Toronto City Council struck a small but significant blow for the environment this week. By a vote of 18-6, it decided to move toward a ban on gas leaf blowers and other devices powered by two-stroke engines.
It’s about time. The city has been musing about such a step for about 20 years.
Two-stroke leaf blowers are a blight on city life. They make an infernal noise, assaulting the eardrums and drowning out conversation. They spray dust and dirt all over. They release pollutants at many times the rate of bigger engines, expelling part of their fuel directly into the air as a noxious mist. Quieter, cleaner electric models are now widely available.
For these reasons, a number of American cities have already enacted bans – Washington, Burlington, Vt., and Pasadena and Sausalito, Calif., among them. A statewide ban on the sale of new gas-powered blowers will take effect in California next year. The state’s Air Resources Board says that using a backpack leaf blower for an hour produces the same amount of “smog-forming emissions” as driving a car 1,800 kilometres.
In Canada, too, a number of municipalities are either banning the machines or considering it.
Naturally, not everyone is keen on the idea. Landscapers say they need gas-powered equipment for longer, heavier jobs. Some suburban homeowners don’t like the idea of replacing all their blowers and trimmers.
When city council debated the issue, Stephen Holyday, who represents the suburban ward of Etobicoke Centre on Toronto’s west flank, said voters were going to be awfully angry when they saw council “flexing its muscles” and “telling them how they have to live their life.” He suggested the city might be coming for their barbecues next.
That’s nonsense. City hall is moving quite cautiously on this decision, in full realization that enacting a ban will be tricky and controversial. Council voted only to “express its support for a ban,” not to enact one, at least just yet. A ban would come only after extensive consultations with residents, businesses and the city departments (such as parks), that use two-stroke machinery themselves.
If Toronto does move ahead, it will need to take account of things such as the cost to contractors and less well-off residents of buying new electric tools. It may need to phase in a ban over a few years and let people hang onto their existing machines. A staff report on the issue said that “a ban would be difficult to enforce and would likely be subject to legal challenge.”
City staff did not recommend such a ban, saying that emissions from two-stroke engines made up just a fraction of Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that the number of noise complaints about leaf blowers was small compared with the number about other nuisances such as loud music.
Council went ahead regardless. It was right to do so.
University-Rosedale councillor Dianne Saxe, a former environmental commissioner of Ontario, said taking action on gas leaf blowers may be a little thing in itself, but it is something the city can actually do. With the climate crisis upon us, she said, and with Toronto committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040, “it’s about leadership, it’s about showing the way, it’s about giving clear signals.”
Even if our climate goals didn’t demand a ban, the racket these machines emit would justify it. The environment in most cities has improved immensely in the past couple of generations. The air is cleaner, the water purer. Noise pollution, though, is a continuing plague.
Racing motorcycles and cars fill the air with their whine and their roar just about every night. The city seems wholly unable to do anything about it. Leaf blowers are every bit as obnoxious. With the transition to electric garden equipment under way – every home-improvement store is full of it now – freeing ourselves from them is well within our reach, even if it takes a little time.
Good on council for seeing that.