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Cambridge eyes ban on most gas-powered leaf blowers over health, environmental concerns

“I used to work in landscaping, I used to breathe the fumes and carry the backpack,” said City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan. “So, we should have done this yesterday.”

Genaro Hernandez, an employee with Cambridge Landscape, used a gas-powered leaf blower on a commercial property in Central Square.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In Cambridge, the buzz of gas-powered leaf blowers might become a thing of the past, as city councilors could decide next week whether to bar most uses of the equipment over concerns they create too much noise, pollute the air, and risk worker safety.

The proposed ordinance, which would follow similar measures implemented in towns like Arlington, Belmont, and Lexington, would require Cambridge residents to end their use of most gas-powered leaf blowers by March 2025, with businesses doing likewise the following year.

It’s a critical measure for protecting the health of residents, as well as the landscape crews who work in the city, according to Cambridge City Councilor Patricia Nolan, who led the charge and brought the proposal before the council.

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”It’s really important that we do everything we can to work on behalf of the larger community public health, and this is one element of it,” Nolan said.

But the proposal, which officials will likely vote on at a meeting Monday, has been met with some criticism, including from James Kelley, owner of Cambridge Landscape. Kelley said a ban could backfire: electrical blowers are not as powerful as their gas-powered counterparts, and they can take longer to do the same job, he said.

Electrical units rely on a power cord or rechargeable lithium batteries to run — and crews often have to stock up on extra batteries to complete a job, Kelley said. A gas-powered blower can run for hours, while an electrical one with a battery may last about an hour without recharging, he said.

They’re heavier than traditional leaf blowers, and more uncomfortable to use for long periods, he said.

“I understand where they’re coming from as far as the environment goes and all that. But from a practical standpoint, getting the work done — it’s just a total disaster,” Kelley said. “The equipment is not advanced enough to really be doing this, in my opinion.”

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Gas-powered leaf blowers have drawn the attention of environmentalists. The California Air Resources Board, in 2021, reported that a commercial-grade leaf blower running for an hour releases as much pollution as a passenger car does driving about 1,100 miles, according to the agency.

Genaro Hernandez, an employee with Cambridge Landscape, used a gas-powered leaf blower on a commercial property in Central Square.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Rick Reibstein, a lecturer with the Department of Earth & Environment at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, said that generally, measures to curb the use of gas leaf blowers have an “absolutely huge” benefit for the environment and on public health.

Landscaping workers who wield gas-powered blowers are surrounded by pollutants released by their engines’ exhaust. The machines themselves can disrupt the environment — particularly insect populations, reducing the available food for birds, he said.

But any effort to ban leaf blowers needs to include time for landscaping businesses to adapt, and help provide financial assistance for companies to acquire electric replacements, Reibstein said.

He pointed to legislation filed by state Representative Michelle L. Ciccolo, of Lexington, that would create a program to provide grants and loans to businesses and communities to switch from gas to electric landscaping equipment.

“I think phase-outs are better than bans. But once you’ve got a phase-out plan, if you don’t do it with a lot of assistance [for businesses], don’t expect it to work,” Reibstein said.

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In Arlington, where Town Meeting voters last year approved a ban on most gas-powered leaf blowers that is due to take effect for businesses in 2025 and residents in 2026, officials have already restricted use of the devices for a few months in the year.

Town Manager Jim Feeney said that implementing the bylaw has been worthwhile, but that there have been hurdles. Two health inspectors who work normal business hours have to enforce the bylaw, and that can slow the town’s response to reported violations, he said.

And unlike other professions — such as plumbers or electricians — there’s no central database of landscapers, so it’s not always simple to reach all the companies working in the town, according to Feeney.

Arlington has focused on educating residents and landscapers and many comply with the rule, he said. But not everyone. Feeney said the bylaw is there to protect residents, the landscape workers, and the environment.

“Big picture, it has been successful in terms of reducing noise and the other environmental impacts,” Feeney said. “But we have by no means achieved universal compliance, and we are certainly having challenges with enforcement.”

In Cambridge, Nolan said they are looking into how the city could provide financial incentives, but nothing has been formally proposed yet.

The proposal is not a complete ban of gas-powered leaf blowers. It explicitly bans handheld or backpack-style blowers; wheeled leaf blowers are exempted, including equipment attached to a mower or tractor.

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And it would allow the city to use gas blowers at several specific municipally owned properties included in the proposed ordinance, such as the city golf course at Fresh Pond and Mayor Thomas W. Danehy Park. It also doesn’t stop the city from using the equipment as part of storm or emergency cleanup.

Currently, leaf blowers can only be used in Cambridge between March 15 to June 15, and Sept. 15 to Dec. 31 of each year. Commercial companies must also seek a city license to use the equipment. Those restrictions would remain in place with the current proposal.

Earlier this week, Cambridge city councilors held two public meetings on the proposal, which initially set a 2027 deadline for businesses to stop using gas blowers.

Nolan urged colleagues to support changing the deadline to 2026 because it would allow the ordinance to apply around the same time as in some other communities, including Belmont.

During a License Commission meeting Monday, Martin O’Brien, the assistant director of campus services at MIT, told city councilors that the measure should keep that deadline so organizations in charge of large properties have time to prepare.

According to MIT, the university’s campus is nearly 170 acres, including about 100 acres where crews would use leaf blowers.

“I think [it] would give the ability for the industry to catch up with the desire to go all electric,” O’Brien said at the session.

Sarah Eusden Gallop, MIT’s director of government and community relations, followed up with city councilors Tuesday morning to voice support for the measure with the 2026 deadline.

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In an e-mail to councilors, she said, “We anticipate replacing all of our gas-powered leaf blowers prior to March 2026, assuming availability.”

On Tuesday, the Cambridge City Council’s ordinance committee voted 6-0 to recommend the proposal — including the 2026 deadline — for a full council vote.

Just before the vote, Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan signaled his support.

“I used to work in landscaping, I used to breathe the fumes and carry the backpack,” Zondervan said. “So, we should have done this yesterday.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.