A nightmare on our streets – fighting the insidious gas-powered leaf blower

by Finley Harckham

It wasn’t long after my daughter was born that I became hyper aware of just how prevalent gas powered leaf blowers (GPLB) are: first in my neighborhood in Los Angeles, and then even more so, in the New England suburb we moved to. Before becoming a parent, I’ll admit I didn’t give the machines too much thought. I was sure these blowers were “bad” for the environment and for people, but just how bad, I was yet to discover. As a nervous new parent, I started doing some research and encountered some alarming statistics.

According to a study, gas powered lawn care equipment (including leaf blowers and mowers) represents 29% of the nation’s carbon monoxide emissions, 12% of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 4% of carbon dioxide emissions.1 The California Air Resources Board found that using a gas powered leaf blower specifically for one hour produced an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 1,100 miles.2  These emissions not only contribute to climate change, they are also hazardous for the operator of the equipment and any passersby who breathe them in.

A 2018 study found that the volatile organic compounds (specifically hydrocarbons) found in GPLB exhaust can potentially double the user’s risk of cancer.3  These hydrocarbons can cause ground level smog, which can also lead to asthma, lung and heart disease, impair cognitive development in children, lead to dementia in older adults, and damage local plant life.

With this newfound understanding, I began digging into the current state of efforts to regulate GPLB at a municipal and state level. Surely, with so much evidence against them (to say nothing about gas powered trimmers and lawn mowers), efforts to ban these machines would be progressing at full speed. What I found was much more nuanced.

Current State

As of July, 2023, there are more than 200 towns and cities in the United States that have enacted or plan to enact full or partial gas powered leaf blower bans, which will go into effect over the next few years. Cities that have passed bans include Washington, DC, Seattle and Pasadena, CA. Dallas is currently debating a ban. The State of California passed a ban on selling new “small off road engines,” which includes gas powered leaf blowers, weed whackers and most lawn mowers after 2023.

While the battle has been going on in some municipalities for decades, there has been a new surge of interest over the last few years as the Covid pandemic forced millions of Americans to work from home to face the constant roar and toxic exhaust of these machines. Despite this activity, there is still much work to be done. Community members interested in leveraging this momentum by pursuing GPLB bans and restrictions in their communities should study the successes and failures that other groups have experienced. The surge in local advocacy groups has yielded an impressive array of resources as well as cautionary tales for activists and policy makers who are interested in launching their own campaigns. I offer some clear tips and considerations based on real world examples below.

Lessons from the Movement

  1. Build diverse coalitions, but lead with the messages that will get the most traction with key decision makers.

Any coalition aiming to restrict GPLB will have people joining for different reasons. Most will include people and groups either advocating for fighting climate change and promoting biodiversity, improving air quality, or reducing noise pollution. Some organizations have advocated for GPLB bans to promote social justice. Whatever the reasons,  it is crucial for the entire coalition to acknowledge that they will have to focus on those arguments that most align with their path to local regulation.

For example, if local organizers have a chance to submit a proposal before a town’s board of health they should emphasize the negative health impacts of GPLB over other very valid reasons. One cautionary tale comes from Greenwich, CT, where a local citizens’ group, Quiet Yards Greenwich, came close to getting the local board of health to pass its GPLB proposal, but ultimately came up short. Their failure stemmed from ineffectively communicating how the negative health impacts of GPLB far outweighed the negative economic impacts that were articulated by local landscapers. Even though Quiet Yards Greenwich’s proposal included detailed information on the health risks of GPLB, and despite the fact that the board was composed of medical professionals, the board ultimately rejected the proposal.

  1. Prepare for backlash and educate communities.

For those aiming to get GPLB regulation passed, it is important to educate their community members on the reasons for regulation to build support and to avoid common misconceptions, which could hurt their efforts. It is also important to prepare how to respond to likely backlash. Many movements that have led to successful bans (as well as some that haven’t) have made community engagement and education a major aspect of their efforts, holding workshops, webinars and tabling at local events. Some have put together detailed FAQs about GPLB as well as resources documenting common myths. Quiet Clean DC, an organization that led the charge in passing a GPLB ban in Washington, DC, spent time painstakingly meeting with each Neighborhood Advisory Council, ultimately winning over the majority of the associations to support a city ban.

Bringing in experts to your presentations will also add legitimacy to your effort, particularly around two common misconceptions:

  • That GPLB’s aren’t really “that unhealthy”
  • That the alternative electric-powered technology is “not ready” for commercial use

The Larchmont, NY, Environmental Committee did an excellent job at their presentation to the Board of Trustees in bringing in experts to refute these concerns.4 In addition to medical doctors and environmentalists, they included landscapers who specialize in “carbon neutral” landscaping to underscore that there are workable, affordable alternatives.  The board ended up instituting a full GPLB ban.

  1. Facilitate equity when making proposals.

It should come as no surprise that municipal leaders are very concerned with the potential negative economic implications for landscapers and homeowners that may result from GPLB bans. Most activists who were successful in getting a ban adopted in the past, have demonstrated a commitment to stakeholder equity. One might argue that the negative impacts to the environment and people’s health outweigh all economic considerations around enacting a ban. By demonstrating a commitment to all stakeholders involved in the decision, activists can get more folks behind a ban, particularly politicians who will be wary of anything that hurts their constituents economically.

Some of the most effective ways this has been done before include:

  • Securing funding for rebates to replace GPLB with electric versions. Funding has been obtained through state grants, local municipalities, utilities, and air quality management boards.
  • Partnering with electric lawn equipment manufacturers for discounts.
  • Offering tips for landscapers and residents on non-leaf blower yard care and transitioning to electric.
  • Acknowledging that the operators of GPLB face the biggest health risks, and, in the case of  yard workers, many are not in a position of power to change equipment on their own.
  • Implementing a delay between instituting a ban and when it goes into effect so there is time for community outreach,  education and budgeting for new equipment.
  1. Embrace partial year ban compromises, but only for the short term.

Though partial year GPLB bans are better for the environment and people’s health than not having any restrictions, concerned citizens should promote regulations that incorporate shrinking allowable time periods for GPLB use over several years. This maintains an element of compromise and facilitates equity, but puts more and more pressure on landscapers and homeowners to make a change. Without shrinking the amount of time GPLB can be used each year, culminating in a full ban, enforcement will be perpetually difficult and there will be less pressure for people to replace or eliminate gas powered equipment.

  1. Make a plan for ongoing enforcement and community outreach.

GPLB regulations fail when adequate resources have not been allocated for enforcement and ongoing community education. This is true even for towns in states offering incentives for replacing GPLBs.5 Those advocating GPLB regulation should advocate for dedicated resources for code enforcement and ongoing community education.This approach, along with financial assistance for new equipment, has shown the most promise.


Regulating and banning gas powered leaf blowers (as well as other gas powered lawn equipment) remains an opportunity for many towns and cities around the country to reduce GHG emissions, while promoting public health and safety. Concerned citizens in areas without GPLB bans can take inspiration from some of the successes of other movements, but they should also learn from the pitfalls.

Additional resources about GPLB and spearheading local movements:

Finley Harckham is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.

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