Blowing it

I have an ongoing and growing beef with leaf blowers, particularly gas powered leaf blowers. One look at my yard and you’ll know that I do not have a blower, however I have used them and I have cleared my own driveway without one. My distaste for the machines stems from a belief that they cause more harm than good. When I mention the devices I get a similar reaction from most people.

The most common complaint is that the machines seem pointless. “They just move things around,” people often say. While it is true that blowing leaves will only move them from one place to another, this season I have also seen vacuum trucks moving with teams of blowers to suck up the leaves. This was on Georgia Tech’s Campus and I wondered where the leaves went. The Georgia Tech 2005 Landscape Master Plan the concepts of sustainability, eco-mimicry, and ecological succession are emphasized as objectives. As best I can tell, this would include leaving fallen leaf masses to decompose among the diverse understory shrubs promoted in the plan. Among the action items for ecological succession are

Allow under-utilized mowed areas to revert to more complex plant communities to improve the composition of the soil increase its capacity to infiltrate and manage stormwater. It will also save maintenance dollars.


Adjust landscape management to address ecological succession.

Allowing leaves to remain under trees and decompose in place, seems in line with those goals. Even if the vacuumed leaves are taken to a larger composting operation this doesn’t necessarily help the areas where the leaves fell. There are a number of ways to manage leaves (see link below). We were planning on mulching ours with our mower.

Recall this whole rant started in a discussion about “just moving leaves around.” This is, in fact, the case in many locations around the city; the leaves get pushed into the streets. With the leaves also goes trash and gravel and with traffic’s assistance most of it ends up sitting around the road’s outer edges. This is exactly the part of the road that bikers are confined to and the type of debris that make riding a bike less comfortable and convenient (not to mention flat tires). As a bike rider this is another reason I dislike blowers.

Their use with trash is disturbing and raises new questions about the definitions of litter. Though not the generators of the trash, should the landscapers be held responsible for the trash they blow from the sidewalk and into the streets? Regardless of who absorbs the blame this point begins to get at their many levels of wastefulness. If landscapers are being paid to clean up sidewalks, patios, and lawns but are only moving the debris to another location (in some cases less than 10 feet away) should they receive payment for a job well done? A more direct example of the waste the machines are responsible for is in fuel. Both gas-powered and electric blowers require some fuel inputs. Most of these are fossil fuels (gasoline, coal or natural gas power from power plants) and generate pollutants including carbon dioxide, elemental carbon and particulate matter (as well as the dust they kick up into the air). (Maybe they’re not as bad as I make it sound) The real waste of such fuel use comes from the fact that the work could also be done using a broom or rake. It must be that the cost of fuels have not gone high enough to offset the ‘efficiency’ gains in speed and volume cleared… yet. But if we’re paying people to go out and blow in settings like the one in the photo below (taken last week in the morning, there are no leaves and hardly trees anywhere) than how efficient are blowers?

Finally, how safe are the machines? Most of us who have seen blowers in action have seen operators armed with personal protective equipment (PPE). These accessories include headphones, facemasks and goggles to protect the operators from the hazard of using the machines. However, these machines operate in public spaces in close proximity to people without such PPE. Some of the hazards are obvious, debris and fumes in the respiratory tract, debris to the eyes and hearing damage. Others are less apparent but real for example the nuisance and obtrusiveness of the machines. Some may say that we’ll get used to them and learn to ignore them but I take the fact that operators will try to stop when people are walking by as proof that we have not. I think they get social pressures like dirty looks and direct instructions from bosses (landscape company owners who have received complaints) to use such caution around people.

I have raised several questions about blowers here to which I assume you know how I would answer. I am interested to hear your comments and thought about blowers. Bans on blowers represent a possible slippery slope and could take away mowers and things that I use but could be a step in the right direction. It’s also important to consider that there are much bigger problems on which to devote our time and energy.

Leaf Management Suggestions

A California town’s blower opposition

California Air Resources Board Report on Blowers

Some people (landscapers) hate blower bans

One thought on “Blowing it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s