Observing the vibrant colors of autumn foliage, or “leaf peeping,” is a favorite fall activity. But when those same leaves start to fall and cover our yards and lawns, we’re often not quite so enamored of them.
For some of us, the arrival of fall means reaching for a gasoline-powered leaf blower. But as our new report, Lawn Care Goes Electric, shows, that choice damages our environment, our health and the peace and quiet of our neighborhoods.
Battery-powered leaf blowers – as well as other electric lawn and garden equipment such as string trimmers, lawn mowers and chainsaws – are often a great option for getting more yard work done with less pollution and noise. Our report highlights the wide availability of cleaner, battery-powered alternatives to gasoline-powered equipment. But what if we didn’t need to fuel up or plug in a machine to do yard work at all? With a few small changes, many of us could give the leaf blower or lawn mower a rest … and maybe even have a little more time for rest ourselves.
Less is more
While many of us are seduced by the ideal of a pristine, leaf-free lawn, allowing some leaves to stay on a lawn can actually be beneficial. If your lawn is not smothered with leaves – that is, if one-fifth or less of it is covered – those leaves will decompose on their own and provide valuable nutrients for next year’s growth. If they’re piling up so much that they’re smothering your grass, grab a rake and collect them up for composting or mulch.
There’s a lot to be said for leaving the lawn mower in the shed, too. In spring, mowing biweekly instead of every weekend can leave more dandelions and other early nectar sources to support bees and other pollinators before most flowers bloom. Turning part of your lawn into a “no-mow” zone from spring through late fall can yield a wealth of wildflowers – another lifeline for hungry pollinators.
Beyond these ecological benefits, slimming down lawn care will reduce your carbon footprint. Across the United States, lawn and garden equipment alone is responsible for a staggering 30 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. Plus, less time and money spent on lawn care means more to spend on other fall pursuits.
Low-tech machines are often best
Whether it’s mowing, trimming or blowing, there are plenty of capable battery-powered alternatives to gas-powered lawn equipment out there. But you may not need another piece of expensive equipment taking up space in your shed at all.
Manual lawn mowers are a cost-effective alternative for smaller yards (and provide a good workout, too). Raking might be a bit more time consuming than using a leaf blower, but you’ll spare yourself, your family and your neighbors from the dreaded drone of “the Devil’s hairdryer.” Before investing in a string trimmer, see what you can do with a simple pair of garden shears or clippers.
Maybe you don’t need that lawn at all?
No matter what kind of equipment you use to care for your lawn, grass lawns themselves aren’t a great option for the planet – not just because of the air and climate pollution caused by the equipment we use to look after them, but also because of the myriad chemicals many people douse them with to keep them looking good.
For example, producing the 70 million pounds of lawn fertilizers used annually in the United States has a comparable carbon footprint to driving almost 163 million miles. And once it’s on your lawn, excess nitrogen that’s not absorbed by plants will become nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 273 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over 100 years. One study found that lawn fertilization with nitrogen increased the nitrous oxide emission rate by up to 40%.
Along with fertilizers, Americans apply 70 million pounds of pesticides to lawns every year to deter unwanted insects. These chemicals are often highly toxic and pose serious risks to our health. Of the 30 most frequently used lawn pesticides, many have been linked to one or more health impacts, including birth defects, liver or kidney damage, hormone disruption and neurotoxicity.
Even if pesticide use is reduced or eliminated, lawns still need a lot of water – about 1-1.5 inches per week between rainfall and watering. Native plants fare much better than grass in this respect: according to the EPA, once native plants are established, they typically only need a bit of watering to supplement rainfall, maximizing water savings and trimming your utility bill.
For all of these reasons, typical grass lawns have a significant environmental impact that might make you think twice about reseeding yours. So what are your alternatives?
Leaving grass behind
Unless a grass lawn is required by your homeowners association, consider other ground covers that will look just as good, be better for the planet and save you time and money.
Clover, for example, can serve as a lawn alternative almost anywhere in the United States, but especially in warmer and drier areas that get plenty of sun. It’s more scorch-resistant than typical lawn grass, making it easier to keep your lawn looking good throughout hot summers. It’s also remarkably low-maintenance; it only needs mowing three or four times per year and it doesn’t require artificial fertilizer. In fact, it naturally deposits nitrogen in the soil, which supports nearby plants, and can mitigate soil erosion with its deep roots.
An elegantly cultivated grass lawn has been a coveted status symbol in the United States for decades, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Between slimming down yard work, shifting away from motorized equipment and shifting from grass toward other plants, we can create an approach to lawn care that’s less reliant on expensive equipment, better for the environment and our health, and takes up less of our precious free time.
Policy Associate, Frontier Group
Louis works on zero waste and public health as a Policy Associate with Frontier Group. After graduating from Yale with a B.A. in music in 2022, he joined U.S. PIRG’s public health team and campaigned to reduce antibiotic overuse in U.S. meat production and improve indoor air quality in schools nationwide. Based in Charlottesville, VA, he enjoys birding, choral singing (especially Dvořák) and watching his hometown Boston Red Sox.
Clean Air Advocate, CoPIRG Foundation
Kirsten joined CoPIRG's staff in 2022 and is focused on fighting for clean air for Coloradans and transforming transportation systems. Previously, she oversaw The Public Interest Network's efforts to engage alumni/former employees and volunteers in the network's work, specializing in communications and organizing events in dozens of cities. Kirsten lives in the Denver area with her husband and two children, where she is an avid hiker, biker, church choir member and gardener.
Executive Director, Environment Texas Research & Policy Center
As the director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughter are working to visit every state park in Texas.