The Seattle City Council took a step Friday toward … BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR
(Sorry, that was a leaf blower roaring outside my window. Let’s try again.)
The City Council took a step Friday toward banning the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers, citing noise, health and environmental concerns.
The council’s sustainability committee voted 4-0 to advance a resolution stating the council’s intent to phase out the tools for city departments and contractors by 2025 and for businesses and residents by 2027, “or later, if necessary.” The resolution would ask city departments to develop plans to meet those goals and also to design a public education strategy.
“These fossil fuel machines harm the workers that operate them and the communities that have to endure them,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, the resolution’s sponsor, urging his colleagues to help eliminate “the harmful sound, the toxic fumes and the filthy debris” the blowers generate.
Other cities, like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have outlawed the machines, and additional jurisdictions, like Multnomah County in Oregon, which includes Portland, and California are moving in that direction. The grassroots group Quiet Clean Seattle has been pursuing a ban here, and the environmental organization 350 Seattle has endorsed Pedersen’s proposal.
There are still questions about how the change, which would require businesses and residents to use electric leaf blowers or rakes to tidy leaves and lawn clippings, could affect those in Seattle who now rely on gas-powered equipment. The council also hasn’t yet calculated how much the transition would cost city departments. A city arborist once estimated that Seattle trees shed 60 billion leaves each year.
The resolution would ask city departments to complete a racial equity analysis of the change; gather input from others, including landscaping companies; and consider whether the city should offer financial incentives to such companies and low-income residents.
First adopted in the 1970s, gas-powered leaf blowers have long been prized for their cleanup muscle and detested for the noise they create, which can carry for blocks. Most of the machines have two-stroke engines “that incompletely combust their fuel, resulting in the emission of toxic and carcinogenic substances,” according to Pedersen’s resolution.
In Seattle, noise regulations limit the hours during which landscaping noise can occur, and the city has recorded an increase in noise complaints of all sorts since more residents started working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an Aug. 17 council memo. Nothing currently prevents anyone in the city from using gas-powered leaf blowers.
“I hate leaf blowers,” Kathleen Baker, who’s involved with the Quiet Clean Seattle group, said at Friday’s committee meeting. “I hate the noise throughout the day. I hate the damage to the environment and I’m concerned about the health of the landscaping workers.”
In 2014, the council asked the city’s construction and inspections department to develop recommendations that would reduce noise and emissions from gas-powered leaf blowers. The department recommended no regulatory changes, according to the Aug. 17 memo, “because electric leaf blowers available at that time were relatively ineffective.” The department also raised questions about enforcement and racial equity.
Nationally, 46% of workers in the landscaping industry identify as Latino or Hispanic, based on U.S. Labor Bureau data, according to the council’s memo. In 1998, after the city of Los Angeles banned gas-powered leaf blowers, some workers launched a hunger strike in protest, arguing they would get less work done and make less money with less-effective tools. In response, Los Angeles reduced its penalties, and the ban is rarely enforced there.
Today, Seattle city departments own 418 gas blowers, an increase of 207 since 2014, according to the council’s memo. They also own about 70 electric blowers, an increase of 49 since 2014. The city did later prepare a “best practices” guide for using leaf blowers. Testing by the Parks Department in 2019 showed that battery-powered blowers had improved enough to adequately handle dry conditions, but not soggy settings.
Last year, Pedersen sponsored a budget action asking the Parks Department and the city’s sustainability office for a plan to phase out gas blowers. That plan is due on Sept. 2, but Pedersen doesn’t expect to receive “anything of substance” by that deadline, he said in an email this week.
His resolution says gas blowers create air pollution and excessive noise, aggravating those nearby, stirring up particulate matter and posing health risks, particularly to the workers who use them. Though electric blowers can also be loud, the low-frequency sounds made by gas engines travel longer distances and better penetrate walls.
The California Air Resources Board says running a gas blower for one hour generates “roughly the same amount of smog-forming emissions as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 1,100 miles,” according to the Seattle council’s memo.
Pedersen’s resolution would ask city departments to consider blower-free options, like leaving leaves to naturally decompose in some instances.
Nicole Grant, 350 Seattle’s executive director, urged the committee to advance the resolution, describing her experience using gas blowers when she worked for King County’s parks department: “The gas on your hands … the weight on your back, the noise in your ears, the exhaust in your lungs.”
Councilmember Sara Nelson broached the issue with the executive director of the Seattle Metro Latino Chamber of Commerce, who asked the council to consider how to mitigate any unintended consequences, she said. California has allocated $30 million to help businesses switch to electric equipment. Washington, D.C., which recently banned the sale and use of gas blowers, initially supplied $50 rebates for electric blowers, a representative told Seattle’s committee Friday.
Some Seattle landscaping companies are a step ahead. Landcrafters Inc. began “slowly converting” to electric equipment about three years ago, and is “about 80% electric at this point,” general manager D. Vitale-Cox said.
Though the gas and electric devices themselves are comparably priced, the electric blowers that Landcrafters uses don’t work well in super-wet conditions and require batteries that can cost $1,800 each, Vitale-Fox said. Evan Hartung, who works for the company, prefers the electric models, which are quieter and easier to start.
When Landcrafters raised its prices to accommodate the change, customers “said they would gladly pay a dollar or two more per hour to help the environment,” Vitale-Cox said. The company does high-end work in northeast Seattle, she noted, saying “mow-and-go” companies with a different approach might grumble more about a ban on gas blowers.