Lawnmowers, risks and rebates

If you care about air quality, you also probably cringe every time someone brings up the subject of recreational or utility gas-powered engines. These workhorses are notoriously inefficient and designed with virtually no emission controls whatsoever, although historically they have the odd distinction of being called “less costly” because they pollute more.

According to EPA analysis [reported in 1998], the small engine regulation will increase the cost of equipment by an average of $5-7 per unit, but durability will improve and fuel efficiency will increase for most small engines. These improvements in engine technology may offset the increase in cost.

It all comes back to what you value, right? If raw power is all you are after, then you essentially only measure one type of output — a very artificial test, like measuring the color of a steak but ignoring the taste. Simply put, good engineers are encouraged to factor in common risk (noise, toxins, wear, lost input/efficiency), if they want to measure and report the real output(s).

I think I was first alerted to the problem more than a decade ago when travelling by small-engine rickshaws in Asia that belched plumes of poisonous petroleum exhaust. The inefficiency of these engines was staggering at the macro level, but because the real risk and costs were not properly burdened by the operators the micro level had a “cheap” formula working to their favor. Fortunately the greater good was brought to bear and these monsters were eventually outlawed in some cities, like Kathmandu, because of the obvious noise/air pollution risk to the general population. I also remember a story on NPR about snowmobile engine opponents. A single operator was said to be creating as much pollution as 1,000 automobiles. That’s just compounded by the habit of some to replace their exhaust with race pipes that have “higher output”. Talk about inefficiency!

The most popular area for winter visitors is located around Old Faithful, most accessible from the West Entrance to the park, where as many as 1200 snowmobiles can pass through during any given day. Here the exhaust is so thick that it is considered harmful to the park rangers operating the tollbooths. The tollbooths have been coated in Plexiglas, and fresh-air is pumped inside to protect the rangers from the harmful fumes. Unfortunately, the park’s wildlife does not have a way to escape the fumes, and is constantly subjected to their harmful levels.

Anyway, this came up today because I read about a “lawnmower buyback program” in the Silicon Valley:

In the spring and summer, gasoline-powered lawn mowers create an estimated nine tons of air pollution every day in the Bay Area. Grass trimmings also make up a significant portion of the waste that gets buried in local landfills. By switching to an electric mulching mower or push mower, you can save time and money while cutting down on air pollution and yard waste.

This spring, the Air District is sponsoring mower exchange events in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties. Rebates of up to $150 are available to those who wish to exchange their old gas-powered mowers for new air pollution-free electric ones.

Interested participants should bring their mowers, drained of gas and oil, to a participating Home Depot store at the date and time listed below. You must turn in your old mower for recycling to get a discount. You can attend either event, provided that you are a resident of the nine-county Bay Area.

May 6th, 8a – 12p
Campbell Home Depot
480 E. Hamilton Ave.
(408) 866-1900

May 20th, 8a – 12p
Pittsburg Home Depot
2300 N. Park Blvd.
(925) 476-1900

Lawn Mower Buy-back events are on a first-come, first-served basis, for as long as supplies last.

Very cool. Such is life that incentives have to be created like this to offset the dynamic of today’s American chic. The “victory garden” seems like some sort of unpalatable fantasy rather than a hot topic in the US. The pride many have in wasteful consumption is tied to individual calculations of short-term expense as well as pleasure; it’s like the cluelessly lavish parties that ran right up to the market crash in 1929. In fact I was at a gathering just last night where a very wealthy woman said she was trying to fight the chilly weather by driving her giant SUV more often and revving the engine whenever possible.

The reality is that it is hard to off-set this kind of idiocy without some kind of carrot because the average American consumers clearly do not desire to think through the big picture implications of their actions. And if you follow the US energy company line of reasoning, consumers and the providers should be allowed to create toxic conditions in order to make a decent living, and the government should then step in to pay for the cleanup. It’s the rickshaw driver model, but in America the rickshaw driver parent corporations have more power over the government than vice versa, so don’t expect the Bush administration to enact the kind of ban on harmful emissions that Asian countries have shown they are willing to make.

Incidentally, I wonder how many people will buy a gas mower on craigslist (about $25-$125 right now) just to get the buyback rebate? I mean if you don’t have any mower at all that’s a chance to prevent someone else from using a gas mower. This seems oddly similar to when large technology companies buy emissions credits in order to support renewable energy innovation as well as block other companies from polluting past their allocation.

And that’s my ramble for today. Now, how do we start setting financial incentives to reduce the number of vulnerable applications that are released to the public?

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