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California Set to Silence Leaf Blowers

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

They're loud, they pollute, and they serve little practical purpose.

We are speaking of gas-powered leaf blowers and the mystery of why we allow them to exist.

But if you are among the legions who despise these contraptions, take heart. More and more cities – at least 100 of them, according to the Audubon Society – have banned them or are restricting their use, and now the biggest state in the union has decided to ban them outright.

In October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law making the Golden State the first to ban gas-powered leaf blowers (as well as gas-powered lawnmowers and other landscaping machines), starting in 2024.

Add Air Pollution to the Noise

People have hated leaf blowers' noise since they first appeared for general use in the 1970s, but the impetus behind California's action stems from more recent awareness that they are horrible polluters. California has launched a broad campaign to cut down on air pollution – a 2035 goal has been set for a phase-out of gas-powered vehicles – so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that heavily polluting leaf blowers have become a regulatory target.

The law will ban the sale of all “small, off-road engines" (SOREs), which “are used primarily in lawn and garden equipment." But the chief offender in that category appears to be those engines that are used by leaf blowers. According to the California Air Resources Board, the air pollution caused by operating “the best-selling commercial lawnmower" is comparable to that produced by driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 300 miles, but the air pollution from “the best-selling commercial leaf blower" is equal to that from driving the Camry 1,100 miles.

California is the only state that has the authority to regulate air quality in this way, due to an exemption that was carved out of the federal Clean Air Act. While other states can't enact their own regulations, they can choose to follow California's lead – and more than a dozen have already done so with tailpipe emissions. But when it comes to SOREs they can't do so immediately – California must yet apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “enforce its own standards for new nonroad engines and vehicles," and only after EPA gives approval can other states follow.

The Ban is a Phase-Out

It's important to note that the new law only addresses the sale of new leaf blowers and other SOREs. If you are a Californian with one of these machines, you can apparently keep operating them until they conk out.

The law points out that zero-emission electric SORE alternatives (which are much quieter) already exist and that many commercial and residential users have already begun to use them. The state has allocated $30 million to support professional landscapers and gardeners who switch to zero-emission machines.

Cities Are Paving the Way

As mentioned above, at least 100 cities have enacted their own bans and restrictions on leaf blowers, including about 20 that have fully banned them in California.

The trend appears to be accelerating, thanks to COVID-19 and the greater number of people who are working from home and who presumably are annoyed by leaf blower noise. Whatever the reason, media stories about city actions to ban or regulate leaf blowers have been proliferating. Here are a few recent examples:

  • On Oct. 21, a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers in Naples, Fla., went into effect following the passage of an ordinance there one year earlier.
  • A ban in Larchmont, N.Y. will go into effect on Jan. 1, following the Larchmont Board of Trustees' passage of an ordinance in September 2020.
  • In April, Burlington, Vt. began a phase-out of gas-powered leaf blowers to be completed by the end of May 2022. Municipalities have been restricted to electric leaf blowers since August.
  • Many cities, while not banning leaf blowers, have passed new restrictions on their use. On Oct. 25, the Princeton, N.J. City Council passed an ordinance restricting the times when gas-powered leaf blowers can be used and stated its intention of ultimately banning them. In Montclair, N.J., reports that “after years of pressure from residents," the town council passed an ordinance greatly restricting their use.

Should We Just Leave Leaves?

In the end, it's apparent that a leaf blower can be a useful tool – if it's quiet and doesn't pollute the air. They're good for unclogging leaves and needles from gutters or for blowing dust out of your garage. They're also good for rounding up leaves into a pile for bagging.

But so much of the time they're used for the questionable cosmetic purpose of “cleaning" a yard or landscaped site by blowing leaves or grass clippings onto the street or a neighbor's property.

This raises the question: Are dead leaves bad things you need to remove?

Legions of people and organizations don't think so. National Wildlife Federation naturalist David Mizejewski, for one, says that leaves form a natural mulch that fertilizes the soil as they break down.

Others disagree. Southern Living's Steven Bender, for instance, says that leaving leaves might be great in the forest, but they're bad for lawns because they block grass from air and sun and render the grass susceptible to disease.

If he's right, maybe the leaves should be removed.

If so, however, many of us would argue that the task should be done quietly and cleanly.

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