Why leaf blowers are a triple negative

Updated: Mar 5

Did you know America has an abundance of free carbon that falls to the ground every year? Chances are, there’s a source in your yard or neighborhood or a nearby park. That’s right, I’m talking about trees.


Trees: the great recyclers

Every year, trees go through a life cycle. In the spring, green buds appear on the tips of branches that turn into leaves. After harnessing the power of the sun to photosynthesize all summer long, the leaves turn beautiful shades of yellow, red, and orange in the Fall. Eventually, they succumb to the cold and the leaves fall to the ground.


In a forest, those leaves stay on the ground. They provide cover for seeds, roots, bugs and animals who need protection from the cold. Over time, the leaves decompose and form a rich layer of nutrient dense soil known as “humus” and the carbon is absorbed into the soil for trees and other plants to access again.


Leaves falling to the ground and decomposing is an important part of the lifecycle of a tree and the ecosystem at large. These fallen leaves provide rich nutrients for the entire forest floor to benefit from, and mulch that covers seeds which allows them to sprout and grow, creating food for humans and animals alike along the forest floor.


Leaf blowers: triple negative kings

All of this is why leaf blowers are one of our biggest pet peeves. There are few things more frustrating than being woken up by the sound of a leaf blower on a Sunday morning. But not only do leaf blowers create noise pollution, they remove rich, carbon-based nutrients with an oil powered machine. We take carbon from our yards while releasing it into the atmosphere. In fact, just one hour of using a leaf blower is the same as running a car for eight hours!


According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Georgia Tech Professor Michael Leamy, it may be worse than that. In an article for 11Alive News, Leamy said: "If you look at the unburnt hydrocarbons you find that this leaf blower in 30 minutes of operation...is, in fact, emitting more hydrocarbons than driving an F150 or any light-duty pick up from New York City to Los Angeles."


To top it off, we place our leaves in bags left at the side of the road for a large truck to pick up and remove. During a time when we need to absorb as much carbon into the soil as possible, this is not a wise strategy.


So to recap, leaf blowers are what we here at Roots Down like to call a triple negative:

  1. Noisy and obnoxious.

  2. Removes useful carbon from the local ecosystem where it's need most.

  3. Adds carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.


What can you do?

There are several different ways to approach leaves in your yard. For starters, doing nothing is always an option! You can simply allow nature to do her thing, which she does quite well wherever there aren’t many human beings around. Another option is to use a rake, which has the added benefit of providing exercise.


Rather than removing leaves from the yard, create a leaf pile that can become part of your compost pile, or just rake the leaves around the base of your trees. By keeping leaves around the base of your trees, you mimic what would happen in a forest and allow your trees to benefit from the nutrients they created during the summer. Your trees will be healthier and therefore less likely to develop disease that may cause them to fall over.


At the end of the day, what seems like a pet peeve is actually a symptom of a larger problem. We need to start working with nature instead of against it. It’s hard to deny that a freshly cut, clean lawn doesn’t look appealing, but if we overheat the planet we won’t be able to grow any grass at all. If we want to leave a better planet for our children, we need a new approach. That's why we've started the Grow, Don't Mow network, a partnership between Roots Down and local landscapers to change the way we design and maintain our urban landscapes.



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