Debris Blowers in Landscape Maintenance: Costs, Benefits, and Common Good
For several years, participants in Magic's Liveable City Project have been evaluating costs and benefits of portable debris blowers used in landscape maintenance, considering what, if any, changes in their use might further common interests, and exploring how such changes might be accomplished. We have found:
- costs of blowing are extensive;
- total costs far outweigh benefits;
- while blower operators and their clients pay substantial costs (many hidden) the general public pays heavily and accrues little, if any, benefit;
- blower manufacturers and sellers have lavishly funded divisive campaigns of misinformation to secure their profits at the expense of blower operators, their clients, and the general public.
In light of these findings, we are seeking a complete ban on debris blowers. We welcome you comments, questions, and support.
The commonly used term "leafblower" is a misnomer. The most important consequences of using devices marketed under this description are a far cry from moving leaves. They include:
- generating loud, penetrating noise;
- lifting dust and debris (frequently hazardous, toxic, or chemically reactive), pollen, fungal spores, and microbes into the air and deposit them on people, pets, and property;
- causing a share of the environmental damage related to their power source; and
- perhaps most importantly, unfairly allocating costs and benefits among those who use or are affected by them.
Because "noisy, dangerous, unhealthy, environmentally degrading devices for perpetrating unfair allocation of costs and benefits" is unwieldy, we refer to them simply as debris blowers. With this term we more accurately captures their function, without sacrificing succintness.
Currently available debris blowers are powered either by gasoline-fueled engines, or by electric motors. Both types are available in a range of sizes and power ratings. Electric debris blowers are generally smaller, less powerful, and quieter than gasoline models. Most electrics trail a cord, which remains connected to the electrical transmission grid or to a mobile generator, and which limits their range. Battery-powered blowers may become more common because regulation of noise and emissions favors this design, and battery energy-to-weight ratios are improving.
The most common complaint about blowers is that they are noisy. With typical operating speeds in the range of 5-10,000 rpm — about three times as fast as the engine in your car — blowers emit a penetrating, high-pitched scream. Most blowers have only primitive noise abatement features. The air-cooled engines of gasoline-powered models are by design directly exposed to the environment. Noise levels from gasoline-powered blowers at full throttle have been measured at more than 100 decibels. Within distances of a few meters, many blowers are loud enough to cause temporary hearing loss after only brief exposure, and permanent hearing damage after prolonged exposure, putting operators at special risk. At distances up to several hundred feet, many people find blower noise intrusive, and report that conversation, thinking, sleeping, and other common and essential activities are disturbed.
A second, and increasingly common complaint about blowers is that airstream from their nozzles, which can move at speeds in excess of a hundred miles per hour, drives litter onto adjoining properties and public rights-of-way, or against plants and structures; lifts previously settled particulate back into the atmosphere, where it is carried onto other people and property; and erodes and degrades soils.
Many people have witnessed blower operators moving debris from one property to another or into streets and other public spaces.
Blower-driven particulates, aerosols, and vapors include toxic or hazardous: volatile organic compounds (e.g. petroleum distillates dripped onto pavement, lawn chemicals); heavy metals (e.g. lead paint dust, copper from brake linings); pesticide-laden plant fragments; pollen; dried rodent, bird, and pet feces; and assorted other waste. After being lofted by debris blowers, these are subsequently deposited onto homes, indoor and outdoor furnishings, soil, food crops, cars, laundry, pets, and people. Their effects range from merely inconvenient to life-threatening. Walkers, cyclists, children, and people with respiratory ailments are all at special risk. Blown debris can temporarily blind a cyclist, precipitate an asthma attack, or permanently lodge in the lungs or — absorbed into and carried by the blood — the brain of a child, posing a lifelong impediment to health.
City of Palo Alto ordinances require suppression of dust on construction sites. City street cleaners sweep and spray rather than blow. Federal and state laws and regulations increasingly prohibit discharge of toxic and hazardous substances that debris blowers routinely disperse.
In addition, debris blowers' high-velocity airstream removes topsoil, mulch, and other organic material from the landscape; dries, hardens, and crusts soil left in place; and dessicates plant roots. The effects of these changes include diminshed plant vigor and growth, less efficient irrigation, reduced humus in soil, and depleted or altogether extinguished populations of soil-dwelling organisms vital to ecosystem balance.
Carelessly used, blowers accumulate and compact debris against plants, fences, buildings, and other structures, and create conditions which promote deterioration.
A third adverse impact of debris blowers is the environmental degradation resulting from their power sources. While some might view this as an essential price, we think it wise to examine it carefully so that we may better weigh it against the benefits we achieve by operating blowers.
The two-stroke engines of gasoline-powered blowers are notorious for the rate at which they generate exhaust pollutants. These include both combustion products, as well as vaporized, unburned fuel used to cool the engine. An hour of debris blower operation generates as much pollution as driving a car a hundred miles. Spillage and evaporation exacerbate these impacts.
Gas-powered blowers also are partially responsible for environmental damage caused by drilling for, pumping, piping, shipping, refining, and distributing the petroleum products on which they rely.
Electric blowers share similarly the responsibility for impacts of generating electricity. For nuclear power plants, these include long-lived radioactive wastes, unintentional releases of radioactivity, and thermal pollution from cooling water. For wind power plants, they include diminution of raptor populations and despoilation of scenic landscapes. For hydro plants, they include damming wild rivers, depleting fisheries, altering patterns of riparian vegetation, and degrading wetlands. For fossil fuel plants, they include air pollution, contamination of land and water by mining, drilling, and transportation, and global climate disruption.
A fourth, and critically important effect of blowers is to undermine the fabric of civil society by allowing some to benefit at the expense of others. A fundamental principle in our political and economic systems is that someone who reaps a gain from an activity is expected to pay its costs.
Benefits of blower operation accrue in some combination of: (1) higher income to blower manufacturers, distributors, and repairpeople, landscape maintenance contractors, and their employees; (2) lower expense and greater tidiness for property owners; and (3) reduced labor for those actually removing debris.
In fact, benefits in Palo Alto appear to be concentrated with manufacturers and distributors.
Property owners and operators may actually suffer qualitative and quantitative losses to soils, plant materials, structures, furnishings, personal well-being, employee productivity, and customer satisfaction which more than offset any economies realized through blower use. An obvious example of this kind of loss is a firm where one, ten, even a hundred $100 per hour programmers stop thinking for 15 minutes once a week while a $60 per month "mow, blow, and go" service makes a racket. Is it a $160 per month service? $1060 per month? $10,060?
Blowers bring little gain to landscape contractors, since: (1) virtually all use them, denying any competitive advantage, and (2) the total market in Palo Alto is relatively price-inelastic — a few dollars extra per month are readily affordable, and regular clean-up of most sites where blowers are used is essential.
Landscape maintenance workers have suffered most from blowers, which have entailed a worsening of working conditions without increase in wages, and a displacement of labor costs by capital expenditures in a segment of the economy where unemployment is high and wages low. Blower operators endure prolonged exposures to noise, vibration, air pollution, and repetitive motion among the worst in our modern economy. Though at risk for serious illness and injury, they rarely use proper ear, eye, respiratory tract, or musculoskeletal protection. Operating blowers, they lack opportunity to develop more highly valued skills. Sometimes concerned about immigration status, often easily replaced by those desperate for work, they have little power to improve their lot.
Also shouldering substantial costs and left without any benefits are: (1) dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who are interrupted in work or relaxation when a blower is used; (2) those on whose property or persons blown matter settles; (3) those whose lives are shortened or whose illnesses are aggravated by breathing blown debris; and (4) everyone who suffers in some way as a result of environmental degradation inherent to manufacturing, maintaining, and powering blowers.
This distribution of costs to some and benefits to others is particularly intolerable because those who shoulder so many costs do so involuntarily.
If we fully price impacts of blowers, paying all who are negatively affected by them a "fair market value" for costs they bear, will those who benefit from blowers consider them worthwhile? Let's see what happens when we compensate only for noise.
In opposing a recently-enacted ban in Los Altos, blower advocates claimed that blowing takes one-fifth as long as raking, sweeping, and hand-collecting. Assume a typical weekly blower operating time for a site is six minutes. This "saves" twenty-four minutes. If "only" four nearby people are sufficiently disturbed to be unable to continue with their chosen activities while the blower is operating, that savings disappears! If forty people suffer a ten percent loss of productivity or pleasure while the blower operates, or if four hundred people suffer a one percent loss, the savings disappears! What does a ten percent loss over six minutes look like? It might be thirty-six seconds of total distraction, or just an annoying awareness occupying ten percent of attention for the entire period. Similarly, a one percent loss might be less that four seconds of total distraction, or a one percent loss of concentration for the entire six minutes.
Let's consider the matter in terms of money. Average annual household income in Palo Alto is about $100k. Assume conservatively that two people work full-time. Each then earns about $25/hour, whether being paid directly in wages or working outside the money economy and sharing income with a partner. Blower operators often earn $5-7 per hour. The twenty-four minute "savings" of six minutes of blowing over thirty of raking and sweeping represents $2-3 in wages. Yet six minutes of an average Palo Altan's life is valued at $2.50. The picture here is even bleaker than the one where we looked just at hours of life and valued everyone equally.
Based on noise alone, blowers are a bad deal. If we add other externalized costs, blowers appear as vast, gaping abysses into which the wealth of a community is sucked.
Finally, there's a question about why we want to pick up every leaf, every speck of dust, every week. How did we come to believe that this was what we wanted, or a means to get something else that we want? We offer a few thoughts on this topic without pretending that they are a complete "answer." For several hundred years at least, Western Europeans and their cultural heirs (we) have pursued a strategy of "progress" based upon exploitation of each other (give only what is required; take as much as you can get) and conversion of nature to artifact. Many of us, pointing to the rise to dominance of people who practice this approach, imagine more of the same to be a prescription for a happy future. Our eyes fixed on the prize of "tidiness" by which we symbolize our putative "control" of nature, we miss the many signs that ours is an increasingly disordered biosphere, becoming less hospitable to human life. Of critical importance are overall loss of predictability and control, and undermining of individual and common purpose which accompany our continuing depradations of each other and the rest of nature. Like passengers on the Titanic, we are delighted with details and proudly confident of our safety, even as we remain ignorant of our vulnerability and imminent loss.
If you agree that debris blowers are a bad deal, you may wonder what to do about them. In an ideal society, people might be committed to health, cooperation, and environmental stewardship, and informed about the principles of ecology. Under such circumstances, those who own blowers will voluntarily retire them, and those who manufacture and sell them will cease.
In the current social context, some people have asked those who maintain their properties to work without blowers or to use them minimally, while others have declined to ask any change; some landscape contractors faced with blower bans have cooperated in guiding their personnel in operating them in ways that reduce imposition on the general public, while others have carried on with business as usual. Concerned horticultural experts have made inroads explaining to clients, contractors, and workers alike the risks of blowers for plants, soils, and structures, but in a market where competition is largely based on price rather than quality, blower abuse remains common. Various legislative restrictions on times, locations, volumes, and types of blower have been enacted, but all but complete bans have proven difficult or impossible to enforce.
Blower manufacturers and distributors have poured money and falsehoods into influencing state and local politics to favor their interests. Tactics employed have included unscrupulous manipulation of less affluent, often non-English speaking laborers by subjecting them to unsupported threats about lost livelihood and claims of racist discrimination. Blower advocates have organized landscape workers into a "gardeners" association, even as they have promoted a kind of landscape maintenance that is the antithesis of gardening, and condemned these people to dead-end jobs. Echo (brand) equipment is promoted with claims about its quiet that are deemed false by Consumers Union, one of the most highly respected consumer testing services in the nation.
Alternatives to blowers exist, and are used by most people in most places with satisfactory result. We can alter our standards of tidiness, redesign our landscapes, adapt our lives to the absence of blowers, and be better for it. The people of dozens of California communities, including nearby Los Altos, have banned gasoline powered blowers with good results. In some locales (e.g. Hermosa Beach) all debris blowers are banned. Reports from these places indicate that costs of landscape maintenance for public and private properties have remained steady, standards of tidiness acceptable to individual property owners and the general public have been successfully maintained, and laborers' jobs have been preserved and their working conditions enhanced. Palo Alto once led in such matters. It's time for us to lead again.
Some may argue that landscape maintenance contractors or employees will suffer as a result of a ban. We have already discussed why losses to blower owners are likely to be limited to the depreciated value of their blowers, and why, in fact, blower operators are actually likely to fare better after a ban. Blower manufacturers and distributors may well earn fewer profits, but they have chosen to manufacture and sell equipment with horrendous externalized costs — with all the entrepreneurial risk this entails — and they have had amply notice that public disapproval was resulting in increasing regulation, including numerous bans.
Others may say that the cost of municipal services will rise or their quality decline. The appropriate response to this is to reconsider what standards are important to us as a community — including what we are now foregoing — and then find a fair way to finance services that meet them. Exacting a price in morbidity, mortality, and other factors of diminished life quality from large numbers who have indicated unwillingness to pay for the benefit of a few is bad government.
The purpose of law is to provide a framework within which people can act to further our own interests without adversely affecting others. A ban on blowers will achieve this. Rather than "leveling the playing field" by tolerating ever more public and worker abuse in the name of individual freedom for manufacturers and distributors, let's increase freedom for many by raising standards of health, cooperation, and environmental stewardship in our society.
Though careful lest we make too big a deal of what may be only a trifle in the eyes of many, we submit that banning blowers is one of countless small steps that we will necessarily take if we are to make our community a place where people feel greater peace within, with each other, and with nature. Please join us in working towards this end.