Town's move to ban gas leaf blowers gets blowback -- and support

Frank Kummer, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

PHILADELPHIA — Swarthmore was on track to become the first Pennsylvania municipality to ban two-stroke, gas-powered lawn equipment such as leaf blowers and string trimmers as part of a fight against climate change.

But an ordinance to do just that has been derailed for at least a month as the borough council faces pushback by both residents and landscaping business owners, who claim a ban would lead a glut of dirty equipment that would have to be disposed of, an extra burden of cost for seniors and others having to buy new electric machines, and an expensive new overhead for landscapers who say battery-powered equipment costs multiples of gas-powered ones.

However, the ordinance does have support of residents who say the equipment is an auditory menace, highly polluting, and contributes greenhouse gas emissions.

If the council approved the ordinance in coming months, it could become the first Pennsylvania town to do so. More than 100 communities across the United States have passed laws to restrict or ban the equipment, but none in Pennsylvania — although New Jersey has several, such as Maplewood, Essex County.

Supporters and detractors

Last week, Swarthmore's borough council tabled the ordinance until at least July after hearing more than an hour of testimony from residents.

During the meeting, resident Allan Irving referred to leaf blowers as a "plague."

"Why do we put up with these earsplitting, obnoxious gas-powered leaf blowers?" Irving asked. "Others have spoken of the ... pollution and environmental damage caused by their continued use. The noise produced by these machines is of equal concern, and it's harmful to our well-being."

Irving said he hears the roar of lawn equipment almost every day for eight months of the year.

Matt Tirpak, who owns a local landscape company, said that he understands complaints about noise, but that having to re-equip would cost his business thousands of dollars more and could force up rates on customers.

How would the ban work?

If Swarthmore's ordinance were approved at a later meeting, the ban would go into effect two years from that date. After that, anyone caught using the equipment would face a fine of $50 the first time, $100 the second time, and $200 for the third or more time. The borough would also be able to direct people to stop work.

The council said it would work with the borough Environmental Advisory Council to make the public aware of the law if it were adopted, with a focus "on the detriments of all leaf-blowing equipment," the benefits of leaving leaves on lawns or mulching them, and encourage residents to switch to electric equipment, which would be allowed.

The ban would likely not apply to most modern gas-powered lawn mowers, which tend to be four-stroke engines. Two-stroke engines, where oil and gas are mixed, are mostly used in lighter, handheld equipment.


Swarthmore's ordinance is part of a growing national backlash against two-stroke, also known as two-cycle, engines both for the noise and greenhouse gases they emit.

Ellie Kerns, Climate and Clean Energy Campaign associate for the nonprofit advocacy group Penn Environment, said there are about 10 Pennsylvania communities working on ordinances to ban or restrict two-stroke engines, but none has brought it to a vote yet.

What are two-stroke engines?

Two-stroke engines are highly polluting because they burn both gas and oil, releasing aerosols from unburned fuel into the atmosphere. Many four-stroke engines, such as those in cars, are cleaner-burning and have catalytic converters that strip out volatile organic compounds. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that the small engines are significant sources of air pollution.

Sound from gas-powered leaf blowers can reach 90 decibels or more and have been shown to exceed the World Health Organization's recommended daytime standards of 55 amplitude-weighted decibels. Their low-frequency noises can travel hundreds of yards and penetrate walls.

Kerns worked on a report issued last year that said an estimated 965 tons of fine particulates was released by gas-powered lawn and garden equipment in 2020 in Pennsylvania alone. That amount is equivalent to pollution of more than 10 million local cars, she said.

"Residents and local leaders of Swarthmore borough deserve a lot of credit for leading the charge on this issue," Kerns said. "Everyone's experienced the frustration of listening to the loud roar of lawn care equipment being used nearby, but probably most are unaware of the massive amounts of air pollution being released in their proximity at the same time."

The group Quiet Clean Philly has been working in the city to get Philadelphia City Council on a leaf blower law. The group supports an ordinance that would mimic Washington, D.C.'s ban, which prohibits the sale and use of a leaf blower with a sound level exceeding 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet.

But some Swarthmore residents, such as Stephen Kraftschik, believe a ban would be an example of government overreach. He cited the ordinance's justification for tackling pollution.

"Under the ordinance's logic," Kraftschik said, "the council could ban cars, grills, fireplaces, smokers and anything that causes pollution."

Councilmember David Boonin, a member of Swarthmore's Environmental Advisory Council, who supported the ordinance, suggested during last week's council meeting that it be tabled for further consideration after hearing from residents.

"It's not helpful, given what we heard today, to go full steam ahead," he said.

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