Seriously, why not just use a rake?

Have to admit that this one has long been a personal bugbear: the petrol leaf-blower. These are the proverbial solution to which there is no known problem, yet they are now so commonplace as to be unremarkable. I filed this piece for the ‘Outdoors’ page of the Irish Examiner in December.

IF YOU HAD TO come up with an invention that is as pointless as it is harmful, you would be hard-pressed to do better than the petrol-powered leaf blower. First of all, there’s the racket. Producing around 100 decibels of noise, a leaf blower is similar to the level of sound produced by a jet aircraft taking off.

Even at a distance of 250 metres, people are exposed to noise levels well above the World Health Organisation’s maximum safe level of 55 decibels. A single leaf blower can disturb an entire neighbourhood, and there are thousands in use across Ireland, by contractors, local authorities and individuals, with little or no oversight on their harmful impacts.

Next year sees the state of California institute a complete ban on petrol leaf blowers; this follows a similar move by Washington DC early last year. Bans are also being considered in cities and municipalities across Europe.

Apart from noise, what makes leaf blowers especially dangerous is that they are powered by small two-stroke engines, that burn a combination of petrol and oil, and in the process produce prodigious levels of air pollution. A study in California found that these two-stroke engines actually produce more smog-producing emissions than all 14 million cars in the state.

Thanks to strict regulations, tailpipe emissions from cars have been sharply reduced in recent decades. However, two-stroke engines are exempted from such regulation. The effects are stark.

In the US, these so-called small off-road engines (SOREs), which include leaf blowers, lawn mowers and chain saws, account for a quarter of all emissions of benzene, a carcinogen, 12% of all nitrogen oxide and 17% of volatile organic compounds.

Research conducted by the California Air Resources Board reached the astonishing finding that just one hour’s use of a petrol leaf-blower creates as much smog-forming pollution as driving a modern mid-sized car about 1,600 kilometres, the equivalent of around 15 hours continuous driving.

In 2019, the German environment ministry issued guidance on the use of leaf blowers, stating they should be only used if “indispensable”. Research in recent years has shown alarming drops in insect populations in Germany, and the ministry added that leaf blowers “can be fatal to insects in the foliage”.

Insects, along with many invertebrates and smaller creatures, use fallen leaves both as a source of shelter and nutrition to help them survive the winter. The jet of air produced by a leaf blower reaches speeds of around 300 km/hr, the equivalent of a lethal hurricane for any small creatures caught in its blast.

Another, less obvious hazard produced by these machines is the dust they stir up and release back into the air a toxic cloud of mould, pollen, animal faeces, fungal spores, heavy metals and residues from pesticides.

The people most at risk from petrol leaf blowers are the operators, especially those employed by contractors, as they are exposed to extremely high noise levels as well as toxic fumes. And while many wear ear protection, it is extremely rare to see an operator in Ireland also wearing breathing apparatus.

Ironically, the recent backlash against leaf blowers dates back to 2020 and the covid lockdown. Many people all over the world were forced to work from home, and came to deeply resent the near-constant noise intrusion of these machines in otherwise quiet neighbourhoods.

With the advent of battery-powered leaf blowers, there are now vastly quieter, cleaner alternatives available to the current two-stroke engines. Washington DC has introduced a rebate programme for small landscaping firms aiming to trade up to electric equipment, while California has set aside a €25 million fund to help contractors buy electric power tools.

While battery-powered leaf blowers greatly reduce both the noise and pollution hazards produced by their two-stroke petrol counterparts, they nonetheless remain environmentally unfriendly in operation, damaging habitats, harming wildlife and stirring up toxic dust clouds.

However they are powered, leaf blowers remain the solution to which there is no known problem. Garden rakes do just as good a job, but without the drama and damage to wildlife. Will it take a little longer to clear a lawn of leaves by rake instead of blower? Yes, but frankly, how many times a year does the average gardener need to do this?

There is of course also an excellent case for leaving leaves exactly where they fall, to slowly decompose and fertilise the soil and provide nutrients and shelter for a plethora of wild critters, just as nature intended, in fact.

The oh-so-human compulsion to tidy up and see everything in neat piles and straight lines is completely at odds with the organised chaos of the natural world. So, forget about that leaf blower…  nature — as well as your neighbours — will thank you for it.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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