Center for American Progress

It’s Easy Being Green: The Secret to a Greener Lawn

It’s Easy Being Green: The Secret to a Greener Lawn

Gas-powered lawn mowers account for 5 percent of our air pollution. The solution? Go electric (or hand- or animal-powered).

Electronic lawn mowers, such as the one above, are smaller, require less maintenance, and create zero exhaust emissions. (flickr/Arizona Shona)
Electronic lawn mowers, such as the one above, are smaller, require less maintenance, and create zero exhaust emissions. (flickr/Arizona Shona)

Americans spend an estimated 3 billion hours per year filling out tax returns. It’s also what we spend using lawn and garden equipment—from lawnmowers to leaf-blowers to weed whackers. Lawns cover about 50,000 square miles in the United States, an area approximately the size of New York state, and we spend $40 billion tending to them.

Now that gas costs over $4 a gallon, gas-powered lawn mowers are an even more expensive habit for the pocketbook. But our dedication to soft, short, perfectly green grass comes with a price tag for the air, too. Push mowers emit as much pollution each hour as 11 cars, and a riding mower is the equivalent of 34 cars on the road. EPA estimates we spend 800 million gallons of gas each year mowing our lawns, contributing to 5 percent of overall pollution in the United States.

The good news is that it’s easy to save some money and keep the grass green while still reducing emissions of hazardous air pollutants like nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds, like carbon monoxide. The best way to reduce your yard emissions? Switch to a manual reel mower and use other hand-powered tools like brooms and rakes instead of leaf-blowers.

Electric-powered mowers are also a good option. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that replacing even half of the 1.3 million gas mowers in the United States with electric models would be the emissions-reduction equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the road. Not only are they smaller, require less maintenance, and create zero exhaust emissions, electric mowers are also cheaper to operate than gas-powered models. The average electricity cost is around five dollars per year.

Electric mowers can be more expensive up front than their gas-powered counterparts, but there are still ways to save on a new one. Many localities sponsor trade-in programs, which allow residents to receive a discount on a new electric mower in exchange for a still-running gas-powered model. The city, county, or air quality management district takes care of recycling the old mower.

The Sacramento, CA, Air Quality Management District’s annual Mow Down Air Pollution event has ballooned since its inception in 1997. That year 783 mowers sold for an estimated 8.7-ton reduction in emissions. This year the program sold 1,230 new electric mowers, for a 19-ton reduction. An exchange program in Clark County, NV this year sold out its entire inventory of 1,000 discounted electric lawnmowers in less than two weeks.

If you’re not in the market for a new machine, there are even simple ways to reduce emissions from your gas-powered mower. Avoid spilling gas when refilling your mower by pouring slowly and using a filter—homeowners spill 17 million gallons each year while refilling their tanks (that’s more than the 11 million gallons of oil released in the Exxon-Valdez spill). Maintain your equipment by using the right fuel, sharpening the blades once a year, and changing the oil and air filters regularly.

Plant a mixture of grass and flower seed, or a slower growing variety of turf grass to cut down on the frequency with which you mow. You could even remove all or part of the lawn and replace it with a vegetable garden, flowering plants, or native species. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn provides chemical-free mulch while keeping yard waste out of landfills (as a bonus, many electric lawnmowers, and some gas-powered varieties, are mulching mowers, meaning they puree the grass and leave it on the lawn as fertilizer). These steps can also save you money on your water bill and reduce your reliance on harmful chemicals that help keep the grass green.

Those with a more pastoral sensibility may favor Turin, Italy’s approach to municipal lawn upkeep. That city has done away with lawnmowers in favor of a herd of grazing sheep to trim the grass “cricket smooth.” But whether you choose the sheep, a manual push mower, an electric variety, or even stick with a gas mower, reducing emissions from your lawn care is an easy way to keep America green.

To read more about the Center’s policies on energy, the environment, and the economy please see:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.