In “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” first published in the October 1923 Yale Review, poet Robert Frost perfectly encapsulates the melancholy bliss of autumn in New England:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
It’s December now, and nature’s gold is nearly gone. Yale’s campus is prettiest in fall. Autumn’s ephemeral beauty cast against eternal architecture, there’s just nothing like it. But, walking amidst the mounds of red and yellow earlier this week, I couldn’t help but focus on the orange.
The orange I saw was a STIHL BR 500 gas-powered leaf blower, strapped to the back of a Yale groundskeeper. And there wasn’t just one. The STIHLs were all around — precisely where they shouldn’t be.
Gas leaf blowers are loud and emit fumes that are harmful to the environment. Yale knows that. That’s why, on September 20, 2017, the University announced that it would replace its grounds equipment with electric alternatives: “[Dev Hawley, director at University Planning & Facilities Operations] expressed that while the gas equipment is effective, it is loud and emits fumes that are harmful to the environment,” the announcement notes.
September 20, 2017 was over four years ago. I was in my first semester then. I’m in my penultimate semester now, and I even took a year off to give the University some time to catch up. Yet gas blowers still abound. What’s the hold-up?
To the University’s credit, they have replaced some of their leaf blower fleet — which numbered over 30 in 2017 — with electric alternatives. They use the quieter electric blowers inside colleges and courtyards, and the gas ones outside. “We leverage electric blowers for all times of the year except when heavy wet leaves are not efficiently moved by that equipment. We are currently in the middle of testing the most recent electric powered equipment and will continue to phase-out our gas blowers,” Hawley said in an email to the News. Change takes time, I know. The original announcement stated that half would be replaced immediately, and that Hawley expected the other half to be replaced by 2018.
It’s 2021 now, and New Haven is currently considering a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, following the lead of over fifty municipalities across the United States. And if Yale wants to be a model neighbor, it should lead by example. Now, I know: “He that has never blown leaves with gas, let him cast the first stone,” the verse goes. Am I nitpicking here? Yes. Am I being unreasonable? No.
An unreasonable person would suggest that the University clean its leaves with brooms because the electricity in electric leaf blowers isn’t 100 percent renewable-generated. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that replacing gas leaf blowers with electric ones — all the time — is an intervention with an uniquely low cost-to-benefit ratio.
Leaf blowers are really, really bad for the environment. A famous 2011 study compared the emissions from a two-stroke gas motor to that of a Ford F-150 Raptor and found that the leaf blower emitted 23 times more carbon dioxide and more than 300 times the non-methane hydrocarbons than the truck, noting that half-an-hour of two-stroke blowing emitted more hydrocarbons than a cross-country drive from Texas to Alaska.
There are corded and battery-powered leaf blowers that are just as powerful as gas ones. Sure, they might not run as long, recharging might be annoying, and extra batteries are costly. But they’re not that costly. This is a school with billions at its fingertips — a couple thousand blown on some beefy electric blowers won’t break the bank. And gas has its costs too. “By reducing localized emissions and cutting back on noise,” the 2017 announcement noted, “the initiative will also benefit the health and well-being of the Facilities grounds staff.” So, do it: initiate!
Whatever the barriers to leaf blower electrification, I have faith that Yale can overcome by “doing what we do best—integrating science, the humanities, and our community” and adopting “innovative solutions to the environmental and social challenges we all face,” as the 2017 statement so aptly put it.
I’m not insisting that any one individual staff member or administrator is personally culpable for this oversight. A lot has happened between 2017 and now, and little things like leaf blowers just fall through the cracks. But that’s exactly it. If the University doesn’t follow through on its smallest pledges, how will it make good on the big ones?
The STIHL 500’s are bright orange, and in the pale late-autumn light, they shine. They look brighter, almost golden. And as Frost said: nothing gold can stay.
ERIC KREBS is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at email@example.com.