City pushes electric mowers to improve air quality

When the city said it was giving away $100 to the first 200 residents who were willing to swap out their gas mower for a cleaner electric one, the spots were claimed quickly. Replacing lawn mowers won’t put us in the clear for improving air quality, but it’s a start.
Jared Bartley’s son mows his backyard in the Slavic Village neighborhood. Photo by Jared Bartley.

When the City of Cleveland Division of Air Quality posted on Facebook that it was giving away $100 to the first 200 residents who were willing to swap out their gas mower for a cleaner electric one, Jared Bartley thought maybe it’s time. 

“The battery mowers are quieter,” he said. “My kids are doing more of the lawn mowing and the youngest is eleven. I feel better about him not handling gas.”

The city made it easy, said Bartley, identifying metal scrapping operations where the old gas mower could be safely disposed of, including one close to his home in Slavic Village. As an employee of the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District, Bartley was aware of the environmental benefits to society at large, which is exactly what the city hopes will motivate people with this pilot program. 

All 200 spots were quickly claimed in the first month, making it clear there’s demand at the individual level to do something about air pollution. 

While replacing lawn mowers may not put the Cleveland-Akron-Lake County region in the clear — the American Lung Association recently identified Cuyahoga County as having some of the dirtiest air in the U.S., ranking it 24th among metropolitan regions — it is a start, said Christina Yoka, Administrator of the Cleveland Division of Air Quality. While we’ve improved in recent years, Northeast Ohio is still out of compliance for several national air quality standards, according to the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA). Poor air quality, which tends to affect low-income communities and communities of color the worst, can lead to serious health disparities, according to research

“This is a first for the City of Cleveland,” she said. “It benefits quality of life.” 

The Cleveland-Akron-Lake County region and those like it across the U.S. are required by the EPA to measure air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide comes from burning diesel fuel which on hot, sunny days forms into a gas called ozone. Unlike the good kind of ozone that lives in the upper atmosphere and protects the planet, this ozone, also called smog, sinks to ground level and can cause breathing problems, especially for children, seniors and those with asthma.  

The EPA found that gasoline-powered lawn mowers are way worse for the environment than electric lawn mowers. They emit eight times more nitrogen oxides, 3,300 times more hydrocarbons, 5,000 times more carbon monoxide, and more than twice the CO2 per hour of operation than electric mowers.

The Bartleys’ old mower swapped out through the city’s program. Photo by Jared Bartley.
Jared Bartley used the city’s program to purchase this new cordless electric mower. Photo by Jared Bartley.

“It’s going to be a slog, but little bitty chunks will make a difference,” said Sam Rubens, Administrator of the Air Quality Division at the Summit County Board of Health, which launched an incentive program for homeowners to scrap their gas-powered mowers for a cleaner, battery-powered version in 2020. “We’re pulling tons of pollutants out of air and that’s the name of the game.”

As a child coming of age in Akron in the 1970s, Rubens recalls factories filling the sky with black smoke. “All the ‘smell of money’ we used to have with the rubber companies produced a lot of emissions,” he said. “Nowadays, industry is not our largest contributor.” 

Addressing motor vehicles

That distinction belongs to motor vehicles, he said. Cleveland, like Akron, is taking small swings to address air pollution from motor vehicles, starting with the kind that don’t use roads — lawn mowers. Collectively, these tiny engines produce tons of air pollution you may not see but which adds up — the EPA estimates just the gas that spills on the ground each year (17 million gallons) from refueling lawn mowers is more than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez disaster (11 million gallons).

Cleveland learned from Akron and Summit County. The program splits the cost of a new electric mower with the participants. Cleveland is offering residents a $100 rebate and requires a receipt from a scrapper to prove that they are removing the gas mower from operation. While lawnmowers emit far less pollution than cars and trucks, replacing them is a good move. 

“It’s one less potential source of air pollution,” Cleveland resident Bartley says. “My one mower is not going to make a huge difference, but if you can scale this up … on days like today when it is 90 degrees and probably an air quality alert day, it may be a few drops in the bucket.” 

In part, the appeal of swapping a gas- for a battery-powered mower may be that it is a lighter lift. Literally, the electric mowers are lighter and easier for youth and elderly (who made up the majority of applicants in Summit) to use, Rubens said. It’s also easier to entice people to buy a new mower than to convince whole industries like freight companies or school districts to change their behavior and quit idling trucks and buses when parked on a job site or at schools. 

That said, Cleveland still wants trucking and schools to get on board with anti-idling. “We’re looking at voluntary programs for industry and how do we develop an incentive program for those with heavy duty vehicles to have anti-idling (programs) or idle reduction devices,” Yoka said. 

Under the microscope

Cleveland’s decision to invest $20,000 in a lawn mower swap may not seem like much, but it was influenced by a report from the Rosemont, Illinois-based Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO) showing that air pollution is a significant public health concern. 

“Air pollution, we’ve known, leads to respiratory health concerns,” LADCO Executive Director Zac Adelstein said, adding that gas mowers produce significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides. “Some new studies are looking at mental health and the link to different diseases like mental illness, [and] we didn’t realize there was a link.”

City Club event on clearing Cleveland’s air. Left to right: Rick Jackson, Ideastream; Diane Howard, community activist; Christina Yoka, CDPH; Joe MacDonald, NOACA; Yvonka M. Hall, Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition. Photography by Michaelangelo’s Photography.

Cleveland and Akron are acting to reduce pollutants because they are under the microscope. Rubens, Yoka and their counterparts in Columbus and Cincinnati were approached by state regulators in 2021 — in the lead up to a major, federal, air quality compliance test happening this year — to submit a plan for reducing pollution. Ohio’s large metro regions were expected at the time to fail the test for ozone. 

“We’ve made great strides since the beginning of the EPA,” Rubens said. “Carbon monoxide (CO) is down seventy percent. Lead, unless there is a specific source like a smelter, is not floating around like it was when we had leaded gas.”

While ozone is still a concern, the science of detection has improved in the intervening decades, with research on how concentrations of compounds in industry and from vehicles, breathed into lungs, causes health concerns like asthma and elevated blood levels of lead and mercury. 

“In the 1990s, the science showed it wasn’t a one-hour concentration (of the pollutants) that was the most dangerous; it was a longer, lower concentration,” Rubens said in explaining the National Air Quality Standard. “The standard changed because the science proved that the longer exposure was a dangerous thing.”

While the EPA has effectively targeted and cleaned up what was coming out of industrial smokestacks, emissions from driving, trucking, construction sites and landscaping have grown as regions have sprawled outward. 

Currently, 35% of regulated air pollutants (not counting carbon dioxide) in the U.S. come from motor vehicles, Rubens says, both the kind that drive on roads and the kind, like lawn mowers, that do not. By comparison, industry produces 30% of air pollutants. The rest are from general “area” sources like paint fumes released when coatings are applied or paint and solvents are manufactured.

“The (lawn mower swap is about) understanding that industry is not the predominant driver of pollution,” Rubens said, adding, “Individual actions can aggregate to collective action. My buying a hybrid or a battery-powered mower won’t make an impact, but together we can make an impact.” 

Summit County gave away 88 gift cards for battery powered mowers in 2020 and another 100 in 2021, removing 2.5 tons of pollutants, Rubens said, adding that the program cost $10,000 each year. While removing 1.25 tons of pollution each year is a small number, Summit was encouraged by the demand and upped their offer to 200 gift cards this year. Also, the Summit program inspired Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo to follow suit.

“We are involved with EPA and NOACA looking at broad issues for voluntary programs that could be implemented and this is how the lawn mower rebate came about,” Yoka said. “It is part of a larger push toward cleaner vehicles, electrification of vehicles, that the city of Cleveland is pursuing.”

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