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Dear Decaturish – So you think you’re progressive? What’s your policy on leaves

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Dear Decaturish – So you think you’re progressive? What’s your policy on leaves

Gas powered leaf blower. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Dear Decaturish,

Decatur is known to be a somewhat left-of-center town, a place where many drive electric cars, eat organic, and manage on occasion to slip “carbon footprint” into polite conversation.

If I’m talking about you, well, I’m writing with a gut check of sorts: what’s your policy on…leaves? That’s right, leaves. Do you hire a company to come to your house once or twice a week and blow any semblance of leaf matter off your lawn? 

If so, you certainly aren’t alone, as my ear-blasting walks through various neighborhoods indicate, and you may also not be as progressive as you thought.

So where’s the contradiction? Let’s start with your aforementioned environmentalism, which clearly doesn’t square with the problem I just mentioned: noise pollution. And not just a little. The noise from two-stroke leaf blower engines is 85-110 decibels (louder than Niagara Falls!). For reference, permanent hearing loss can set in with prolonged exposure to over 70 decibels.

In short, it’s difficult to see how anyone – conservative, progressive, or somewhere in between – could possibly create more noise. 

Unfortunately, the pollution isn’t just audible. Lawn equipment in the US puts more carbon dioxide in the air than the entire city of Los Angeles, more than 30 million tons. Hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour of yard work with the two-stroke leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska. 

In other words, for all that exhaust, you might as well ditch the Prius and get a Hummer. At least you’ll have more room.

If the exhaust isn’t enough, consider the variety of allergens that leaf blowers add to the air you breathe. Oh, and the dried animal and rodent feces. Can’t forget the rodent feces.

We’re almost done with the environment, but there’s one more issue. Leaves provide nutrients for your soil that are vital to the microbes, worms, birds, insects, etc. on which a healthy ecosystem – one that soaks up more carbon dioxide – depends. With this organic material gone (except for the mosquito larvae that thrive in this predator-free environment), your topsoil will dry out and degrade, which is why, after carting the leaves away, your lawn care company will sell these nutrients back to you.

Another issue that’s perhaps in your progressive sights is the rights of workers, especially the immigrants, who are in no position to complain about their working conditions. Perhaps you supported the United Auto Workers in their recent strike, and maybe you’re reluctant to buy things you know were made in Mexican maquiladoras

Well, if you’re ever home on a leaf-blowing day (more on that in a minute), have a look out the window at the folks with the jet engines strapped to their backs, the ones breathing in 3,900-mile drive worth of exhaust and slowly, or not so slowly, deafening themselves. 

Finally, as progressives – and conservatives, you should probably listen up here too – you care about harm to others, especially older people, the disabled, young children and their caregivers. What they have in common is that they’re the ones at home during the day while you’ve perhaps escaped to an office somewhere that is, ironically, a lot quieter than your leafy neighborhood. (Is that why you go to the office?)

Okay, I know I sound preachy; self-righteous, even. So let me fess up. While I don’t use or pay others to use leaf blowers, my carbon footprint is well north of “major hypocrite” levels. To be fair, it’s kind of hard to live in America without facing that reality, but still, I fly on airplanes enough times to well outweigh any virtue points I get for being a quiet, non-polluting neighbor. 

So we all make choices, and none of us is perfect. But here’s the beauty of this issue: it’s an easy fix. Just tell your lawn company you don’t want them to use gas blowers, and if they say they can’t switch, then look up one of the many companies that will accommodate you. (Quiet Georgia has a list.) At a minimum, ask them to schedule fewer and shorter-lasting blower crews. You might even purchase an electric blower for them to use when they’re at your house.

Electric blowers will still kick up that rodent feces, but at least they’re doing it more quietly and without all the exhaust. And the guy with the machine on his back will secretly (because he doesn’t want the boss to know) thank you.

And that’s it! That’s all you need to do to be at least a little truer to yourself. While it may cost a few extra dollars (although buying a rake, or just letting the leaves be will save money), as a good progressive, that’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make. 

Of course, it’s not just on you. The situation would improve greatly if Decatur would update its Noise Ordinance, transition all city equipment to electric, and/or offer incentives to residents and commercial landscaping companies to do the same. 

One thing it cannot do, however, is follow the lead of 200 cities in more than 36 states across the country that have enacted leaf-blower ordinances. Unfortunately, Republicans in Georgia this year passed legislation preventing communities from prohibiting or even regulating leaf blowers.

When asked to explain how such legislation squared with standard conservative celebrations of local governance, State Senator Shawn Still offered the confused argument that “This bill exactly gives local control to each individual homeowner to decide what they’re going to do in their own yard.” And, we might add, with their neighbors’ quality of life. 

So there you have it; our lives are in our neighbors’ hands, and we’re left to hope that theirs are the hands of progressives. Real ones.

— Peter M. Lindsay

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