When it comes to air pollution, the lawn and garden industry might not come to mind as a significant source of hazardous emissions. But statistics say that’s so.
According to a recent analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollution Inventory, lawn and garden equipment powered by gasoline and other fossil fuels—such as lawn mowers, string trimmers, leaf blowers, chainsaws—released more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2020. They also emitted more than 21,800 tons of fine particulates (PM2.5), as well as substantial amounts of methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.
New York is a big contributor to these nationwide totals. Only California, Florida and Texas emit more carbon dioxide from lawn and garden equipment. In 2020, CO2 emissions from lawn equipment in the Empire State totaled more than 1.3 million tons.
In the same year, lawn and garden equipment in New York emitted 1,071 tons of fine particulates in 2020. (You may have heard a lot about PM2.5 during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as public health experts warned of the risks associated with these particles entering our respiratory system.) New York ranked fourth nationwide, again behind only Florida, Texas, and California. Commercial operations made up 82 percent of all fine particulate matter nationwide.
Among counties in New York, Monroe County fourth ranked for carbon dioxide emissions from lawn and garden equipment, releasing more than 100,000 tons (or the equivalent of emissions from more than 22,000 cars) in 2020. This amount topped emissions in more populous counties like Queens, Kings, and Erie.
At the same time, Monroe County also generated nearly 90 tons of fine particulates from lawn and garden equipment—an amount equal to the emissions from nearly 1 million cars.
With these latest statistics, plus the mountain of data, evidence, testimony, and research conducted over the last decade and a half, it’s becoming harder to label the landscape industry as “green,” when it is really an integral part of the fossil fuel industry, using an astonishing 2 billion of gallons of gasoline every year, according to the EPA.
Lawns and air quality
The Monroe County Health Department is responsible for making recommendations in the interest of public health, including what activities are allowable or advisable on poor air quality days. And we had plenty of those in the summer of 2023, largely due to the worst wildfire season in Canada’s history. Though Health Department guidelines dictate when schools should cancel outdoor activities, they have not gone so far as to limit lawn and landscape activities on these days.
Not recognizing the impact these devices have, especially on poor air quality days, puts employee health at risk and only adds to the problem of fine particulate pollution for everyone. Asthma is a leading chronic condition in children, and blowing any kind of debris into the air that can linger for hours has a lasting effect on children with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Other counties across the country, like Arizona’s Maricopa County, have protections in place to limit landscape and other activities that generate emissions, in the interest of public health. In Minnesota, a revolutionary state program rewards residents who reduce their lawn in favor of creating bee-friendly, native plant habitats that require less maintenance from gas-powered equipment. Other states and even many municipalities in New York have gone so far as to ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers—a result of years of mounting complaints related to not only air pollution but also the dangerous levels of noise they produce.
Industry staple Stihl’s own user guide recommends taking measures to reduce dust, and ways to reduce noise like only operating one blower per property at any given time, among others. The manufacturer also recognizes the impacts their devices have on bystanders and pets, though many operators are not trained or informed on how much of an impact a simple backpack blower can have. The American Lung Association even warns of health hazards of particulate and ozone pollution from small combustion-based engines like those in lawn and leaf blowers “which contribute to a significant share of the air pollution burden in parts of the U.S.”
Recently, I surveyed many of the major landscaping companies in Monroe County, as well as several smaller companies. None had any specific plans to purchase and use electric equipment, or to consider shifting practices to a more ecological model such as leaving no-mow areas for wildlife habitat. Several companies, even those who claim to be part of the “green” industry, with an interest in biodiversity, were less than enthusiastic about somebody asking questions about their practices. One practically hung up on me.
Landscapers are not only providing services their clients are requesting, as some industry representatives will say, they are seen as the expert, which means their recommendations have impact. Never mind whether the landscaper has any kind of special training, certifications, or continuing education in the most ecological practices in their field. Even small technical updates like ensuring a string trimmer has a guard to avoid unnecessary mess can reduce the need for additional time spent leaf blowing debris.
Moving past fossil fuels
The future of landscape equipment sold and operated in New York, similar to the fate of passenger vehicles and school buses, is changing rapidly. More and more municipalities are regulating their use. Statewide legislation has been proposed in Albany for several sessions now, as large retailers like Home Depot, which has five stores in Monroe County, reflect these changes on their store shelves. Country Max, which also has five stores in the county, exclusively sells only zero-emission garden tools and has done so for several years.
Manufacturers of landscaping tools are phasing out their gas-powered equipment especially on the residential level, while commercial equipment is slowly going in that direction. Prices are becoming much more affordable for homeowners to maintain their properties with battery-powered robotic mowers. (A Consumer Reports study found that electric models can save money within a span of five years compared to gas models.) Even some local school districts are adopting the robot mower model.
During a 2021 interview on WXXI’s Connections on climate action in Monroe County, County Legislator Susan Hughes-Smith compared the short-term interest of business today, not wanting to have to change, vs. what might be in the long-term interest.
“There may be a short-term cost, in inconvenience and time and energy, maybe in money, to make that change happen,” she said.
“But our system tends to, as much as we say we are innovative, people have vested interests and don’t want to give up what’s working for them in this moment often in order to change in the direction the community needs to go.”
In a recent conversation with Hughes-Smith, she told me this mentality applies to the landscaping industry as well. And that an educational aspect could go a long way in shifting to more sustainable practices. She suggests perhaps landscapers could propose some options to their clients with different price points, explaining the ecological and soil health benefits of each option.
At the federal level, the Inflation Reduction Act offers an incentive to move on from gas-powered equipment. According to the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the IRA provides a tax credit for the purchase of commercial-grade electric mowers similar to the credit available for EVs, up to $7,500.
While electric devices like leaf blowers can still kick up particulates, overall air pollution is far less than their gas-powered counterparts and coupled with a reduction in their use in favor of more sustainable land management practices, we will all see the benefits to our public health and biodiversity.
Jill Bellenger is a Rochester native, with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from SUNY-ESF and a MBA in sustainable business from Green Mountain College. She also holds certificates in horticulture from the Maryland Nursery and Landscape Association as well as architecture and sustainability from Harvard University. She is a LEED Green Associate, an accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council.