One April day in 2021, Melody Kimmel, a communications consultant, was working in her Montclair home office while the incessant roar of a leaf blower emanated from her neighbor’s yard. It had been blasting for what seemed like hours, and she began to worry it might disrupt an important Zoom call she had scheduled for late afternoon. She decided to ask her neighbor if he could stop using the leaf blower for an hour, starting at 5 pm.
But as she crossed the street and approached his house, her neighbor didn’t even look up from blowing his walkway. “Not now, Melody,” she remembers him barking. “Get off my driveway—go away.” Kimmel asked her husband, Dan Nigro, a government business expert also working from home, to intervene, but he fared no better. “Loud words were exchanged, and Dan decided to leave before anyone started swinging,” she says.
During the pandemic, many New Jersey residents who switched to remote work discovered what a nuisance gas-powered leaf blowers could be. But noise is just one of the ill effects of these leaf blowers, health experts and environmentalists say.
Now, a growing number of towns are instituting strict gas leaf-blower restrictions, or even enacting complete bans.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
Initially, it was the noise people hated; gas-powered blowers have a low-frequency roar that can travel dozens of yards and reverberate through walls and closed windows.
Eventually, health and environmental concerns became more widely known. Gas blowers’ two-stroke engines, which run on a combination of oil and gas, emit toxic fumes, including carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons that contribute to climate change, air pollution and respiratory problems. Their powerful blasts disperse hazardous particles into the air, including pesticides, fungal spores, pollen and heavy metals that can pose a threat to workers, residents, children and pets.
They also blow away topsoil, creating impervious surfaces that contribute to flooding, and blast the leaf litter that provides crucial habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators, whose numbers are plummeting. And the high-decibel noise is more than an annoyance for the user and others nearby; it can cause hearing damage, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular problems, and increased stress and anxiety.
“These are uniquely harmful machines for the health of the workers and the public around them, for the natural environment and our quality of life,” says Peter Holm, a university administrator who, during the pandemic, cofounded the statewide network Advocates for Transforming Landscaping in New Jersey.
Concerns about gas leaf blowers have led a growing number of municipalities around the Garden State to limit or completely ban their use. Most bans in New Jersey, such as those in South Orange and Princeton, are seasonal, allowing gas blowers only during the spring and fall.
But now, two Essex County towns, Maplewood and Montclair, have completely banned gas leaf blowers year-round. Maplewood’s ban went into effect in January; this month will be the first time it is put to the test in the leaf-heavy fall season. In August, the Montclair town council also passed a complete ban, which begins this fall.
Other towns, including Glen Ridge, which is next to Montclair, and Morristown, are also mulling seasonal gas-leaf blower bans.
Several bills regarding gas leaf blowers are before the state Legislature. One, introduced by state Senator Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), would prohibit the sale of gas leaf blowers in the state; another, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Fair Lawn), would establish a rebate program to help landscapers purchase corded-electric or battery-powered blowers. The bills are in committee and unlikely to be reintroduced until after the November elections.
Naturally, landscapers, with their heavy investment in gas-powered blowers, are reluctant to switch to a new technology. Richard Goldstein, president of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, says he has no objection to relying on electric blowers in the summer and winter. During the fall season, though, when workers at his company bag several hundred pounds of leaves each day, he says gas blowers are essential.
“In the fall, we have to run our blowers nonstop to clean everything up,” says Goldstein, whose company, Green Meadows Landscaping, is based in Oakland. “Electric doesn’t have the battery life.”
Transitioning to electric would mean retrofitting his trucks with chargers, he says, and running the diesel trucks to charge the batteries would trade one environmental problem for another. Plus, the client would end up paying for the new charging equipment and the transition to all-electric equipment through an increase in landscaping service prices, he says.
Rakes, which did the job for generations before leaf blowers were invented, are “cost prohibitive,” Goldstein says. “The price of the labor would kill you.”
Still, Goldstein has already begun purchasing electric blowers and installed charging sheds at his business, which he views as necessary due to the risk of lithium-battery fires. “Battery life is definitely getting better, but it’s not there yet,” he says. “Maybe five years from now it will be.”
LEADING THE WAY
Maplewood committeewoman Nancy Adams is credited by colleagues with single-handedly getting the town out in front of banning gas leaf blowers. In 2013, her eyes—and ears—were opened when she left her job and stopped commuting into the city.
“All of a sudden I was bombarded with all this noise,” she says. The widespread use of gas leaf blowers seemed to be a recent phenomenon; there had been no such issue 20 years earlier, when she’d stopped commuting to raise her children. She did some research and discovered “how dirty and dangerous these engines are,” she says. Unlike cars, she found, leaf blowers have no pollution-control filters or devices. An oft-cited statistic, which is in the Smith bill, is that the amount of carbon monoxide emitted from a typical gas-powered leaf blower in one hour is equal to what is emitted from a car’s tailpipe over eight hours.
Adams, a Democrat who was elected to the Maplewood council in 2015, formed a subcommittee that year consisting of residents for and against gas-powered leaf blowers. The group delved into the research, conducted experiments in which they placed petri dishes of Vaseline in yards to find how much particulate matter leaf blowers kicked up, and spoke to landscaping associations. One state group said there were rules in place to protect workers and residents, such as prohibiting the use of machines at full throttle, but they didn’t seem to be enforced.
Based on their findings, the group launched a pilot gas leaf-blower ban for summer and winter. It seemed to go over well and was adopted as law by the council in 2016.
The issue of fines and enforcement was tricky, but key to gaining compliance with the new law. The Maplewood team learned that lesson from Montclair, which had instituted a seasonal ban in 1995 that was ineffective because it wasn’t enforced. But would neighbors rat out neighbors?
Maplewood came up with a fine structure under which first-time offenders get a warning, second-time offenders get a $1,000 fine, and after that, a $1,500 fine. With the help of the town prosecutor, they devised a way for residents to report offenders anonymously by emailing a photo with an address or license plate, or uploading the photo and details to the town’s website. The code-enforcement division then sends the user a citation. “The enforcement piece was key to the success of our ban,” says Adams. “People who use these machines need to know someone is going to turn them in if they use them.”
One unexpected hitch was a lawsuit by nine landscapers and their union, who said the ban discriminated against them by exempting individual residents and Department of Public Works employees, who were still permitted to use gas leaf blowers. Eventually, officials updated the ordinance to bar residents and town employees from using the tools as well, and the landscapers dropped the suit.
During the pandemic, support for a total ban gained steam and, in 2021, the Maplewood town council voted unanimously to ban gas leaf blowers year-round beginning in January 2023.
Though it remains to be seen how the year-round bans in Maplewood and Montclair will work in practice, Adams says that, seven years after she woke up to the problems with gas leaf blowers, the acceleration of climate change has her more convinced than ever that banning them is a no-brainer. “We’re rushing to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, so why are we fighting for one of the dirtiest machines out there? Our planet is burning up. These things just need to go away, they just do, they’re so bad,” she says.
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Lois Kraus, who leads Advocates for Transforming Landscaping in New Jersey, says that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to regulating leaf blowers. For example, her town, Westfield, “doesn’t seem to have an appetite” for any type of ban right now, she says, “which is fine.” And in Spring Lake, a voluntary ban during the summer months seems to work well. Shore towns, with their scant foliage, will have different priorities than towns farther north with many deciduous trees.
Kraus advises town leaders to move slowly and thoughtfully when implementing bans, with input from landscapers and residents. A failed ban in Summit, she says, is a “cautionary tale.” Though there were enough votes on the council to institute a pilot seasonal ban in the summer of 2021, town leaders hadn’t considered all the issues, including enforcement and whether county workers and golf courses would be exempt, and they didn’t involve all the stakeholders. Under pressure, they decided not to extend the ban once it expired.
By contrast, the advocacy group Sustainable Princeton worked closely with landscapers before Princeton’s seasonal ban launched. They even established a fund to assist small landscape companies in making the transition from gas to electric.
Tweaking the public’s perception of how a suburban lawn should look is also essential, Kraus says. “The current suburban aesthetic of a green postage-stamp lawn, which dictates that every last errant leaf has to be removed immediately, is a recent construct; it only came into vogue since Levittown,” she says, referencing the suburban developments created after World War II for returning veterans, which featured cookie-cutter homes with neat, green lawns. “If you’re going to say, ‘No leaves can be on the lawn any time of year, and you have to use electric blowers,’ then banning gas blowers is not going to work,” she says.
To make a successful transition to electric blowers, she says, landscapers have to start following certain practices that many have gotten away from. For example, rather than blowing lawns completely clear of leaves as soon as some accumulate, they should mow them with a mulcher, which leaves nutrients on the grass, and only blow the leaves when they get to a critical mass.
Then, leaves should be blown onto tarps and carried to the street rather than blown the whole way to the curb from deep in the backyard. And some leaves should be left in garden beds, where they provide crucial habitat for pollinators and other insects, help the beds retain moisture and resist weeds, and add nutrients to the soil.
Removing every leaf with a gas leaf blower and denuding the soil, then buying and dragging home a big plastic bag of mulch to add to garden beds “is a ridiculous model, and it costs people a lot of money,” says Kraus.
If they followed best practices, landscapers could operate without gas leaf blowers, benefit the environment, and save time and money, she says.
Goldstein, for his part, is skeptical. For one thing, he’s doesn’t think New Jerseyans will tolerate any errant leaves on their lawns. “We don’t live in an area that accepts that type of service,” he says. “We’re an affluent area. People expect their yards to look neat and clean.”
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