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Lawn Mowers: Is the Grass Always Greener?

Lawn Mowers: Is the Grass Always Greener?

According to cleanairgardening.com, the Bill Luxus 38 is the Mercedes of reel lawnmowers. With manual-reel lawnmowers, there's no engine trouble, no running out of gas, no emissions, and no disturbing your neighbors with noise.

September 19, 2007 —

Green With Envy

I'm jealous of my next-door neighbor's lawn. I admit it.

A luxuriant green covers his yard, front and back, without flaw—the very picture of prosperity and health. Meanwhile, my lot alternates between dirt patches, hard knots of weeds, and a few isolated overgrown splotches of grass. I may be exaggerating a bit, but that's the way it seems to me.

I'm not alone. The quest for the perfect lawn is nearly a national obsession. But could we be destroying the paradise we are seeking to create?

35 Million Polluters

With over 35 million lawn mowers in use in the United States, lawn care has a tremendous impact on the environment. Lawn mowers emit climate-changing carbon dioxide, as well as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons, both chief contributors to low-level ozone, smog, and acid rain.

The California Air Resources Board estimates that lawn mowers and other machines with engines under 25 horsepower account for 7 percent of California's smog-forming emissions from mobile sources. That's the equivalent of more than 3 million cars. To bring those numbers closer to home, consider that the average mower gives off as much pollution per hour as 11 cars, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It's not surprising that the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI)—the trade association representing the manufacturers of powered lawn maintenance products—argues these comparisons are misleading. The OPEI explains that the average automobile is driven approximately 14,000 miles per year, whereas a typical walk-behind lawnmower is used approximately 25 hours per year and uses only a few gallons of gasoline.

The OPEI may not want consumers and the government to compare lawn mowers with automobiles in terms of emissions, but their battles with environmentalists are remarkably similar to the auto industry's resistance to regulation. Lawnmower engine-maker Briggs & Stratton claims they have reduced emissions by 70 percent since 1990, and that further regulation would mean higher-priced, more dangerous lawn equipment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has new emissions standards in the works, and California's new lawn equipment regulations are set to take effect in 2007. The new California regulations are "the equivalent of removing 1.8 million automobiles from the State's roads by 2020" said California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

What Are You Going to Buy?

  • The Least Offending of Gas Mowers
    If you must gas up, then make sure you are buying a recent model that is certified to meet the latest federal standards and more stringent California emissions requirements. And by all means, use a more environmentally friendly gas container, which can significantly decrease the amount of gas fumes permeating the plastic walls of the container.
  • Electric Mowers
    Electric mowers are blissfully quiet and pollution-free. Of course, anytime you pull energy from the grid, you essentially shift the source of pollution further upstream to your local power plant (which is probably powered by coal). Electrics have plenty of power to get the job done, but mowers with cords may limit mowing areas. Cordless versions are more versatile—although they are heavier and typically mow just one quarter to one third of an acre before their batteries need recharging.
  • Manual-reel Mowers
    According to Consumer Reports, manual-reel mowers are fine for small, flat lawns. They are quiet, inexpensive, nonpolluting and relatively safe to operate, although they are really only practical for small flat lawns of about 5,000 square feet or less. Don't expect a manual mower to clear a vacant lot. Thicker longer grass requires more of a push from you. Are the benefits worth the extra push.
  • A Different Shade of Green
    Maybe the ultimate ethical solution is to revise your image of the perfect yard. A big un-natural green lawn is so 20th century. Replace as much of your grass as possible with other kinds of ground covering that require less watering and less mowing. You'll have the "greenest" yard on the block.

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