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LEAFBLOWERS VS. SOIL: Best Climate Tactics for Evanston, IL & Elsewhere

These are the questions that frame my current climate and policy deliberations: How to stop over-producing, over-using, and over-working everything and everyone? How can everyone make a decent living and have a good life, too? What does our form of government have to do with these questions? What does declaring a climate emergency actually mean? What would life in Evanston look like if we actually felt the emergency as a single organism, like a flock of birds or a school of fish, for the benefit of all?

Here’s a recent proposal that I tried to examine in that framework. Let’s see how it works.

A. The Proposal
B. Leafblowers are Killing Machines
C. Other Reasons to Reject this Proposal…and move on
D. Say no to electric leafblower grant program 


Recently, Evanston’s Economic Development Committee considered a proposal to help Evanston-based landscape companies transition from gasoline- and propane-powered leafblowers, which will be banned in Evanston at the end of 2023. The proposal is to make the cost of commercial grade electric leafblowers and batteries allowable under the city’s entrepreneurship grant program.

June 3, 2022 article by Bill Smith in Evanston Now describes some details and two people have commented on the proposal (both opposed). A June 9, 2022 article by Bob Seidenberg for the Evanston RoundTable has additional information (one comment questioning the use of leafblowers). Consider this blog Opposing Comment #5, for multiple reasons, starting with the inherently negative effects of all leafblowers.


Thanks to my alderman (Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th ward) whose comments in the Evanston Now article helped me to see that, just like all guns are killing machines, all leafblowers are killing machines. Quoted in the article, Jonathan said: “it’s really kind of a no brainer”; the grant program for electric equipment amounts to a “buy back program” (for the leafblowers that will be banned from 2024 on). 

I tried to wrap my head around this concept of “buy back program”. The only context in which I’ve ever heard of such a program is gun violence, where the goal is simple: get as many guns as possible off the streets, out of homes, and out of existence. Gun buy back programs don’t give participants a lesser killing machine in exchange for a more powerful one. This is because all guns are killing machines.

It’s time to face the fact that all leafblowers are primarily killing machines. When used to disturb and remove all organic matter from a neighborhood, year by year, season by season (including insects, microorganisms, and other wildlife that live on leaf litter, decaying wood, etc.), leafblowers disrupt the web of life. These interconnections among all life are what support life’s renewability and vitality — not just survival. Most notably, leafblowers disrupt the consciousness of humans as dependent on that renewability and vitality, as embedded in the web of life, not outside of it. This is true of gas-powered leafblowers, electric leafblowers, noisy ones or quiet ones, with or without ear protectors, with or without respiratory protection. 


1.  Limited positive effects. 
At most, the positive effects of the program — a tiny grant, less emissions, and less noise — would accrue to ten Evanston landscape businesses and the neighborhoods in which they have clients. 

2. Distraction from more serious land + people + money issues, for example:
— The ongoing (40+ years) desertification and degradation of Evanston soils
—The waste of a good and expensive education, i.e., the disconnect between what Evanston schoolchildren learn (presumably the science curriculum teaches the soil cycle) and what Evanston adults do to our soils

3. Distraction from better climate actions, for example:
— Supporting more needy and more impactful land-related projects, e.g., Edible Acre at ETHS, Edible Evanston, Evanston Food Exchange, natural habitat initiatives (Citizens Greener Evanston), SAGE school gardens & coordinators, Evanston Grows, Evanston Environmental Association.

— One of the easiest and most obvious climate mitigations: Energy conservation + soil building by adopting citywide the practice of “leaving the leaves”. Every good gardener, ecologist, farmer, and landscaper knows that letting the leaves, grass clippings, etc., decay on-site, supporting all the biodiversity that support our ecosystems, is the best and easiest way to conserve soil, build soil, and maintain soil productivity. This practice is truly a “no brainer” and minimizes the need for leafblowers, for trucking organic matter to landfills, for trucking compost and mulch back into Evanston, for storm water management, for fertilizers, for pesticides and herbicides, for energy of any kind, for replacing dead plants (esp. dead evergreens).

—  A regular and citywide soil testing program (for organic matter, fertility, lead, etc.) combined with a program to restore and better manage our soils for water retention, root protection, productivity (esp. of food), etc. (Thanks to Charles Smith for this idea.)

My 2020 blog details:
— the costs of being over-neat
— the ecological, financial, and climate advantages of keeping organic matter on property See LEAVE THE LEAVES: Urban Soils, Urban Consciousness (published in the New Farmers Almanac: Grand Land Plan).

4. Greenwashing. Even electricity (as currently produced) is dependent on mining, fossil fuels, and questionable labor practices and, in Illinois especially, problems with nuclear energy (mining, waste, etc.). See or read Bright Green Lies or Planet of the Humans. In other words, electric leafblowers aren’t really much greener than gasoline or propane leafblowers.

5. Unfairness. Subsidizing businesses that use leafblowers is an inadvertent snub of those (a) Evanston property owners who don’t use or allow leafblowers on their property, and (b) Evanston landscape companies that don’t use leafblowers of any kind. People and businesses who have been green for a long time and on our own dime feel like we’re being penalized.

Along the lines of diverse business models and diverse lifestyles, Paul Klitzkie’s quote in the RoundTable article supporting the City’s proposal is both inaccurate and patronizing. While I appreciate his concern for other landscape companies, he doesn’t speak for all landscape companies and doesn’t seem to know that there are business models other than “large” (like his own company, Nature’s Perspective) and “small”.

I disagree with Klitzkie’s assertion that requiring companies to buy new electric equipment “could really kill” the smaller companies. As a professional gardener for 25 years (now retired), I was the smallest a company could possibly get: one person with no motorized tools of any kind. I had to turn down new clients because I was completely booked, year after year. When I retired, former clients and other Evanstonians still called me for recommendations for gardeners who knew how to garden like nature and with nature and who love soil.


In my opinion, as a professional gardener for 25 years, now a full-time climate activist in the food-and-farm arena (since 2007), the proposal to offer subsidies for electric leafblowers is misguided, a waste of city time and money (staff, officials’, and voters’), with questionable impact.

Am I advocating a total ban on all leafblowers for all purposes? No, in fact I see at least two purposes for which leafblowers seem to be the right tool in our built and over-built environments:a. cleaning out gutters (1-2 times per year)b. cleaning out hard-to-reach large areas such as stadiumsc. ??

But using leafblowers to remove — discard, throw away, treat as garbage — the organic matter and wildlife that is produced by and replenishes Evanston’s soils year after year is a slow death — until it becomes a precipitous crash. Avoiding such a precipitous crash is presumably why the City of Evanston recently declared the climate crisis as a City emergency. Let’s act like we understand what that means.

I think we can have more nuanced, productive climate and soil conversations that start with root causes, fairness, and more impactful restorative actions, not with the default promotion of leafblowers that will still be part of the problem. If the City has $30,000 to spend on landscape-related climate actions, I know of a number of projects that would benefit from some of that money, with zero downsides (see #C3). What would be the most productive, fairest way to spread that $$ around?