Earth Friendly ways to mow the grass

lawn mower at the gas pump
Photo courtesy of AbracaDebra at Flickr.com

Everyone loves a well manicured yard, and there are a multitude of power tools that make short work of trimming, mowing, and edging. A surprising number of green options also exist, and more people are setting aside diesel powered leaf blowers in favor of lawn friendly tools.

At this minute, the majority of people use gas powered lawnmowers. It may not be a coincidence that sales of riding lawn mowers are rising along with our obesity rate. Gas powered riding mowers are the tricked-out SUVs of lawncare. The average lawnmower uses only 0.5 gallons of gasoline per hour, but self propelled mowers can use 200-300% as much fuel while delivering only a fraction of the exercise.

Even gas mowers that have to be pushed produce a lot of pollution. They emit approximately 11 times as much pollution per hour as a car. Most of this pollution is in the form of volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Lawnmowers emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful hydrocarbon compounds. After they settle on the yard or filter into local rivers and streams, these toxins work their way into our food and drinking water.

Most of this pollution could be avoided if the lawnmowers had catalytic converters, but very few lawn mowers include even rudimentary pollution controls. Some of the worst lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines. This older technology relies on lubricant mixed with gasoline in the fuel tank. This mixture of fuel and oil eliminates the need for a dedicated lubricating system, which makes 2 stroke engines weigh less. Since 2 stroke engines have fewer components, they are also cheaper to build. Unfortunately, these costs savings have an environmental cost. 2 stroke engines burn oil along with their fuel supply and put out far worse fumes than 4 stroke engines or electric drive trains.

Do you want to breathe diesel fumes or poison your yard with partially burned gasoline? There are much better, greener options out there. Some alternatives to gasoline powered mowers include natural gas mowers, electric mowers, push reel mowers, livestock, and even using native plants for landscaping.

Cat staring at a lawn mower and jerry can
Photo courtesy of cheryl at Flickr.com

Fuel alternatives for gas lawnmowers
Unleaded gasoline is one of the most popular fuels for lawnmowers, but mowers also exist that are designed to burn other compounds. Some mowers can be converted to use cleaner fuels. Check with the manufacturer – not all leaf blowers, edgers, and lawn mowers can burn ethanol or bio diesel. Other models are made specifically to burn methanol, propane, or methane. These alternative fuels still produce pollution, but they produce far less (especially if you have a local fuel source with a lower associated carbon footprint).

A propane riding mower - with large tanks on either side of the driver
Photo courtesy of jgoverly at Flickr.com

Electrical mowers

Electric mowers come in two varieties – battery powered mowers and plug-in mowers. If you want freedom from cords, battery mowers are the way to go. They have some drawbacks though, including limited endurance, reduced torque, and increased weight. Mowers with batteries are also less eco-friendly than plug in mowers. Manufacturing batteries is a dirty business, and batteries also waste a lot of power while charging up (20-80% depending on the type and age of the battery).

If you’re using an electric lawn mower, the source of electricity at your home determines the footprint of the mower. More than 80% of the power on the US power grid comes from coal, and that power is only slightly cleaner than gasoline. If your home is supplied with green electricity from solar arrays, wind turbines, a hydroelectric dam, or similar sources, then a plug-in lawnmower is much cleaner. You can get even more green out of an electric mower by converting it to run on solar power.

An array of solar panels, charging the 36 volt battery of a lawnmower
Photo courtesy of M.Barkley at Flickr.com

Push reel mowers
People powered lawnmowers are even more environmentally friendly than electric mowers, because they’re powered by human muscle power. Rather than burn calories on an endless climb on the stairmaster, why not use your muscles to accomplish something? Manual mowers have several advantages – they produce no exhaust fumes, they don’t ever need to be plugged in, and they are far less dangerous than other mowers. Even if you run the mower over pebbles, the slow moving blades aren’t going to throw rocks.

Push reel lawnmowers are pleasant to operate. Since they have no engine, they are almost completely silent. You can listen to birds in the trees while mowing, or bring your phone along and talk to friends while doing lawncare. If you’re an early riser, you can mow at 7am without waking up your neighbors.

A push reel mower - spinning scythe blades mounted to an axle with a long metal handle for pushing
Photo courtesy of Beaker’s Glassworks, Jewelery & Things at Flickr.com

Lawn mowing animals
If pushing a mower (of any kind) isn’t your idea of fun, you could always outsource the work. Livestock is nature’s own solution to overgrown grass. If you’ve always wanted your own full-time gardener, don’t forget that ruminants make a really cheap labor force.

Sheep and geese are happy to trim the yard, and they produce wool and down feathers as well as meat. Sheep ranchers are having a tough time with falling prices, and some are making ends meet by leasing out their sheep herds as expert mowers. If you have a larger area, cows are four legged mowing machines. In Australia, wallabies are becoming increasingly popular for their lawnmowing skills.

Some towns and HOAs have started keeping herds of farm animals instead of sheds full of gardening equipment. On the Google campus, a trial is underway using goats to keep the lawn trimmed. Several urban homesteaders have reported problems with goats though, because they’re escape artists and they can be unpredictable eaters. That means that they’ll eat some weeds while ignoring the grass, or that they’ll chew one area down to the roots while ignoring thigh high blades of grass on the other side of the yard.

sheep and geese on a lawn
Photo courtesy of albatrail at Flickr.com

Slow growing / native plants
Another way to control your landscape is to use alternative plants. Some species of grass grow at a much slower rate than the popular St. Augustine and Bermuda. These slow growing grasses require less maintenance, and they often require less fertilizer (further reducing their environmental impact). Clover and bluebonnets are popular alternatives because they naturally fertilizes the soil.

When choosing plants, think about using native species. Native plants are very well suited to the climate and wont run out of control like invasive plants. Xeriscaping your yard will also reduce the amount of water needed to keep the landscape lush and green in the middle of summer. Cactus and wildflowers aren’t the only native plants to consider – moss works surprisingly well and prairie grass also has great eye appeal.

Native grass growing in Lurie garden with skyscrapers in the background
Photo courtesy of one2c900d at Flickr.com

How to use solar power without installing a solar panel

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Photo courtesy of London Permaculture

Under new Federal laws, you can get tax credits for 30% of most solar panel installations. Some states have additional incentives, and many utilities are also encouraging customers to install solar panels so that they don’t have to build new coal power plants.

Even with these incentives, photovoltaic panels are pricey. In these tough economic times, it’s important to remember that there are many other ways to take advantage of energy from the sun. Here are a few low-cost options:

Install a solar water heater – Passive solar systems cost a fraction of what solar panels cost and they are much more efficient at heating water (because they generate heat directly, without the need for inverters or battery storage of energy). Solar water heaters are also eligible for a 30% tax credit, the same amount that photovoltaic panels can earn. There are many different designs for solar water heaters, and some are more suitable for different parts of the country.

Use a clothesline – For the cost of a sturdy rope and some clothespins, you can unplug your electric clothes dryer. Even on a cool day, a gentle breeze will suck the moisture out of clothes. Clothes that are dried on a clothesline last longer (there’s less wear and tear from tumbling in the dryer), they smell better, and they’re naturally sterilized by UV light from the sun. Switching to a clothesline can cut your electric bill by 10-15%.

Turn out the lights – When the sun is shining, there’s no reason to keep the curtains closed. Instead of using a couple of hundred watts of electricity to power lightbulbs, turn off those lights and let the sunlight in! If Peeping Toms are a worry in your neighborhood, install slats or polarized window coverings for privacy. These window treatments will also filter out UV light and reduce carpet fading. Or, you can plant a window box full of kitchen herbs and obscure the view with tall plants while still letting in natural light.

Build to take advantage of the sun – When drawing blueprints or choosing a place to live, remember that a building’s layout can make a major difference in the amount of air conditioning and heating that’s needed. One thing to consider is orientation – building short walls on the east and west sides reduces the surface area that’s exposed to early morning and late evening sunlight. Another thing to consider is solar massing – using thick, heat absorbent materials like adobe can insulate a building against hot weather during the day and cold weather during the night, cutting heating costs by up to 65%.

Use trees – Trees provide wonderful natural shade, and they also capture solar energy the old fashioned way, by converting sunshine into firewood. Tree choices can also complement the way that buildings capture sunlight in the winter and block sunlight in the summer. One popular landscaping choice is to plant deciduous trees on the east and west sides of a building. That way, the leafy trees block sunlight in the summer (when leaves are full) and let sunlight through in the winter (after the leaves fall off).

Try a solar cooker – Sunlight is a great way to boil water and cook food. It’s easy to focus sunshine with collectors, and simple solar cookers can be made for less than $15 using just about anything and aluminum foil. Here are instructions for making a solar cooker out of a used pizza box. There are compact solar cookers tailor made for camping and larger models suitable for crock pot cooking.

In many developing countries and off-grid locations, solar cookers are reducing indoor air pollution by replacing firewood, charcoal, propane, and other fuel sources. These solar cookers can save thousands of lives each year, while also reducing deforestation and reducing conflict over limited resources. Since sunlight is free, solar cookers drastically cut the cost of boiling water for sanitation purposes. If you want to take advantage of sunlight without buying a solar panel, here’s a great recipe for Solar Baked Brownies!

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Photo courtesy of AIDG

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Mulching with recycled rubber tires

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Photo courtesy of Vagawi

Every year, approximately 1 Billion tires are replaced due to wear and tear. Many of these tires end up in landfills, but the majority are burned or converted into Tire Derived Fuel. A growing number of tires are being recycled after they have reached the end of their useful lifespan.

Recycling tires is a tricky process, because tires are a hodgepodge of many different things:

A typical passenger tire contains 30 types of synthetic rubber, eight types of natural rubber, eight types of carbon black, steel cord, polyester, nylon, steel bead wire, silica and 40 different kinds of chemicals, waxes, oils and pigments. They typically contain 85% hydrocarbon, 10-15% iron (in the bead wire and steel belts) and a variety of chemical components.

Discarded tires are mostly inert, but their effects on the environment are largely unknown. When discarded in landfills, they pose a significant fire risk and they take up a lot of space. Even before they reach the landfill, a lot of tire rubber flakes off into the environment from normal wear and tear. The effects of this worn tire rubber haven’t been widely studied.

Old tires are a cheap and plentiful resource, so many different ideas have been proposed to put old tyres to practical use. In the 1970’s, several attempts were made to build artificial reefs out of discarded tyres. Those plans didn’t work out very well, because chemicals in the tires repelled marine life. Now, millions of tires are rolling around on the ocean floor and even causing damage to natural coral reefs.

More recently, tire recycling companies stepped in and found commercial uses for tire scraps. More than 80% of dead tires end up getting turned into Tyre Derived Fuel. When tires are burned along with coal and wood scraps, they can actually reduce emissions of some pollutants.

There are other uses for recycled tires – they’re used as an ingredient in road construction, as a replacement for pavement, to make rubber flooring, and as artificial mulch. A blend of liquid asphalt and “Fine Grind” tire rubber lasts about 25% longer than other road surfaces, which cuts down on maintenance costs for highways nationwide. Crumb rubber is also widely used on running tracks and playgrounds for children. It provides excellent cushioning and prevents injuries for children and adults alike. Rubber chips are also offered as mulch.

Rubber mulch is a controversial product. Some gardeners swear by it as a long lasting weed suppressant and low maintenance landscape surface. Other gardeners steer clear of rubber mulch, due to concerns about chemical leaching, fire hazards, and smell.

Here are some of the benefits of using rubber mulch instead of wood mulch:

  • More durable (rubber lasts 5+ years vs 1-2 years for wood mulch)
  • Uniform look and color
  • Does not attract termites or other insects
  • No risk of mold or fungus infestation
  • No effect on wood allergies
  • Resistant to flooding and high winds
  • Cushy and comfortable to walk on
  • Helps dispose of used tires
  • Here are some of the problems with rubber mulch:

  • Some brands contain metal wire or nylon scraps
  • Smells like rubber, especially on hot or humid days
  • Potentially flammable (but so is wood mulch)
  • Risk of chemical contamination
  • Breaks down into inorganic components
  • Heats unevenly in the sun, killing sensitive roots
  • May contain carcinogens
  • The jury’s still out, but recycled rubber mulch seems safe to use in certain applications. What do you think? Do you have any experience using rubber mulch in your garden or greenhouse?

    Here’s another way you might want to consider to recycle old tires – they make great insulation for earth friendly homes. Crumb rubber also shows promise as a water filtering medium. In Arizona, state law makers are exploring another way to dispose of old tires: filling abandoned mine shafts to eliminate dangerous pitfalls. A few million years from now, who knows – those mine shafts might fill up with black gold!

    tires-oil-derrick-and-solar-panesl-road-dog-fl
    Photo courtesy of Road Dog

    Green news you can use

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    Photo courtesy of From A Second Story at Flickr.com.

    Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture on your screen. A lot of exciting things are going on right now.

    First off is an uplifting story about how a species was brought back from the brink of extinction. The Aleutian Cackling Goose is one of the few animals that has been successfully taken off of the Endangered Species list, and it was saved, in large part, by the efforts of a single guy. How cool is that? Imagine if every person adopted one of the species on the list!

    Often, when environmental activists work to preserve the environment, they face resistance from developers, local businesses, and sometimes even their own neighbors. Some people fear environmentalism as a force that closes doors and blocks possibilities, others simply oppose change in any form. Yet, new studies are showing that untamed spaces can be a positive force.

    Environmental activism can achieve personal health goals, and benefit public health at the same time. Just like wild animals, human beings are hardwired to appreciate nature. People who spend more time outdoors have been found to recover from stress faster and have stronger immune systems; they also have and lower rates of disease associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Children who spend more time outdoors have lower risks of obesity and they even develop better vision.

    It’s easy to see how land conservation and sustainable agriculture is changing the world, but the spread of composting, non-chemical fertilizers, and free range ranching doesn’t always make the news. For example, did you know that roughly a quarter of the world’s organic farms are in Africa? Growing demand for organic produce is having a huge impact on some of the poorest farmers in the world, and there are still millions of acres of African farmland that use organic techniques which can be improved to be even more productive. Organic crops have the potential to transform Fair Trade and increase food stability in many African countries.

    One last thing – if you have a few moments to kill, Comedy Central has created a really addictive environmental flash puzzle. It challenges you to step into the President’s shoes and prevent global warming with an array of different technologies. After you lay down each puzzle piece, they will morph and interact with other pieces already on the board. For instance, recycling technology will cause disaster if you don’t build up an industrial outlet for the recycled goods. There’s a moral lesson worth taking to heart.

    What do you think the biggest story is right now? Feel free to post comments below and share your green news with the world.