Dallas officials were on the cusp of banning the use of gasoline-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers and other landscaping equipment when, in May, oil-friendly Texas enacted a law banning restrictions of any kind on the use and sale of engines based on its fuel source.
Despite opposition, a growing number of cities and counties have successfully implemented complete or partial bans from gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn equipment — most notably Washington, D.C., which has a passed a strict ban on the use or sale of such equipment.
The EPA estimates that operating a new gas-powered lawn mower emits the same amount of pollution as driving a car for 45 miles and that more than 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled while refueling lawn and garden equipment each year. Plus, gas-powered equipment often means noise pollution, too. Gas-powered leaf blowers can clock in at up to 90 decibels—a sound level that the WHO advises limiting to four hours a week, a challenge for commercial lawn care workers.
Electric models, on the other hand, not only address the emissions issue — their noise output can also be as low as 59 decibels. Stanley Black and Decker estimates that electric-powered lawn equipment shipped by North American manufacturers increased from 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million units in 2020, jumping from 32% of the lawn equipment market to 44 percent.
While the cost of an electric residential mower is roughly the same as a gas-powered one, it’s a different story for commercial users for whom the necessary electric equipment can cost nearly $30,000. Many of the cities and states banning gas-powered equipment are looking to bridge these cost barriers.
Much of the efforts have been on the city level, with full or partial bans either already enacted, under way, or in discussion in cities from Dallas to D.C. to Burlington, Vermont. Minnesota lawmakers have introduced a bill that would ban the sale of non-electric lawn equipment, but California has been the only state to successfully do so to date.
Two years ago, in October of 2021, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that required state regulators to ban the sale of new gas-powered small off-road engines — a broad category of engines that includes lawn equipment — by January 2024.
One of the most important elements of the first-of-its-kind phaseout bill, according to one of its authors, Assemblymember Marc Berman, was securing $30 million in funding to help California’s landscaping professionals — particularly small businesses — make the transition at a reduced cost.
“That’s already led to tens of thousands of pieces of zero-emission landscaping equipment being purchased and put into use,” Berman says.
California’s Air Resources Board was tasked with creating the state’s program. When users fill out a form online, they’re issued what’s essentially a coupon that can be used to purchase new electric equipment at participating providers. Berman says that the program covers between 50% and 70% of the total cost of either new equipment or additional batteries.
The program has seen high participation already, so much so that Berman estimates that the original $30 million is already 90% spent. “We always knew that it was going to take more than $30 million,” he says, adding that “as the leader of this effort, I need to go get more money.” He estimates that it will take a total of $125 million to complete the transition.
In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment hasn’t been banned, but the city’s department of public health is incentivizing residents to make the switch anyway.
In 2021, the Ohio EPA expected the county’s region to move farther away from meeting national ambient air quality standards the following year, which it did. The Ohio EPA reached out to local organizations like the Cleveland Department of Public Health to see if they would be willing to host lawn mower rebate programs to help reduce air pollution.
With a mix of internal funding and a bit of money from the Ohio EPA, Cuyahoga County’s program launched in April 2022. Residents that sign up for the program get a receipt from a scrapyard for tossing out a gas-powered lawn mower, and save the receipt from the purchase of a new electric lawn mower. When they submit that to the department, they’ll get a $100 visa gift card in exchange.
To date, the program has been responsible for the replacement of 657 gas-powered lawn mowers with electric ones.
Christina Yoka, the department’s chief of air pollution outreach, notes that awareness and communication about how the program works is key. “There was sometimes confusion where individuals didn’t get a receipt [for scrapping it]. We had to be very clear that we need documentation,” she says.
Yoka also notes that running a program like this does take up administrative resources, so she cautions anyone looking to spin up something similar to be prepared to put staff time towards it.
“I think it’s a great project for a student intern, if there’s any availability for that,” she says. “You definitely want somebody who is responsible for the program.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.