomah County — home to Portland, OR. — also passed a plan to phase out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers.
St. Paul, however, has been quiet. Aside from a noise-related rule disallowing the use of these ear-splitting machines between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., the city has no restrictions on leaf blower usage. Yet these machines are huge emitters of carbon and other dangerous toxins. By failing to restrict and phase out gas-powered leaf blowers, the city is making a terrible mistake.
St. Paul has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. They’ve considered big policy moves, such as large investments in green infrastructure, and public transit, to help get there. But the city’s environmental efforts seem to have mistakenly ignored gas-powered leaf blowers. Across the country, leaf blowers and other gas-powered lawn tools create 12% of all carbon emissions. A few years ago, the California Air Resources Board projected that in 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers and similar lawn equipment would emit more ozone pollution than all of the cars in the state. Leaf blowers are high-capacity carbon-spewing machines.
Handheld leaf blowers are also particularly harmful for the person wielding them, steadily releasing toxins from their engines. Reports from the Environmental Protection Agency have found that gas-powered lawn and garden equipment, including leaf blowers, release a slew of dangerous particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, including benzene and acetaldehyde.
“If we’re using [leaf blowers] for a long time, cause you’re right over top of it, you can tell. You can get headaches and that kind of thing,” Michael Frazier, the lead grounds person at Macalester, said.
These toxins released by these machines’ small engines lead to long-term health problems. According to sources compiled by anti-leaf blower advocates in Portland, Oregon, the toxins expose workers to toxins that are carcinogenic and can cause respiratory problems, while their noise can cause hearing damage to users. Allowing workers to use these poisonous machines is inconsistent with any claim to preserving worker protection and safety.
Electric-powered equipment is our solution; it cuts out the carbon emissions, the toxic fumes, and the excessive noise. In the summer of 2020, Macalester’s grounds crew took advantage of a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to replace about half of their lawn equipment with electric-powered equipment. The grant paid half the cost of new electric tools.
As Macalester has learned, moving to electric leaf-blowers isn’t a perfect option; some trade-offs are involved.
“The only fallback is the power. Most of the stuff is fine, but it’s the backpack blower that kind of suffers. It just doesn’t have the power that the gas does,” Frazier said. But this isn’t a permanent state of affairs: “With that being said, it’s early, too. This stuff is all pretty new to us, and new to the industry.”
We should expect this technology to become better and better. As Atlantic journalist James Fallows reports, battery technology has steadily improved over the past couple decades.
And as the market for clean leaf blowers grows, that trend should continue.
Each investment in electrifying leaf blowers will create meaningful progress in reducing emissions from our city. However, waiting for private actors to make sufficient transitions on their own, is a fool’s task. Because transitioning to electric leaf-blowers is expensive upfront and can be less effective for yard work, private landscaping companies will electrify their tools too slowly. Under the pressures of the marketplace, it will be hard for landscapers and yard workers to bear the costs of electrification while their competitors don’t have to.
This is where St. Paul can make a difference. We must follow the lead of other jurisdictions and begin a phase out of leaf blowers. This can be sensible, uncontroversial policy. We don’t need an immediate ban — we can do as other jurisdictions have, and give yard workers time to switch their equipment. We don’t have to force companies to bear all the costs of this change, which generates publicly shared benefits — we can maintain the Minnesota state grant program that Macalester utilized, which has helped over 100 companies transition to electric lawn equipment.
Every year, leaf blowers are contributing to our carbon emissions and harming our workers. We can do many things to bring about an effective end to gas-powered leaf blowers. But we can’t afford to do nothing.