Backyard hurricane: Leaf blowers exact huge toll to create a world with fewer leaves
By Guest Columnist PETER BAHOUTH, climate activist and visual artist
My very first job was raking leaves in the fall. It was a good way to make a little “walking around” money without leaving the neighborhood. The weather was cool, the leaves were trippy colors, and people were out and about before the coming semi-hibernation of winter. It was a beautiful season of red, orange, and yellow, quiet but for the sound of kids jumping into huge piles of leaves.
Now, the simple and efficient rake has been replaced by the daily intrusion of loud and polluting gas-powered leaf blowers designed to blast away any leaf that dares land on a lawn. The mind-rattling racket of these machines has made being outside, working and going to school remotely, listening to someone or something, even thinking, nearly impossible.
Operating a gas-powered leaf blower for one hour emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles, or approximately the distance from Chicago to Houston. Particulate matter linked to cancers, heart disease, asthma, and other serious ailments, lingers in the air for days in droplets so small that the body has no way to filter them from entering the lungs. Most affected are children, the elderly, and of course, the operators of these machines.
Living in Atlanta, a leaf blower is frequently the soundtrack for my day, too often the first sound I hear in the morning. The noise from these contraptions can be overwhelming. It is their unique combination of sound waves from the engine and the 200-mph blast of air it generates, that makes them so intolerable. The low-frequency waves travel farthest and produce the worst health effects, but the high-frequency waves (think dentist drill) add a grating intrusion. Unlike eyes, ears can’t shut. Studies show that noise pollution heightens stress, disrupts sleep, leads to hypertension, and impairs learning.
Atlanta is the most heavily forested urban area in the country. With more than three-quarters of the trees in Atlanta in residential areas, we are more than landowners, we are also caretakers. There is no waste in nature, and leaves aren’t litter. When autumn leaves fall, many species of butterflies, bees, fireflies, moths, ladybugs, and earthworms recognize their winter home. The Luna moth is one of the most beautiful wild creatures that still exists close to our homes. Wrapping their cocoons in leaves provides excellent camouflage and insulation from cold temperatures. Bright lime green in color and as large as four and a half inches long, finding one is always a delight but weekly blowing of leaf cover has substantially destroyed Luna moth habitat, as well as that for fireflies and many other species. Simply put, when we treat leaves like trash – we’re tossing out something other species need to survive.
Having clean air and water, addressing the looming climate crisis, and protecting other species as well as ourselves, should start at the neighborhood level. If we don’t encourage community responses to threats to our health and well-being, what hope do we have to take on bigger problems? We have to ask, is there value in the environment we live in, or has a leafless lawn become the new standard of our values? There are around 40 million acres of lawn in the continental United States – making turf grass the single largest “crop” we grow. Let’s move on from lawns styled with a 1950’s-era crewcut to more of a Beatles-style shag, using native plants that don’t require being groomed into a flat-top. Let’s leave the leaves alone once in a while.
I’ve started to hand out a “Golden Rake Award” – a miniature gold rake and gift card – to folks I see raking leaves, to thank them for helping the neighborhood be a little quieter, and the air a little cleaner. We each chose the issues – from the global to the personal – that we most care about. Common to all of them is the need for sanctuary in our lives, on our streets, and in our homes. We all want safety and economic security for our families, clean air to breathe and a little peace and quiet in our day. If given the choice wouldn’t we all rather live in a cleaner, quieter neighborhood than a loud, dirtier one with fewer leaves?
Nature is not someplace to visit, it’s all around us. Even the most urbanized places are home to countless populations of wild birds, butterflies, flowers, and other species. Our surroundings have much to offer in an increasingly complicated and electronic world. It provides us a place to think, create and de-stress. Spending time outside is rejuvenating and important to our well-being, but the persistent noise of gas-powered blowers makes it tough to enjoy the simple act of being outside, and is loud enough to disrupt your day, even inside your own home, a place that has become more essential than ever.
Sanctuary is being lost to the sanctity of a well-groomed lawn. With a million new gas-powered blowers sold each year, and manufacturers pushing the year-round use of leaf blowers for a variety of purposes, including to “dry off pavement,” it’s only getting worse. We’re not only losing peace and quiet and the quality of our air, we’re losing a whole season. It’s time to hit the reset button and take Autumn back, become more considerate and kind, buy someone a rake for a gift, and get out in the crisp clean air and jump in the leaves.
Note to readers: Peter Bahouth is the former executive director of Greenpeace USA, The Turner Family Foundation, and the US Climate Action Network