Jamie Banks on the Newton struggle

Last week the Boston Globe had a front page story about the increasingly fractious politics of leaf blower control in the suburb of Newton. You can read about the report here.

Today in the GlobeJamie L. Banks, of the Quiet Communities environmental organization in the Boston suburb of Lincoln, points out that the pitched battles may be unnecessary, since technology (and community strategy) are leading other communities to post-dirty-engine solutions. In her letter to the editor Banks says: 

Transitioning to electric technology is best started with positive incentives to engage operators and let the cleaner alternatives prove themselves.... Financial incentives and active promotion of green businesses are needed.

More than 100 companies now operate with advanced electric equipment, and at competitive rates. Harvard, Tufts, and Yale are among the schools making the shift. In 2016, South Pasadena, Calif., became the first city in the nation, according to the American Green Zone Alliance, to maintain all municipal grounds with low-noise, zero-emissions tools. Southampton, N.Y., is following suit.

One consistent theme of the QCDC campaign in Washington D.C. is that the shift away from hyper-polluting, medically damaging, obsolete two-stroke gas-powered engines is a matter of "accelerating the inevitable." Sooner or later communities and companies will adopt radically cleaner and quieter battery-powered alternatives. It might as well be sooner. 

The Nation's Capital Gears Up Again for a new Leaf Blower Policy

From the Northwest Current.

From the Northwest Current.

The Northwest Current, an influential local-news publication in Washington D.C., has a report by Brady Holt on the progress of proposed legislation to phase out gas-powered leafblowers and shift to much cleaner, quieter electric models. The story is here. The measure has gained increasing support across the city, from Council members and local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. What stands between it and enactment is the procedural matter of getting on committee dockets. As Holt says:

A bill pending before the D.C. Council would ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers within the District starting in 2022, as requested by various community members who have cited concerns regarding both noise and pollution.

But in the time since Ward 3 member Mary Cheh first introduced the measure in January 2016, it has never made it to a committee hearing. The 2016 bill was referred to the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs, which had tentatively planned a hearing that fall. But leaf blowers were lost in the shuffle after the committee’s chair, Vincent Orange, lost his re-election bid, took another job and resigned from the council before completing his term.

Meanwhile the DC civic groups are re-revving up their efforts, to convert the support they've gained from elected officials into a hearing and Council vote.

A follow-up issue of the Northwest Current included a letter from Denise Paolella, of DC, in support of the measure:

I have especially resented the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in the dead of winter and in the summer when leaves and grass clippings are minimal and can be swept under bushes to rot and nourish the soil.

Unfortunately, landscaping companies have not chosen to regulate themselves or reduce their carbon footprint and therefore must be regulated. I hope that the 2016 bill introduced by Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh will be assigned to another committee and that a hearing will be scheduled sometime in 2018.

KCET Airs Documentary on Environmental Effects of Lawn Equipment

The public TV documentary that was previously mentioned here aired last night, and is now available on KCET's site. You can see it here -- or in the embedded version below, with the leafblower portion starting around time 14:30. 

The KCET project was in collaboration with a non-profit anti-pollution and corporate responsibility group called Fair Warning. On its web site, Fair Warning has a powerful new item, about the same theme the video emphasizes: that while noise is the most obvious side-effect of leaf blowers, it may not in fact be their most damaging consequence. Noise is a genuine problem, but even worse is what their emissions do to the the health of the people who use them, who in big cities are increasing the usually-low-wage employees of commercial lawn crews. Even beyond the impact on these workers, these old-tech engines have polluting and climate effects that, almost incredibly, are coming to rival those of automobiles. The new item says:

As FairWarning reported in September, while automobile motors have been overhauled over the decades to slash emissions, there has been no equivalent clean-up of small off-road engines, a category including lawn and garden equipment and generators. As a result, those gas-powered machines are on their way to becoming the worse polluters. For example, the California Air Resources Board says the smog-forming contamination from running a top-selling leaf blower just one hour matches the emissions from driving a 2016 Toyota Camry for 1,100 miles.

In the Los Angeles area as soon as 2020, the small machine category is expected to overtake ordinary sedans as a source of oxides of nitrogen and reactive organic gases, which are precursors to smog. Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that small nonroad engines already account for 81 percent as much of those pollutants as sedans, a comparison that excludes SUVs and light trucks.

 Fair Warning reports that California, which for nearly half a century has led the nation in anti-pollution standards, is preparing much tougher controls on two-stroke equipment (emphasis added):

[California] Air board officials, however, plan to propose another batch of rules in 2020 to further curb both evaporative and exhaust emissions. That move is intended to accelerate a shift in the marketplace from gas-powered equipment to so-called zero emissions electric machines. “In the longer term, what we need to do is transition entirely away from gasoline-powered off-road engines,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the California advocacy group Coalition for Clean Air.

The goal is to curb pollution linked to lung cancer, heart disease, strokes, asthma and other respiratory ailments. Those thought to be most at risk are landscaping workers who spend long hours operating gas-powered equipment, and who may be exposed to elevated levels of ultrafine particles that pose a breathing hazardAir tests commissioned by FairWarning in June and July found high ultrafine particle concentrations around operating machines – in one case, the concentration was more than 50 times higher than at a nearby traffic-clogged intersection.

As this report makes clear, the public-health and environmental damage done by this sort of dirty old equipment is all the more unnecessary, since lawn-equipment manufacturers, notably Stihl, are pioneering new, clean, quiet battery-powered machines.

Next in this space: an update in the nation's capital, Washington D.C., to apply progressive standards similar to those in the nation's most populous state.

KCET Los Angeles: Leaf Blowers and Related Equipment Will Overtake Cars as Pollution Source

"It turns out noise pollution is not the biggest health problem created by gas leaf blowers." Screenshot of KCET report; for more, go to their site.

"It turns out noise pollution is not the biggest health problem created by gas leaf blowers." Screenshot of KCET report; for more, go to their site.

Early this year, air quality officials in California reported that leaf blowers and other gas-powered lawn equipment would soon be producing more ozone pollution and other smog-producing contaminants than all cars in the country's most populous state combined. That was a sign both of how clean modern cars were becoming, and how dirty the antiquated technology of two-stroke gas-powered engines remains.

This week KCET, the public broadcasting station in Los Angeles, has a followup report on the surprisingly consequential pollution, climate-related, and public health consequences of this equipment. You can see the trailer for their report below, and find out more here. The full report will air through the week of November 13, 2017.

Newton Considers Its Leaf Blower Future

The Globe's story about Newton's leaf-blower dispute.

The Globe's story about Newton's leaf-blower dispute.

The Boston Globe has a feature story by Dugan Arnett about disagreements over leaf-blower policy in the Boston suburb of Newton, which have reached an intense level that some other communities have avoided. You can read the story (with metered paywall) here. Samples:

Anyone who has had a peaceful afternoon shattered by the jet-like roar of super-powered leaf blowers — especially when deployed by bands of workers alighting on others’ lawns — might relate to the outrage.

And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was attacked by a neighbor last week, apparently in a dispute over his yard, can certainly attest to how intense landscaping rage can become.

But why now? For one thing, hiring out lawn maintenance has never been more popular.

Arnett goes on to say how widespread the practice of hired lawn crews working on suburban lawns has become, in contrast to homeowners tending to their own property.

The other big change, the story points out, in the increasing intensity of all factors involving this practice: weeks per year, lawns per neighborhood, horsepower -- and emissions and decibels -- per blade of grass and fallen leaf. As he puts it:

Equipment has become ever more powerful — prompting various towns around the region, including Cambridge and Brookline, to begin looking at ways to minimize the noise.

But in well-to-do Newton, where as many as 70 percent of homes employ a landscaping service, according to one estimate, things have quickly gone off the rails.

On one side are residents, even some who hire landscaping companies, who complain that the heavy-duty, gas-powered blowers favored by lawn-care companies kick up dust, pollute, and make life miserable.

The story also describes a Newton group called C.A.L.M. -- Citizens Against Leaf blower Mania. You can learn more about their positions, work, and events here.

U.S. Air Pollution Still Kills Thousands Every Year, Study Concludes

This story aired on NPR on June 28, 2017

"The air Americans breathe has been getting cleaner for decades.

But air pollution is still killing thousands in the U.S. every year, even at the levels allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a study out Wednesday.

'We are now providing bullet-proof evidence that we are breathing harmful air,' says Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the study. 'Our air is contaminated.'

Dominici and her colleagues set out to do the most comprehensive study to date assessing the toll that air pollution takes on American lives.

The researchers used data from federal air monitoring stations as well as satellites to compile a detailed picture of air pollution down to individual zip codes. They then analyzed the impact of very low levels of air pollution on mortality, using data from 60 million Medicare patients from 2000 to 2012.

About 12,000 lives could be saved each year, their analysis concludes, by cutting the level of fine particulate matter nationwide by just 1 microgram per cubic meter of air below current standards."

Read or listen to the whole story here

A City That Banned Leaf Blowers Reports on the Results

In a ballot measure last year, the northern California city of Sonoma became at least the 25th city in the state to ban or severely limit use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Now the Sonoma Valley Sun has reported on civic response, as the ban goes into effect. The whole story is here; highlights are below, after the graphic from the California Air Resources Board.

From the Sonoma Valley Sun story:

Adam, a contractor who works in Sonoma, said he “hates gas leaf blowers,” because they’re too loud and smell horrible. He thinks every town should ban them. He felt that, though not as powerful, the battery ones work fine. He pointed out that lithium ion batteries are superior to anything available even five years ago — they last longer and can be recycled.
A homeowner near the Plaza said he purchased a battery blower for his gardeners to use on his property.... 
A west side homeowner “immediately noticed my neighborhood and the town are a lot quieter.” He sees more rakes and brooms in use, and some battery blowers. He noted that his neighborhood was still very tidy. “When driving,” he added, “I don’t have to dodge anyone blowing leaves in the street,” a practice that is now against the law.
A man with an office on the Plaza noted that he used to consider leaf blower noise unavoidable. “Once I became aware of the possibility of eliminating it, I realized how often I was inconvenienced,” maybe ending a phone conversation, or crossing the street to avoid the blower. He also became aware of the health impacts. “Imagine standing in all that dust and noise.” After Measure V passed he noticed guys “happily raking.”
A dog walker said she and her canine companions walked through much less dust and noise now, as more people raked. She said even when there is a leaf blower “It’s so much quieter, and there are no fumes. It still blows up some dust, but much less.”

Oyster Bay, NY, Considers Leaf Blower Limits

The website for the group Huntington C.A.LM., for Citizens Appeal for Leafblower Moderation, has an item about efforts in the town of Oyster Bay, on Long Island, to limit summertime use of two-stroke gas-engine leaf blowers. What happens in Oyster Bay is surprisingly significant, since it's actually a collection of villages and hamlets that together make up one-third of Nassau County, include a population of nearly 300,000, and cover 30 ZIP codes.The C.A.L.M. item is based on a story by Ted Phillips in Newsday, which is here.

Sample from the story:

Planning and Development Commissioner Elizabeth Maccarone said the gas-powered leaf blowers, as opposed to quieter and lower-powered electric blowers, cause problems for residents. 
“When you drive around you see the dust ball, the dirt, the fertilizer and all that is being thrown up into the air and the children are outside playing, people are trying use their back yards,” Maccarone said. “It’s the noise, it’s what being thrown up into the atmosphere.”

The outlook on this QCDC site is that rules like these amount to "accelerating the inevitable." That is: as evidence of the hugely disproportionate environmental impact and public health damage caused by two-stroke engines mounts up, as these engines continue to be phased out or banned in nearly all uses other than lawn equipment, and as battery-powered electric alternatives rapidly increase in efficiency and affordability, dirty and noisy gas-powered equipment will be on its way out. Cities like Oyster Bay are headed where technology and public-health data will eventually lead many more communities. 

The NYT on One City's Proposed Leaf Blower Ban

Screenshot of the story in today's NYT.

Screenshot of the story in today's NYT.

Ronda Kaysen of the New York Times has a very good new story about the way changing fundamentals of American suburban life, notably including a near-doubling of lawn-care employees since 2002, have brought new attention to the environmental, public health, and noise-nuisance effects of leafblower use. The story is here, and it emphasizes the same phenomenon you'll find discussed on many items in this site: the anomalous persistence of two-stroke, gas-powered engines in lawn-equipment use, even though they have been phased out or prohibited in most other uses (boating, watercraft, small transport vehicles in developing countries). The story centers on a proposal from Maplewood, New Jersey, to ban commercial use of leaf blowers during summer months. 

Excerpt: 

Leaf blowers are beloved and reviled for the same reason: They are powerful. Strapped in a pack to a worker’s back, these blowers plow through leaves, grass clippings, debris and light snow, making it possible for a landscaper to quickly clear a property. A 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report lists leaf blowers as a common noise that can contribute to permanent hearing loss.
Most landscapers use leaf blowers with two-stroke engines, which are light enough to carry but produce significant exhaust and noise. The gas and oil mix together, and about a third of it does not combust. As a result, pollutants that have been linked to cancers, heart disease, asthma and other serious ailments escape into the air.

The commercial-gardener aspect of the Maplewood proposal is significant, since day-long use of thje equipment by teams working through a neighborhood has a different effect -- on the neighbors, and on the yard crew -- than homeowners working on their own yards.

An emerging tech possibility offers a solution beyond the ones Maplewood is considering. That is the rapid appearance on the market of much cleaner, much quieter, battery-powered lawn equipment that allows crews to do their work with much less impact on themselves, the community, and the environment. You can read about them here, here, and here. They are the basis of trade-in programs in Los Angeles and many other cities, and their increasing power and affordability is why the shift away from antiquated, dirty gas-powered machines is just a matter of time.

Congrats to Ronda Kaysen, the NYT, and the people of Maplewood.

'In Pursuit of Silence': A New Film

As explained in the other items you'll find on this site, the most compelling new evidence for a shift away from two-stroke gas-powered leaf blowers and related equipment is the outsized environmental damage they do (according to California's air-quality authorities, soon more ozone pollution than all the cars in the state) and the public health risks they pose for communities and, especially, the often low-paid, often non-English-speaking crews who operate them for hours at a time. 

But these machines are also incredibly (and even dangerously) noisy. A film being shown at 6:30pm tonight, March 17, at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, as part of the Environmental Film Festival, goes into meanings of noise and quiet in modern life.

Here the trailer: 

From the description at the Film Festival's site:

 

In Pursuit of Silence

In our race towards modernity, amidst all the technological innovation and the rapid growth of our cities, silence is now quickly passing into legend. Beginning with an ode to John Cage’s seminal silent composition 4’33, the sights and sounds of this film delicately interweave with silence to create a contemplative and cinematic experience that works its way through frantic minds and into the quiet spaces of hearts. As much a work of devotion as it is a documentary, In Pursuit of Silence is a meditative exploration of our relationship with silence, sound, and the impact of noise on our lives. Directed by Patrick Shen. Produced by Patrick Shen, Andrew Brumme, and Brandon Vedder; Co-produced by Cassidy Hall.

There's much more about the film, which has a wide screening schedule and has received impressive praise, at its own site. By all means check it out. 

Battery Power Breakthroughs: Tripling Today's Storage Capacity

Two-stroke gas-powered lawn equipment is inevitably on the way out, because it exists at the confluence of two trends.

One is the increasing evidence about the unique environmental and public-health damage this obsolete equipment causes (as detailed in many previous entries on this site). The other is the rapid emergence of cleaner, quieter, more sustainable electric alternatives.

The driving factor in the second development has been the pace of research in improved battery technology. For general background on this field, please see an Atlantic article from 2014. And for the latest news, please see this announcement in the University of Texas newsletter about a breakthrough in battery technology from its labs.

From the announcement:

A team of engineers led by 94-year-old John Goodenough, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, has developed the first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries...  
The researchers demonstrated that their new battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as today’s lithium-ion batteries. A battery cell’s energy density gives an electric vehicle its driving range, so a higher energy density means that a car can drive more miles between charges. The UT Austin battery formulation also allows for a greater number of charging and discharging cycles, which equates to longer-lasting batteries, as well as a faster rate of recharge (minutes rather than hours).

As the Atlantic article explains, no one development will be "the" answer in battery technology. The significant point is the breadth and intensity of scientific, engineering, and commercial activity in developing more powerful, cheaper, longer-lasting batteries. This has obvious implications in hastening the advent of electric cars, and some aircraft -- and lawn equipment as well.

For more, please see articles in CleanTechnica, Digital Trends, Yahoo Finance, Mashable, and Fox News. The original scientific paper is here, in Energy and Environmental Science. And here is a video describing this latest breakthrough: