Editorial: The other side of Autumn

The other side of Autumn

Ah, the autumn colors. Beautiful to view, harbingers of cozy nights indoors, and, let’s face it, quite good for our local economy.

And then they start to fall. We could debate all day long about whether it’s right to pick them up or let them be over the winter months, but let’s face it: come next spring, we’ll want our lawns to look good again for the summer to come.

We also could debate all day long about exactly how we’ll pick them up.

The state of California last month became the first state to ban gas-powered lawn equipment as early as 2024, including lawn mowers and leaf blowers. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) reports that a gas-powered leaf blower running for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as does a 2016 Toyota Camry driving for 1,100 miles. If one considers the number of gas-powered leaf-blowers screaming around California, that’s a lot of smog-forming pollution.

New York’s state legislature, generally speaking, has long exhibited a severe case of California envy. When something happens there, it’s going to happen here. Only a few days after California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the leaf-blower ban into law, New York State Senator Pete Harkham dropped his own bill that would require all lawn care devices sold in the state be zero-emission (i.e., battery-powered) by 2027.

The Senator’s statement in support of his bill cites an Audubon Society report that “gas-powered lawn care of all kinds spews pollutants linked to cancers, heart disease, and asthma, and blowers blast air of up to 280 miles per hour, eroding topsoil and sending pollen, fertilizers, and herbicides adrift.” He goes on to mention “more than 100 decibels of low-frequency, wall-penetrating sound, as much noise as a plane taking off at levels that can result … in hearing loss.”

If you’ve ever been woken by your otherwise courteous neighbor getting a jump on his or her Saturday morning autumn chores, perhaps you’ll agree with the wall-penetrating sound argument. You might recognize, too, that that gas-powered leaf blower in your hand later that same morning might make your lawn look completely ace but you also know that you’re churning up a nature-altering eddy and interrupting someone’s quiet time.

Every generational upgrade makes battery-powered gizmos more powerful and reliable; we have little doubt that by the time a zero-emission mandate were in place, we’ll have enough power in our hand to mow the largest residential lawns and blow away even the most massive backyard leaf piles that vex us so. That begs the question, though: how will we generate the electricity we need to operate our lawn tools, our cars, our phones, our televisions, and our computers. It will have to come from somewhere.
The irony here is that there’s a call to ban certain leaf blowers so that we can save the trees that drop the leaves that we feel the need to pick up every autumn. We suspect there will be plenty of blowback on this bill once the state Legislature returns to Albany in 2022. Some will argue that consumers deserve the right to choose from a wide variety of products and that market demand is a route better than government mandate. Others will argue that the Doomsday Clock is ticking and jumps ahead a second or two every time a New Yorker yanks the cord on a two-stroke engine to make his or her lawn look pretty.

In the end, Sen. Harkham’s bill deserves a careful study and debate on its merits rather than bumper-sticker slogans. If there’s a middle ground to be found between emission-spewing, neighborhood-jarring, but highly effective gas-powered devices and whisper-quiet, zero-emission, and potentially effective products, let’s find it.

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