The transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy is so complex that ethical dilemmas work their way into every corner of American consumer life, even the musty corners of the average garage.
With bushels of taxpayer and utility rebates available to acquire cleaner electric cars, lawn mowers, home heating, leaf blowers and cooktops, consumers like Ed McAuliffe in Fort Collins are trying to do what’s right.
Is trading in a perfectly good gas-operated machine for someone else to use the right thing to do, and if someone else keeps using it, does that do the world any good?
After McAuliffe heard how much ozone and greenhouse gas pollution his lawn maintenance chores are causing, he started researching alternatives. “My leaf blower/vac is said to produce as much pollution in one hour as driving a bunch of times to California and back in a pickup truck! God knows what pollution my mower generates during an hour of use,” he said.
“Here’s the dilemma,” he continued: He’s got two perfectly good fossil fuel-powered machines that could impressively doctor landscapes for decades.
“If I buy new electric equipment what happens to these functioning machines? Do they go to a landfill where they will represent a serious waste of materials and space and where they will still be intact in 40 years? Or do I resell them knowing that the next owner(s) will generate the huge amounts of pollution I am trying to avoid?
“And then there is the loss of manufacturing and transportation costs which represent significant monetary, material, and energy investments which will all be duplicated in order to provide me with new electrical implements,” McAuliffe wrote.
Asking for any of our “nuggets of wisdom” but realizing those may be in short supply, he adds, “Have you found people who have given reasonable thought to this issue?”
We have, Ed!
We forwarded this common query about recycling and reuse of long-lived consumer goods to helpful sources at CoPIRG, Eco-Cycle and Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. Similar questions are bound to multiply this year as federal and state governments solidify lucrative electric vehicle tax credits, and legislatures like Colorado’s consider a new tax credit to buy clean electric leaf blowers and lawn mowers. The pollution culpability of two-cycle engines like Ed’s is gaining notoriety.
Our experts had quite nuanced things to say, so we’ll start with the most practical advice.
The clean energy advocates agree that if a consumer has the money for new lawn equipment, the most ethical thing to do is turn the old gas-powered equipment into a recycler who will reuse the valuable parts. Some scrappers even offer cash.
“We agree with the reader, it is best not to recirculate the gas equipment so that it continues to pollute,” wrote Randy Moorman of Eco-Cycle. “The Regional Air Quality Control Council (RAQC) has a program that provides coupons or a buyback program for new electric equipment for those that turn in their gas equipment. You can find out more from RAQC or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We also accept this equipment at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials in Boulder — CHaRM Facility (ecocycle.org) — we take the gas equipment and break it down to recycle the parts. For both of these programs, the equipment has to be free of liquids (drained of fuel),” Moorman said.
CoPIRG’s Danny Katz started with a more existential answer: Does Ed really need a leaf blower?
Some experts believe lawn clippings are good for the grass. Xeriscaping your lawn saves valuable Colorado water. And if you only need a lawn mower once a week or a leaf blower once a season, why not share equipment with neighbors to cut down on resource use, Katz asks.
“Ultimately, it’s just really absurd how polluting gas-powered lawn equipment is and given the air pollution problems along our Front Range, I’d argue we can’t afford gas-powered equipment,” Katz continued. “Given the technological progress we’ve made on the electric front, I think we’re near a moment when you won’t see gas-powered equipment offered and people like you won’t be faced with this dilemma because you would have bought an electric-powered piece up front. That day needs to come soon — we want to reduce the cost of this transition.”
CoPIRG acknowledges it often advocates for extending the life of goods by repairing them rather than scrapping them to buy new materials that created pollution in the manufacturing. “The amount of materials we would conserve if everyone used their cellphone for one more year is in the range of hundreds of pounds per phone,” Katz said.
“On the good news front, lawn equipment is not like plastic bags — there are a lot of valuable materials that can be removed and recycled,” Katz said. He also recommends the Mow Down Pollution program.
SWEEP’s Travis Madsen agrees pulling gas equipment off the streets is best, but if Ed needs the cash or can’t bear to retire good machines, selling to someone else is OK.
“That would have the effect of potentially replacing the purchase of new equipment that the other person might otherwise acquire, and move us incrementally on the path to clean, efficient technology,” Madsen wrote. “That would demonstrate, at the market level, increased demand for the clean option and reduced demand for the combustion option, which is progress.”
And people who believe in the clean energy transition can soften the edges of their personal dilemmas, by publicly advocating for expanding help programs, Madsen said. That could mean endorsing broader rebate programs or seeking support for public transit.
“Ask your elected officials for more assistance to help everyone make this transition in a smooth, effective way,” Madsen said. The transition will happen through all kinds of incremental steps, he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight and there’s going to be some imperfect trade-offs and inefficiencies as we do this.”