How Green is Your Lawn, Really?

This is not going to be an article about artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or any other harmful chemical commonly in use to make gardens pretty. I’m sure most people are aware of the collateral damage to wildlife and human health resulting from overuse of these products.

You don’t need me to tell you that artificial fertilizers in particular come with a hefty carbon footprint, and that all of these things end up poisoning groundwater in their own, special way. Heck, the modern environmental movement began with Rachel Carson’s legendary screed, Silent Spring, about just this issue.

No, let’s look at something less obvious. Do you drive a lot? Gas prices being what they are these days, you don’t even have to be environmentally-conscious to limit your mileage where possible. For example, I doubt anyone but travelling salespeople take a 360-mile road trip every weekend. Would it surprise you if I told you your weekend at home gardening was just as damaging? quotes an EPA estimate that running an average gas-powered lawnmower for one hour releases more than four pounds of carbon dioxide, two pounds of carbon monoxide and the better part of a pound in various “volatile organic compounds.” The same Fact Sheet also tells us that a staggering ten percent of  air pollution in the United States comes from gas-powered lawn equipment, like lawnmoweres, weed whackers and chainsaws.

Ten percent! How is that possible?

When I came across this rather astonishing fact, however, it jogged something. I’ve spent a little time living in Asia, including Thailand. Thai roadways include an incredible array of motorized transport, especially small-engine vehicles. Tuk-tuks, motorbikes, scooters and the like are cheap to buy and maintain. They’re the vehicle of choice for couriers and even taxi services.

Many, if not most of these of these vehicles, have traditionally utilized a two-stroke engine system. Compared to the four-stroke system found in all larger vehicles, two-stroke engines are remarkably inefficient. Burning a combination of gasoline and motor oil in a set ratio, two-strokes don’t burn their fuel as effectively, releasing less energy and, ultimately, producing more pollutants — compared to a four-stroke, twice as much of certain pollution emissions for the same amount of gasoline burned.

The Thai government has been working hard to get two-stroke engines off the road for a decade, using a combination of regulation and trade-in incentives. You know what other gas-powered machine frequently uses a two-stroke engine system? That’s right, your lawnmower. Now it all starts to become clear.

The Thai motorbikes illustrate an important point. By and large as gas has become more expensive, people have become a little less wasteful of it. But small two-stroke engines can be cheap on gas and expensive to the environment. In effect, they’re using less than their share of gas, but more than their share of pollution per quantity of gas. Efficiency matters! Don’t assume that because you are spending less at the pump, you’ve automatically become more eco-friendly.

The EPA has been phasing in new emission standards with respect to small gasoline-powered equipment, but there are likely many 20-year-old chainsaws and mowers still in use today, so changing production practices now won’t have a large effect on these emission sources immediately. If you have an older mower, they recommend minimizing your mow time and other mitigating measures to cut back on your emissions.

But frankly, if you have an old mower that spews out the equivalent of a weekend trip through wine country every time you cut your grass, I’d just recommend getting a new one. That’s just too big of an environmental cost for something as simple as mowing your lawn. Shell out the cash for a better mower. Chip in with friends and timeshare if need be.

And if you’re buying anyway, well, let me show you my lawnmower. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy not filling it up with either oil or gasoline. Go electric, or go old school and grab one that’s human-powered. Your yard and your lungs will thank you.

Related stories:

How to Make Your Backyard Wildlife Friendly

Photo credit: ThinkStock


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Jan Simon
.2 years ago


Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se2 years ago

Grow fruits and veggies instead of all the lawn in citys and elsewhere. It will do something positiv to everyone included criminals...........

Natasha Salgado

I don't have a lawn nor do i like them. I only have wild flowers-grasses-herbs-veggies and a variety of beautiful flowers! Not only does it look great but it looks very natural too! And my cats love lounging around in it...thanks

Michael Kirkby
Michael Kirkby2 years ago

I still would prefer a well maintained front yard garden than a lawn. The birds and the bees and butterflies love them. You could always put a well maintained hedge around the garden if you so desired; depending on the amount of space you have too. Lawns do take up a lot of water but then there are golf courses of which I am of the same mind as George Carlin - a club for wealthy people to hit a silly little ball into; lose your temper and peace of mind. Turn them all into affordable housing. LOL

elizabeth longley

A beautiful expanse of tranquil, perfectly manicured green lawn - preferably with stripes - is quintissentially English, and I admit to loving mine. It complements and highlights the flower borders and lilac trees which sit around it's edges, and glows softly and invitingly in the violet summer dusk. Enchanting...I love going into the garden at twilight and drinking in the atmosphere. I use an electric mower, but don't cut the lawn every week - the hot and sunny conditions this year have meant the grass hasn't grown very fast, so it hasn't been necessary. Soon it will be time to dress the lawn with an autumn feed - but it will be organic - no chemicals are used in my garden because it might harm the wildlife that visit - and this summer has seen many bees and butterflies, as well as birds and even dragonflies which have graced my little plot. I'll be making a little wildflower plot next spring to encourage even more little visitors..we can all do our bit for wildlife, however small our garden.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se2 years ago


Dimitris Dallis
Past Member 2 years ago

Thank you for the article.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

Thank you Joel, for Sharing this!

Kirsten Vines
Past Member 2 years ago

I don't consider lawns green simply because they usually occupy spaces of land once held by trees/shrubs etc, and really, flower or vegie patches are both more bee friendly and productive. I would be interested though, if someone ran an article on which type of lawn removes the greatest amount of pollutants or carbon dioxide from the air, i.e, which varieties