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SUBURBAN DIARY

Clean, quiet lawn care is within our power

A leaf-blowing landscaper disappears behind a tornado of leaves.Suzanne Kreiter

Autumn is my favorite season, but this year, months of fall lawn “cleanup” in my Wellesley neighborhood – culminating in a mild mid-December day with gas-powered leaf blowers, mowers, and truck-mounted leaf-sucking machines blaring on two nearby properties from 8 a.m. until nightfall – wore me down.

At noon that day I donned my clunky noise-canceling headphones – an accessory I felt I had to wear inside my home – to mute the outdoor din.

As a leader of the sustainability nonprofit organization in my town, I receive many e-mails and calls from residents asking for solutions to this deafening noise in their own neighborhoods. In response, I share my experience talking to my landscaper and encouraging them to shift to using rakes and quieter battery electric equipment.

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I also describe the progress being made in town. For example, Sustainable Wellesley has started a dialogue with officials at the Department of Public Works urging them to change the way the town maintains its municipal grounds and follow the example of other municipalities around the country that are helping to build momentum for cleaner, quieter maintenance practices.

What began with a small group concerned with public health and environmental impacts of gas-powered land care is now becoming a national movement that has gained impetus from the pandemic as more people are working and attending school at home. Momentum is building.

In mid-December, I attended a Zoom meeting sponsored by Boston University and Quiet Communities Inc. (QCi), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization of which I am a board member. The event was called “The Quiet Transition: Leading by Example in Clean, Quiet Land Care.” The conversation featured municipal, state, and county officials from Alabama, Massachusetts, New York, and California who are concerned about the harmful impacts of gas-powered equipment and are leading by example in implementing and advocating for more sustainable solutions.

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Here’s what I learned: Enduring change can be made through structured, well-thought-out programs. Positive solutions alone or coupled with reasonable regulations can make a lasting difference. Communities are making that happen by starting with their municipal operations. The momentum is now moving to the state level.

Consider the state of California, where the legislature recently voted to phase out the sale of new gas-powered lawn and garden equipment by 2024 and provide incentives for commercial businesses to purchase zero-emission electric equipment. In this case, the consideration was air pollution.

This type of legislation has widespread impacts, notes Jamie Banks, environmental health scientist and founder of QCi. “What are the benefits of the quiet transition? The health of workers and the public benefit from reductions in toxic, carcinogenic emissions and noise,” Banks says. “The planet benefits from reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Ecosystems and the environment benefit from reductions in fuel spillage, toxic waste, and damage to soil health. Municipalities, businesses, and other organizations benefit from long-term savings that can accrue and the economy benefits from a cleaner, greener workforce. It’s the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits.”

But there are challenges.

Some municipalities and businesses are wary of the price tag to transition to new equipment and are unsure whether rechargeable battery-operated equipment is practical out in the field or will be up to the task. Organizations like American Green Zone Alliance offer support and guidance, and state and local governments are considering incentives and funding.

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In Massachusetts, state Representative Michelle Ciccolo of Lexington has proposed legislation to create a fund to aid small businesses as they transition to electric equipment.

This move would help Lexington, where residents at the November Town Meeting voted to impose restrictions on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, and eventually ban their use throughout town. At the Town Election in March, voters will be asked whether they approve the measure.

But residents do not have to wait to make progress happen on their own properties. January and February are good months to step back and consider changes. Here are some steps to consider:

Observe other properties in town and reset your expectations of what a cared-for landscape looks like.

  • Leaves, berries, and flower seed pods left in garden beds provide food for birds and winter habitats for useful insects and can look pretty adorned in snow. A scattering of fall leaves left in place provide a cover and nutrients for the soil.
  • If you are designing a border or garden, consider native plants that attract pollinators and birds, and try a completely chemical-free approach.
  • Could a push mower or rakes work on smaller spaces? Keep an open mind.
  • If you rent your home, discuss landscape practices with your landlord.
  • How does your company office space manage land care, your child’s school, your town? Ask and if you are not satisfied with the status quo, provide information about alternatives.

If you work with a landscape company, this is a great time of year to reach out. Let the manager know that shifting to a quieter, healthier approach is important to you. Consider purchasing a better rake or your own electric leaf blower or electric mower for your use or for a crew to use on your property.

Talk to your friends and neighbors. Some may need to warm up to the idea of making changes, others, as I once did, may not have considered that they have options, and some may be happy you asked and want to work with you to join the quiet movement to educate others in the neighborhood and beyond.

Tricia Glass is a writer, a leader of Sustainable Wellesley, and a board member at the nonprofit Quiet Communities, Inc.

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