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‘It’s About Your Leaf Blower’
For the 700,000 people who live in DC, some to-do tips. For all you other Americans, some points to study.
This post is an Easter / Passover / Ramadan spring weekend update on a small-seeming but significant change that is happening as we watch. And listen.
Of course I’m talking about the rapid shift in attitudes about the exceptionally polluting, technically antiquated machinery known as gas-powered leafblowers. For previous installments see “Gas Powered Leafblowers: the End is Nigh” and “A Dance of Legislation,” as well as “Get Off My Lawn” from four years ago in The Atlantic. and this roundup from last fall.
I have three points. The first is for fellow residents of Washington DC. The second is for people elsewhere observing what has happened in the District. And the third is about broader changes in attitude.
1) People of DC: Here is what the new law does.
Since the beginning of this year, it has been against District of Columbia law to use gas-powered leaf blowers within DC borders, or to sell them in stores here.1
What has this meant in practice? To my eye, and ear, it has already brought an enormous though incomplete change. All of the big companies know about the new law; nearly all of them now have battery equipment; and most of them are telling their crews to use it. Compared with any year since the 1980s, there is much less of the noise and fumes of industrialized lawn-grooming. There is distinctly more noise from birds flying, feeding, and nesting. By this summer there could be more fireflies.
And in our experience, when crews or small operators have “forgotten” or “didn’t know about” the new law, or think that a five-minute blast won’t matter, they get the point when you tell them, in friendly and non-confrontational fashion, about two of its provisions.2 DC residents: these points are for you.
A trade-in and rebate program, run by the Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) agency in the District government. This underwrites part of the costs of moving to battery equipment. The details of this innovative program are here. The PNC bank is also offering zero-interest loans for the transition, as described here.
No-joke enforcement. The District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) has the loose equivalent of a speed-camera system to enforce the law. It’s based on previous DCRA approaches to enforcing other noise and nuisance regulations.
For District residents: If a person or crew is using a gas-powered blower, and won’t agree to stop, you can file a consumer report, with this online form. In our experience, DCRA has followed up—with initial warnings to the contractors or householders, and then $500 fines.
So: if you are a DC contractor, check out the rebates. And if you’re a DC resident, be aware of the reporting form. It is quick, easy, and effective—and, again, it is here.
2) People watching DC: Here is what to notice.
As I mentioned in this previous post, Americans who are represented in Congress—ie, the 330+ million citizens who don’t live in DC—often make fun of the city and its management.
DC has its obvious problems. But it is better run in more ways than outsiders might think. It has prepared for this new rule carefully and systematically.
Starting nearly four years ago, when Councilmember Mary Cheh led unanimous Council approval of the ban, the DCRA has planned for the transition, and for enforcement. The law itself allowed a phase-in period of three and a half years, summer of 2018 to beginning of 2022, to give everyone plenty of time to prepare. Starting last year, many Councilmembers and District agencies and officials began including “change is coming” reminders in their newsletters and announcements. The Sustainable Energy Utility announced its rebate plan last fall.
My guess is that it will take one full “landscaping year” to get the word fully out and for all outliers to pay attention. But week by week more companies are changing, and once they invest in the new equipment (which is cheaper to run) there’s no reason to go back. It’s the same logic that is speeding the shift toward battery-powered cars. Careful preparation by District officials has made this a matter of time, rather than of resistance or showdowns.
Other jurisdictions preparing for the change will presumably have an easier and quicker experience than DC, because the ground work has been laid. But they can learn from what the District has done. It illustrates the importance of a civic / administrative/political coalition to build support. It illustrates how public agencies can prepare. And now it illustrates the civic-life difference this shift can make.
Ten years from now, will people look back on the current, mechanized “clean lawn” era as a status-competition aberration, like the giant tail fins on American cars in the 1950s? I don’t know. But already there’s a change in moment-by-moment streetscape ambience.
3) People in general: Attitudes can change
As I recounted in the Atlantic article, when our neighborhood group3 began discussing this issue across the District in 2015, 95% of the reaction fell into two categories:
This is what you’re concerned about?
Oh great, another case of the elite making trouble for people just struggling to get by.
Another few percent was the industry-lobbyists’ argument that “courteous use” would solve all the problems. Oh sure.
—Three years after that, the DC Council passed the bill unanimously, on precisely the opposite grounds: That the damage done by this equipment was significant, and that limiting it was an environmental-justice issue.
—And three years after that, leading publications have been running editorials like the featured editorial from the New York Times’ today. That is an excellent piece by Jessica Stolzberg on the damage-and-justice points. (It follows a similarly hard-edged NYT lead editorial by Margaret Renkl six months ago.)
By now the knee-jerk opposition is down to about 2% of the response. When someone says, “Oh, a first-world problem” I think, “Oh, that’s so 2015.”
What was the difference? A steady accumulation of evidence that:
These little pieces of equipment are a genuine concern. They are far and away the most-polluting form of machinery still in legal use. In California they produce more ozone pollution than all cars combined. They emit carcinogenic fumes.4 For neighbors, their unique noise might be irritating; for lawn crews, it can be deafening. Battery equipment recharged from the power grid creates some emissions, but in this realm as in transportation and heating, electrification overall makes systems much cleaner.
They’re one more example of poorer people being exposed to greater environmental risks. The people breathing the fumes all day, and being battered by high-decibel sound within inches of their ears, are disproportionately low-wage and often non-English-speaking. They’re sacrificing themselves to keep some customer’s lawn pristine.
There are wholly practical alternatives, thanks to the battery revolution transforming all industries. Our household uses and likes the EGO line of battery-powered equipment. It’s a fast-expanding market.
There’s also the factor that Jessica Stolzberg emphasizes in her piece today: Our largest challenges, from climate to inequities, are beyond the reach of each household’s day-by-day choices. But the easiest, highest-payoff step most people can take is to stop using these super-destructive machines.
For once: learn from us here in Washington!
Many big lawn-care companies are based just across the river in Virginia or just over the border in Maryland, and gas equipment can still be sold in both places. But the crews and companies can’t legally use it when they come into DC.
We’ve also printed out Spanish-and-English flyers about the provisions of the new law, based on information you can find here.
Many of the linked posts go into this in great detail. The essential problem is that two-stroke engines use a slurry of oil and gasoline. They inefficiently burn only part of the fuel and spew out the unburned remainder as toxic aerosols. These fumes waft through neighborhoods and surround the workers all day.