How to reduce carbon emissions in your landscaping business
Welcome to another blog post in a series of exploring how specific businesses can reduce their carbon and environmental footprints. I have written a couple of posts already talking about what independent bookstores can do to reduce their footprints, and have lots more planned for the future!
Today, I wanted to explore landscaping and gardening businesses. This was inspired by the dulcet tones of a leaf-blower just outside my window, and as they say - the squeaky wheel gets the oil! Landscaping businesses are everywhere in Victoria. This is the city of gardens here in Canada, so it should come as no surprise that there are a rather large number of small landscaping businesses offering services to commercial, private, and all manner of other properties. I personally believe that landscaping businesses do an important job, because they facilitate beautiful spaces for people to use and enjoy. Anyone who knows me is well aware of my obsession with spending time in natural spaces, “Forest Bathing” is one of my favorite hobbies and the benefits of spending time in gardens and other natural spaces is so important for mental and physical health of individuals and have a lot of benefits for communities. So this post (much like all others I intend to write) is not meant to deride you as a landscape gardener or shake my finger at anybody, instead it is meant as a discussion and exploration of what can be done to improve your environmental impact while continuing to do the excellent work that you do.
And there are significant areas of landscaping work that can negatively impact the environment. Not only is there a discussion to be had about the impact of carbon emissions from power tools, but also the impact of water usage, chemicals of various kinds, and even how different plant varieties affect the ecosystem around them. I want to explore each of these sections in kind, but have a great deal of learning and research to do to cover them all! So, today I will keep it simple and tackle the part that is most related to my current field of knowledge: carbon emissions from power tools.
Power tools are essentially pieces of equipment for many landscaping companies. Lawn-mowers, clippers, shears, weed-whackers, chainsaws, and leaf-blowers are common additions to the tool-belt for many gardeners, and for good reason. These tools can reduce the time needed for jobs, increase productivity, and improve performance, all things that mean more money over time for the hardworking gardener. Homeowners who opt for a DIY approach also find themselves in possession of many of these tools.
However, there are substantial disadvantages and negative impacts that are directly associated with use of landscaping power tools, and some of them may even be affecting your business’ bottom line.
Let’s start with the carbon emissions that result from the use of these power tools. Gas-powered landscaping equipment is not very efficient, and the regulations our government has in place to improve emissions standards is not very robust. Lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, chainsaws and other such equipment fall under the category of “Off-road Gasoline/LPG/NG Vehicles and Equipment”, which has more lax emissions standards than those in place for road-vehicles. Older models of lawnmowers - some of which are still used despite new emission standards put in place in 2005 and again in 2013 - use a two-stroke engine, which I have learned means that oil and gas are mixed in the combustion process of powering the thing. This results in about 30% of that oil and gas not combusting properly, so more toxic gases are emitted than in a four-stroke engine.
Even the newer, four-stroke engine models are not hugely efficient. Despite being more efficient than their predecessors, a four-stroke engine lawn-mower will still emit massive amounts of carbon and other emissions during its lifetime. In my research, I’ve discovered that estimations for carbon emissions for lawnmowers range more that I would have expected. A Swedish study in 2001 on 4-stroke engines at the time indicated that operating a lawn-mower for one hour would result in similar emission-levels as a 150 car trip. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US, using a lawn-mower the average amount of time (this average includes home use, so this is likely lower than the average landscaping company) per year will result in 89 pounds of CO2 and 32 pounds of other emissions. I wasn’t able to find up to date estimates for Canada, but considering many of the brands available in the US are also available in Canada, we can estimate that it is probably not dissimilar.
Leaf-blowers are another piece of equipment that seriously needs to be looked at when discussing pollution in landscaping. According to a report in 2017 from the California Air Resources Board, “one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2016 Toyota Camry about 1100 miles, or approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Denver.” This is a much higher estimation than what lawn-mowers produce, which makes leaf-blowers the highest emitting piece of landscaping equipment. This is not to mention the negative impacts of the noise pollution of these beasts, which operate at over 110 decibels and can cause hearing damage by those using them.
So, without getting into the weeds of each individual piece of equipment and their associated emissions (some data for which is not readily available), we can see a trend that landscaping equipment can be a significant source of carbon emissions in your landscaping business. This may be enough of a reason to switch to a greener alternative already, but I understand that there are some hurdles to making this change that I wanted to also address.
The first issue is price. There will always be the concern of the upfront investment in newer equipment when going green for any business, but especially smaller businesses as many landscaping companies in Victoria are. I am not insisting that every piece of equipment you own be immediately replaced by a high-cost battery powered alternative immediately, because I know that the best change is sustainable change - one that transforms your business over time. If you are interested in chatting with me about how to prepare to transition your equipment to greener alternatives and want help with preparing a transition plan, feel free to contact me.
I will point out that the cost of electric models is offset by the savings you will have over time. Reducing the cost of fuel and maintenance due to fewer moving parts can really add up to some serious savings over time, which makes battery-powered equipment pay for itself and eventually results in more money in your pocket.
Of course, for some equipment it may be simple enough to go back to people-powered tools. These options are even more environmentally friendly (due to the avoided environmental impact of batteries), and can double as a work out. However, this option may not be accessible due to the required physical ability and potential extra time needed to operate them. All I can say is that depending on your business and the kind of gardens you tend to, taking a close hard look at what tools you use and their hand-powered alternatives could help you reduce carbon emissions with one or two smaller changes (e.g. leaf raking vs. leaf blowing - not ideal for all jobs, but potentially quite a beneficial swap!)
Another issue that might come up is the claim that electric tools are not as powerful as gas powered ones or don’t run as long between charges, and this can be true to a certain extent, but I encourage you to keep an eye on recent models as they come out. Electric leaf-blowers may not have the exact same oomph that a gas-powered one does, but newer models get better with every iteration, and may I offer a challenging statement: how far do you really need to blow leaves around anyway? Is that extra power really worth the noise and smog pollution that obviously results from the gas version? Feel free to discuss this further with me - I just wanted to include a direct challenge to help reflect on preconceived ideas.
With regards to the charging questions, I quite like the business model that Clean Air Yard Care uses with solar power set-ups on their trailers, in which they can plug in equipment between jobs. Furthermore, the purchase of battery packs that work with each piece of equipment can be a good investment, because they slot in easily and can be charged overnight, reducing the amount of time required to refill equipment with gas and oil.
I will fully admit that I am not well-versed in which company has the best equipment available on the market, so I will defer to the following posts that explore that particular question:
Finally should be noted that opting for an electric powered set of gardening tools helps reduce carbon emissions only as much as the power grid you are connected to is able to provide green energy. Here in Victoria, we get most of our electricity from BC Hydro, which in terms of carbon emissions is quite clean, so the impact here of going electric can be quite effective. This may not be the case in other provinces however. If you live elsewhere where the power grid is still quite carbon intensive (i.e. emits a lot of carbon emissions, like coal or liquid natural gas), you may want to consider the possibility of generating electricity for your equipment with solar power, which is an added cost to you up front but could pay off over time with the prospect of free energy!
So, I hope these musings are helpful to you. I plan to follow up with future blog posts discussing other aspects of the environmental impact of landscaping and gardening businesses soon. I think this is an area of carbon emissions that has been sorely lacking in study and research, so I am eager to learn more about this topic and share what I learn with you.