I live on a block in Seattle that is decidedly more concrete jungle than lush canopy. Which is why it’s weird that, on many days, my alarm is not some medley of Apple chimes but the cacophonous drone of leaf blowers outside.
I have rubbed my eyes and squinted at sidewalks. I have craned my neck to see if there’s some tree I’m missing. I have stared awkwardly into the eyes of a landscaper wearing earplugs, awaiting some explanation for, or at least some acknowledgment of, such a dissonant wakeup call with not a single leaf in sight.
I have yet to find a compelling justification for the bane of my morning existence, and I’m not the only one who’s fed up. “I hate leaf blowers,” said Kathleen Baker, cofounder of the advocacy group Quiet Clean Seattle, during a recent meeting of Seattle City Council’s sustainability committee.“I hate the noise throughout the day. I hate the damage to the environment. And I'm concerned about the health of the landscape workers [who] use them.” Mike Ruby, another commenter, said gas-powered leaf blowers were a common complaint when he worked on the city’s noise ordinance back in the 1970s, around the time the machines rose to prominence. “That has not changed.”
Baker and Ruby were speaking in support of a resolution to phase out city departments’ use of gas-powered leaf blowers by 2025 (the private sector would have until 2027). Sponsored by council member Alex Pedersen, the legislation unanimously passed last week, making us the latest place to move toward outlawing a scourge as endemic to autumn as the PSL. “While Seattle prides itself on being a leader on many issues,” Pedersen said, “we are too far behind on addressing the harms of leaf blowers.”
Passed in 2018, Washington, DC’s ban went into effect earlier this year. Oregon’s Multnomah County began a transition to all electric blowers last year. And California regulators voted to nix the sale of new gas-powered lawn equipment—mowers too—as early as 2024. In all, about 40 jurisdictions across the country had banned leaf blowers as of December 2021, according to the city.
Health and environmental studies back these moves. While gas blowers make up less than one percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in King County, their two-stroke engines exacerbate contaminated air. Using one of these blowers for an hour generates as much “smog-forming pollution” as driving a 2017 Camry about 1,100 miles, per the California Air Resources Board.“They put out an exhaust that is toxic,” said Nicole Grant, executive director of climate nonprofit 350 Seattle, during the sustainability committee meeting. Too much exposure to these chemicals can cause everything from headaches to cancer.
Gas blowers are noisier than their electric counterparts, too. Before DC enacted its policy, a study showed that the machines’ low-frequency sounds penetrated windows and glass doors easier than battery-powered din. Over time, this whir isn’t just a nuisance; it can hasten hearing loss.
The blight of leaf blowers isn’t a novel concern. Seattle started looking at ways to reduce noise and emissions from leaf blowers in 2014. But since that request for recommendations by the council, the city’s use of gas-powered leaf blowers has actually skyrocketed, from 211 machines then to 418 today (its use of electric blowers has also risen during that time, from 21 to 70).
The National Association of Landscape Professionals has historically opposed outright bans of gas-powered leaf blowers for obvious reasons: “Leaf blowers save enormous amounts of time.” Electric blowers aren’t as powerful, the organization has argued, and deploying rakes and brooms might take up to five times as long to clear an area as wielding a gas blower.
But our region has no shortage of cash, or lefty environmentalists, to pay for those extra landscaping hours. The resolution has faced little blowback locally. “This sounds really non-controversial,” council member Sara Nelson said before the resolution’s passage, noting she hadn’t received any emails about it.
As a “collective opinion” of the council, the resolution is, by definition, aspirational. Unlike an ordinance, it does not have the force of law. The 2025 and 2027 dates—“or later if necessary,” the resolution ominously appends—are merely goals.
So there’s a chance this could all prove to be nothing more than political hot air. But in this case, some noise around leaf blowers is better than none at all.