How DC Banned Leaf Blowers


For a long time I thought the problem was all in my head. When I was growing up, I knew that a certain kind of noise was one I needed to avoid. Food blenders in the kitchen, hair dryers in the bathroom, a vacuum cleaner whooshing around—all produced an intense whining sound that, given the specific wiring connections between my ears and my brain, kept me from thinking about anything but the sound itself while it was going on. Over the years I lived by this code: I used high-performance earplugs if I needed to write or otherwise concentrate while sitting in some place that was unusually loud. I added noise-canceling headphones on top of the earplugs in really tough cases.

As time went on, the earplugs-plus-headphones protection rig became standard writing gear. That was because the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood evolved from a few hours a week during the leafiest stretch of autumn to most days of the week, most weeks of the year, thanks to the advent of the “groomed” look that modern lawn crews are expected to achieve. One of my longest-running themes as a journalist has been how changes in technology force people to adapt their habits and livelihoods. I thought I was doing my part, with gear that let me attend to my work while others attended to theirs. There even turned out to be a bonus: As other parts of my body went into a predictable age-related descent, my hearing remained sharp.

Then I learned several things that changed my thinking both about leaf blowers and, up to a point, about politics.

One thing I learned has to do with the technology of leaf blowers. Their high volume, which I had long considered their most salient feature, is only their second-most-unusual aspect. The real marvel is the living-fossil nature of their technology. And because the technology is so crude and old, the level of pollution is off the charts.

When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency. The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts. While power plants burning natural gas obviously emit more carbon than wind or solar facilities, they emit about half as much as coal-fired plants. Today, the average car on America’s streets is almost 200 percent more efficient than in 1950, and smog-causing emissions from cars are about 99 percent lower.

The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble “two-stroke engine.” It’s simpler, cheaper, and lighter than the four-stroke engines of most modern cars, and has a better power-to-weight ratio. But it is vastly dirtier and less fuel-efficient, because by design it sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol. If you’ve seen a tuk‑tuk, one of the noisy tricycle-style taxis in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta, with purple smoke wafting out of its tailpipe, you’ve seen a two-stroke engine in action.

But you won’t see as many of them in those cities anymore, because governments in Asia and elsewhere have been banning and phasing out two-stroke engines on antipollution grounds. In 2014 a study published in Nature Communications found that VOC emissions (a variety of carbon gases that can produce smog and harm human beings) were on average 124 times higher from an idling two-stroke scooter than from a truck or a car. With respect to benzene, a carcinogenic pollutant, the group found that each cubic meter of exhaust from an idling two-stroke scooter contained 60,000 times the safe level of exposure. Two-stroke engines have largely disappeared from the scooter, moped, and trail-bike markets in America. Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction.

Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers. As a product category, this is a narrow one. But the impact of these little machines is significant. In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined. Two-stroke engines are that dirty. Cars have become that clean.

Video: The ‘Public Health Menace’ of Fall in America

So that’s one thing I learned about gas-powered blowers. A second thing I discovered is the damage leaf blowers do to people’s hearing. The biggest worry of today’s public-health community is not, of course, leaf blowers—it’s the opioid disaster, plus addictions of other forms. The next-biggest worry is obesity, plus diabetes and the other ills that flow from it. But coming up fast on the list is hearing loss. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.”

Leaf blowers are especially insidious. Something about their sound had long attracted my attention. A study organized by Jamie Banks, a scientist and the founder of Quiet Communities, a Boston-area nonprofit, quantified what it was. Acoustic engineers from a firm called Arup compared gas- and battery-powered blowers with equal manufacturer-rated noise levels. Their analysis showed that gas-powered blowers produce far more “sound energy” in the low-frequency range. This may seem benign—who doesn’t like a nice basso profundo?—but it has a surprising consequence. High-frequency sound—a mosquito’s buzz, a dental drill—gets your attention, but it does not travel. It falls off rapidly with distance and struggles to penetrate barriers. If you’re in the next room, you may not hear it at all. By contrast, low-frequency noise has great penetrating power: It goes through walls, cement barriers, and many kinds of hearing-protection devices. The acoustic study found that in a densely settled neighborhood, a gas-powered blower rated at, say, 75 decibels of noisiness can affect up to 15 times as many households as a battery-powered blower with the same 75-decibel rating.

Hearing damage is cumulative. When the tiny, sound-sensing hairlike cells, called stereocilia, in the inner ear are damaged—usually by extended exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above—they are generally gone for good. For the landscapers (and homeowners) who use gas-powered blowers—a foot away from their ears—the most powerful can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Meyers told me, “Each time I see these crews, I think to myself: 10 years from now, they’ll be on the path to premature deafness.

In the three decades since backpack blowers from Echo, Stihl, and other companies became popular, at least 100 U.S. cities have banned or restricted their use. Most of those cities are in California, because California is the only state whose jurisdictions have the authority to set their own air-pollution standards. With air-quality standards that were more aggressive than those in other states, California received special treatment under the Clean Air Act when it was passed in 1970. In the rest of the country, the law gives standard-setting authority to the federal government, which in practice means the Environmental Protection Agency.

Considering the current condition of the EPA, people wanting to regulate leaf blowers could be forgiven for throwing up their hands. But as it happens, there is another legally and scientifically legitimate line of attack: going after gas-powered blowers not because they pollute but because they make so much noise.

Starting in 2013, my wife, Deb, and I traveled around the country to report on local-improvement narratives, which always seemed to begin with “I wondered why my town didn’t do _______, so I decided to get involved.” We’d long been active at our kids’ schools and with their sports teams. But we wondered why our town—Washington, D.C.—wasn’t doing something about the leaf-blower menace, given that an obvious solution was at hand. We joined a small neighborhood group—barely 10 people at its peak—to try to get a regulatory or legislative change, using noise, not pollution, as the rationale.

In November 2015, we had our first success, when our Advisory Neighborhood Commission—the most local governmental unit in the District—voted 8–1 to support phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers. (The one no vote came from a libertarian who didn’t like regulation of anything.) In retrospect, the resulting request was amazingly timid. We simply asked that our city-council member, Mary Cheh, introduce legislation for a ban. She did so; the measure got nowhere by the end of the council’s term in 2016; she introduced a new measure in 2017. Over the next 18 months, we successfully encouraged more than a third of all ANCs in D.C., representing seven of the District’s eight wards, to endorse council action on the bill. Anyone aware of the racial, economic, and other dividing lines within Washington can imagine the level of organizing and explanation necessary to achieve such broad support.

In July 2018, the chair of the city council, Phil Mendelson, convened a hearing to consider the bill. Nearly 20 witnesses spoke in favor. They included members of our group as well as scientists, a former regulator, an acoustic engineer, representatives of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, ordinary citizens and residents, and landscapers who had switched to all-battery operation. On the other side were two industry lobbyists, who said that market innovation and “courteous” leaf-blower use were the answer. Council members listened to them with visible incredulity. In the fall, the full council approved the bill unanimously. In December, Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, signed it into law. On January 1, 2022, the use of gas-powered leaf blowers will be illegal within city limits.

After spending decades writing about national politics, I’ve come away from this experience having learned some lessons about local politics—obvious lessons, maybe, but also vivid ones.

To begin with: Showing up matters. Our group met in person every two or three weeks over more than three and a half years. Perhaps our most indefatigable member, a lawyer, made presentations at dozens of ANC meetings. We got to know the legislative directors and schedulers for many of the District’s 13 council members.

Having facts also matters—yes, even in today’s America. At the beginning of the process, it felt as if 99 percent of the press coverage and online commentary was in the sneering “First World problem!” vein. That has changed. The Washington PostThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, the Washington Monthly, and other publications have called attention to the leaf-blower problem, often arguing that gas-powered blowers should be banned. Reflexive sneering is down to about 5 percent among people who have made time to hear the facts. Noise, they have come to understand, is the secondhand smoke of this era.

Technological momentum and timing matter. We worried all along that the lawn-care industry would mount a major lobbying effort against the bill. It never did. Nearly everyone in the industry knows that 10 years from now, practically all leaf blowers will be battery-powered. One of our arguments was that we were simply accelerating the inevitable.

Having a champion matters. At a “meet the council member” session on a rainy Saturday morning in the fall of 2015, Mary Cheh said she’d stay with the bill—if she could rely on us to keep showing up. We did our part, and she did hers—she stayed with it to the end.

Luck matters as well. In its first journey through the council, starting in 2016, Cheh’s bill was assigned to a committee whose chair was a council member whose approach to many bills seemed to boil down to: What’s in it for me? To widespread surprise, apparently including his own, a long-shot challenger upset him in the primaries for the 2016 election.

The final lesson is: Don’t get hung up on the conventional wisdom—it’s only wise until it isn’t. Everyone says nothing gets done in Washington. This one time, everyone was wrong.

This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “Get Off My Lawn.”

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JAMES FALLOWS is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter’s chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of Americawhich has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.

Trashing Recyclables costs Stamford $700K

Trashed recycling market costs Stamford taxpayers $700K


STAMFORD — The city was paid $95,000 last year for the used bottles, cans, bags, boxes, wrappers and containers residents throw in their recycling bins each week.

This year, the city will have to pay a company $700,000 to take them.

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The market for recyclables has flipped on its ear, and Dan Colleluori, supervisor of solid waste and recycling, who had to go before the Board of Finance last week to ask that the money be drawn from the city’s contingency fund to meet the unexpected expense.

Blame it on China, which has been the biggest importer of recyclables on the planet since the 1990s. Last year the Chinese, citing a glut of material — increasingly contaminated with garbage — announced they would stop accepting an array of recyclables, according to industry reports Colleluori shared with the board.

Then, in April, “China closed its doors,” Colleluori said. “Unless the U.S. comes up with its own technology, there’s no market for this stuff. It’s a world problem.”

In May, Stamford’s recycling contractor, City Carting, called him with a warning, Colleluori said.

“They said, ‘You’re going to have to start paying for it,’” he said.

Not only was there no way to estimate the cost, but City Carting’s contract was to end June 30, Colleluori said. He’d put out a bid request, but only City Carting and one other company responded, he said.

“I expected they would come back with a charge of maybe $5 a ton, something like that,” he said. “I was flabbergasted when I saw the bids.”

City Carting’s price was $58 a ton to process the 12,000 tons of recyclables Stamford collects each year. The other company wanted $80, Colleluori said.

“For the nine years I’ve been here, recycling has been a revenue source. We earned as much as $250,000 a year,” he said. “Now we not only lose that revenue, we add a significant cost.”

The same is true for cities worldwide.

One reason the market has collapsed, industry reports say, is the glut of recyclables.

Another reason is single-stream recycling — collecting paper and cardboard together with plastic, glass and cans — a practice that began 20 years ago. Since then, recycled material has become increasingly contaminated. Recycled paper, for example, is less pure, making it harder to sell.

People have made things worse by throwing prohibited items into their recycling bins. In Connecticut, the prohibited materials include plastic bags, plastic wrap, shredded paper, Styrofoam, paper cups, take-out food containers, aerosol containers, ice cream containers, plastic plates, bowls and utensils, and anything with food in it.

According to industry reports, the situation has become so bad that one-fifth of the recycled material sent to China for processing was contaminated. In April, when China said it would stop accepting a slew of items, it also set a super-low contamination rate, .5 percent.

Now recycled material is stacking up in warehouses, and getting trucked to landfills or incinerators, in the United States and other countries around the globe.

“So all that work that I do to put the stuff in the green Toter (bin) and bring it out to the curb … are we actually going to be sending it to a landfill now?” finance board Chairman Richard Freedman asked during the meeting.

“No,” Colleluori said. “You’re just being charged for it.”

He said City Carting told him it will be able to sell some of the material.

“Mostly paper and cardboard,” Colleluori said. “The plastic and glass are the biggest problem.”

It doesn’t look like it will go away soon, he said.

“The U.S. has to sink some money into figuring out how to reuse these items,” Colleluori said. “If it happens, if the market turns around, the city can cancel the contract and rebid it to collect revenue again. It’s standard in these contracts.”

But recycling is still the law, and still cheaper than throwing the items in the trash, Colleluori said. Recyclables comprise 32 percent of the waste collected in Stamford, he said.

“It would cost the city $850,000 a year more if it went into the garbage stream,” Colleluori said.

The finance board voted to release the $700,000 from the contingency fund to cover the new City Carting contract. Much of the money in the $6.5 million fund is tentatively earmarked for labor negotiations expected to be settled, an anticipated number of storm cleanups, additional overtime expenses for police officers and firefighters, and other items likely to crop up in a fiscal year.

The fund contains about $1 million for unexpected expenses, such as the recycling contract, said Jay Fountain, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Management.

“So this will leave just about nothing left?” Freedman said.

“Yes,” Fountain confirmed.

Incinerators are neither clean nor renewable

Report: Incineration is ‘neither clean nor renewable’

Communities are Pushing to Close Waste incinerators


They can be a threat to public health, and a poor solution to larger environmental problems. Organizers from Baltimore to Detroit to Los Angeles are working for a future without them.

(Photo: Martin Adams/Unsplash)

In 1986, when the Detroit waste-to-energy incinerator first opened, activists scaled its enormous smokestack and hung a peace symbol on it in protest. When the same kind of incinerator opened in Commerce, California, in 1989, protesters chained themselves to the facility’s smokestack.

Thirty years later, the communities that live in their shadow are still protesting these facilities. Built to last about 30 years, many of America’s 86 waste-to-energy incinerators are reaching the end of their lifespans—and their contracts with the cities that house them—and they face costly upgrades if they are to remain operational.

“Cities are at a critical stage right now,” says Ahmina Maxey, the United States and Canada coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Do they invest millions more into ancient technologies, or take those millions of dollars and invest them into strong zero-waste systems?”

Grassroots organizations in some cities–including Breathe Free Detroit, Southern California’s East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Baltimore’s United Workers Association—want to make sure that cities choose zero waste. Working together as the Failing Incinerators Project, these groups are putting pressure on local politicians, along with the companies that operate the incinerators, to get these facilities shut down.

The groups’ organizers come from, and work in, what United Workers’ Destiny Watford describes as “communities that have been disinvested in, that have been ignored and neglected for generations.”

“[These organizers] have been dealing with the health consequences of living next to this industry, and it feels like it’s normal,” she says. Watford and her fellow organizers are working to disrupt what she calls “the trance” of accepting life next to an incinerator, with its attendant threats to the environment, city finances, and residents’ health.


In the 1980s and early ’90s, when most operational incinerators in the U.S. were built, the technology behind solar and wind energy was in its infancy. Coal accounted for around 60 percent of America’s electricity production, down to about 30 percent in 2017. Climate change wasn’t widely considered an urgent problem, and people didn’t talk much about recycling. Politicians, concerned about diminishing landfill space and the rising costs of fossil fuels, seized upon waste-to-energy as a solution.

These facilities burn municipal waste at temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, generating steam that drives an electric turbine. Leftover ash is sent to a landfill or used as paving material. But only one new incinerator has opened in the past 20 years, as construction costs and public opposition made the projects impracticable. In Detroit and Baltimore, city contracts with the incinerators expire in 2021; in Long Beach, California, in 2024.

Proponents of waste-to-energy facilities say that these incinerators help fight climate change by diverting trash from greenhouse gas-emitting landfills and that modern pollution controls prevent the facilities from harming nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies WTE incineration as a renewable energy sourcereported a major decrease in incinerators’ emissions of some pollutants like mercury, dioxins, and nitrogen oxide between 1990 and 2005. And the steam the facilities generate can be used, as is done in Detroit and Baltimore, for heating.

Some advocates even push back against labeling the facilities “incinerators,” a word that conjures images of dirty smoke belching into the sky. Detroit Renewable Energy, which operates the Detroit facility, describes it as a “modern waste-to-energy facility that generates renewable energy in the form of electricity and steam by safely processing municipal solid waste.”

A 2016 EPA study found that WTE incinerators produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than landfills, America’s third-largest emitters of methane. (Methane is 28 to 36 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) Paul Gilman, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer of the major waste-to-energy incineration company Covanta, told Scientific American in 2011 that every ton of incinerated waste prevents another ton of greenhouse gas emissions.

Incinerators’ opponents counter that the real choice isn’t between landfills and incineration—it’s between incineration and a radically different approach centered on reducing waste in the first place; upping recycling, composting, and reuse rates; and investing in solar and wind power. They take particular issue with the notion that waste-to-energy incineration is clean and safe for area residents.


Thanks to new rules implemented by the EPA in the 1990s, incinerators are much cleaner than they once were. But older facilities can struggle to comply with today’s emissions limits.

In the last five years, Detroit’s facility has exceeded its permitted emissions 750 times. Baltimore’s aging facility emits nitrogen oxide—a pollutant linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses—at twice the rate of Maryland’s newer and more recently retrofitted incinerator.

Incinerators are some communities’ largest emitters of mercury, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants linked to harmful health impacts—including asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, pre-term births, and even cancer. Communities with incinerators are also likely to house a disproportionate number of other polluting facilities.

Watford says that the communities around Baltimore’s incinerator have “a long history with pollution.” Thanks to a number of factors—which may include disproportionate exposure to toxins—the area’s mostly black residents are expectedto die 10 years sooner than residents of the city’s more affluent areas. For every 100,000 residents in Baltimore, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 130 die in a given year because of long-term exposure to air pollution. That’s the highest rate in the nation.

In Commerce, California, where a waste-to-energy facility was shut down in June of 2018, the community surrounding the incinerator is 95 percent Hispanic, with a median household income of about $42,000. It’s home to two major freeways with high levels of truck traffic, the state’s largest lead clean-up site, and four rail yards. Angelo Logan, co-founder of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, says that a 2007 study found that the risk of cancer in Commerce is 140 times higher than California’s average.

The community is “assaulted every day with toxic pollution,” Logan says The area’s spike in cancers and respiratory illnesses convinced him to change careers from manufacturing to community organizing. When he asked community members whether environmental pollution had affected them or their families, people “overwhelmingly responded yes.” “A number of folks that have now passed identified the incinerator as the cause of their illness,” he says.

“For us in Detroit,” says KT Andresky, an organizer with Breathe Free Detroit, “[the incinerator] is a textbook case of environmental racism.” Over 70 percent of nearby residents are low-income, and the same proportion are people of color. Critics of the facility argue that Detroiters bear the brunt of its odor and emissions, even though most of the trash it processes is trucked in from wealthier, whiter areas like neighboring Oakland County.

Using invoices obtained through a public records request, Nicholas Leonard, a staff attorney at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, estimated that just 22 percent of the waste the facility processes comes from the city. (Detroit Renewable Energy disputes this finding. In an email, it says 73 percent of the trash comes from inside the city of Detroit, and 83 percent from Wayne County.)

The Detroit incinerator isn’t required by state or federal regulators to have pollution controls for nitrogen oxide, a gas that increases the risk of respiratory conditions and contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog. Residents are hospitalized for asthma at rates three times the state’s average, and those who live in the zip codes next to the incinerator have the highest rates of asthma-related hospitalization in the city.

In a statement emailed to Pacific Standard, Detroit Renewable Energy Chief Operating Officer Carl Lockhart writes: “Protecting the environment and public health is our top responsibility. We adhere to strict state and federal guidelines and utilize constant monitoring to ensure we are meeting and exceeding expectations.”


The groups involved in the Failing Incinerator Project say they’re committed to a “just transition” away from incineration, starting with economic disincentivization. A just transition means boosting their cities’ recycling and composting efforts to keep un-incinerated trash out of landfills. In Baltimore, for example, a 2014 report found that 82 percent of the city’s trash could have been recycled or composted, though only 28 percent of it was that year.

“We have to be building up these zero-waste alternatives,” Watford says, “so that when we finally do shut down [the incinerator], we have a zero-waste alternative right there.” She cites a youth-led composting initiative out of the Filbert Street Garden, which will receive part of a $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the city of Baltimore. Food waste makes up 21 percent of typical municipal trash.

A just transition also means having a plan for the facility’s workers, and the surrounding community, when the facility closes. Maxey contends that 10 jobs in recycling could be created for every job in incineration or landfilling—and that jobs in recycling are less damaging to workers’ health.

In Detroit, the area near the incinerator has been slow to attract residents or development, in part because of the “unbearable” odor Andresky says wafts through the neighborhood most days. (It’s not just Andresky: The facility received so many odor complaints that it was placed under a consent decree in 2014.) Breathe Free Detroit wants to ensure that, “when that facility closes, after decades of organizing against it, folks aren’t gentrified out of their own community,” Maxey says.


The organizers have also been putting financial pressure on the incinerators. In Baltimore, United Workers and other environmental groups are pushing the Maryland state legislature to take incineration out of its renewable energy portfolio, which subsidizes the purchase of renewable energy. The Baltimore Sun estimates the Wheelabrator facility has received $10 million worth of subsidies from the program. Last year, the state senate passed such a measure, but it died in the House of Delegates.

Brooke Harper, the Maryland and Washington, D.C., policy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says, “The whole intention of the renewable energy portfolio system was to incentivize new renewable energy sources, clean energy sources, like wind and solar”—rather than facilities like the Wheelabrator incinerator, the city’s largest source of air pollution.

The efforts of Maryland-based groups are informed by the work of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in California, which recently helped defeat a measure offering renewable energy tax credits to incinerators. Without those subsidies, and unable to negotiate a favorable new purchase agreement with electricity supplier Southern California Edison, the Commerce facility hit what Logan described as a “fiscal cliff,” and closed.

“If subsidies are not going to the incinerator,” Watford says, “it puts the city in a really tough spot. Does the city have to pay the difference, or do they embrace these zero-waste alternatives and create a new path forward?”

United Workers and others have advocated for stricter nitrogen oxide emissions limits for Wheelabrator. Thanks in part to these efforts, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in September asking the Maryland Department of Energy–which regulates the facility’s emissions–to do just that. If adopted, the new limits might require the facility to install expensive state-of-the-art pollution controls.

Under current regulations, Wheelabrator is allowed to emit up to 205 ppm of nitrogen oxide. But the city council has requested that the figure be cut to at most 150 ppm, or, ideally, to 45 ppm to match what would likely be the limit for a new incinerator. The marketing manager for Wheelabrator told the Baltimore Brew that complying with the proposed rules would cost the facility $1.6 million over the first three years, and $400,000 annually after that.

The city council has also requested a feasibility study on installing state-of-the-art pollution controls. At a 2017 Maryland Department of the Environment stakeholders meeting, Timothy Porter, Wheelabrator’s director of air quality programs, maintained that it wasn’t possible to install such controls in the incinerator’s existing space. But two engineers—one employed by the Environmental Integrity Project, one a consultant for their partner organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—say that they have found no technical barriers.

If required to install the controls, Porter said, “We’d shut down.”

In Detroit, Andresky tells me, they’re working to get businesses to stop purchasing steam created by incineration, which would cut into the facility’s revenues. Watford’s group used a similar tactic to block the construction of a proposed incinerator elsewhere in South Baltimore: They went to each entity that had signed on to purchase its energy and convinced them to drop the deal. The existing incinerator, Watford says, “is interwoven into our city’s fabric, and we have to detangle that if we’re going to build true zero-waste alternatives.”

Claire Arkin, communications and campaign associate at GAIA, says it’s “inevitable” that these “dinosaur” facilities will close, because upgrades and repair are simply too expensive. In 2010, Maxey points out, the ballooning costs of a 46-year-old incinerator pushed the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to the brink of bankruptcy.

Arkin’s words rang in my ears as I watched a recent Long Beach City Council meeting, at which members unanimously voted to allocate $8.7 million to upgrades that will keep the facility running until 2024. (Covanta, the facility’s operator, will kick in an additional $5 million). If the city council chooses to renew its contract at that point, an additional $100 million capital infusion would be required to keep it open until 2040, according to documents received through Pacific Standard’s public records request. The facility’s power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison will expire this year, adding another layer of uncertainty to its future.

Pressure from concerned community members may help shape that future. In an email about the vote obtained through a public records request, Charlie Tripp, the facility’s bureau manager, expressed his concern about whether the amended agreement, which provided the funding for necessary upgrades, would pass. “We have been getting more questions on this item than any items we have previously had,” he wrote. “My concern is that something could happen like happened with Commerce,” where a waste-to-energy incinerator recently closed, in part thanks to public pressure on potential revenue streams.

The cities of Long Beach, Detroit, and Baltimore have each committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and advocates of closing waste incinerators say that moving away from incineration, and toward zero waste, will accomplish just that. “We tend to look at waste as separate from its origins,” Arkin says. “If we look at the extractive way trash is made, the fossil fuels involved in creation, and the transport of these disposable items, it adds up to a huge piece of the puzzle in solving our climate crisis.”

Using EPA data—though a different methodology—the Energy Justice Network estimates waste-to-energy facilities produce 2.5 times more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than coal-fired power plants.

“We are past the tipping point on our planet,” Maxey says. “Our planet cannot afford any more unnecessary carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases released into the environment. And that’s what these facilities do.”

Stop Driving Your Kids to School

Want to change people’s minds about cycling? Start with the school drop-off and go from there.

I am the father of a child who’s almost three years old, and most mornings, I take him to his preschool by bicycle, just as I did with his older brother until he graduated to grade school and the bus.

Why do I do this? Is it because I love to ride bikes? Is it because I believe in their power to transform our cityscapes? Is it because I want my children to grow up taking for granted the idea that using bikes for transportation is a normal, practical, and healthy way to get around?

Sure. I mean all that sounds good, anyway.

But there’s an even more urgent reason that I’ve transported my most precious cargo by bicycle all these years, and it transcends everything I mentioned above. Here is that reason:

Getting anywhere near a school with a car is a monumental pain in the ass.

If you enjoy driving to the airport, going to the mall on Black Friday, or the abject futility of automotive clusterfucks in general, then by all means, driving a kid to school is for you. If, however, you’d rather undergo colonoscopy prep than sit in traffic with a bunch of self-absorbed parents all competing to see who can get their little darlings closest to the entrance, then you’ll do anything to avoid the soul-crushing indignity of this dehumanizing ritual. So while I’m a cyclist and therefore choose to circumnavigate the whole shitshow by bike, the truth of the matter is that if bicycles didn’t exist, I’d probably be up on the roof of my building in a wingsuit and a BabyBjörn.

But as self-serving as my choice may be, I do allow myself to feel smug about it, because I know that I’m helping to make the world—or at least my neighborhood—a far better place. Parents get a bad rap for being selfish, and it’s mostly unwarranted (if you don’t wanna hear babies crying on airplanes, then buy a Gulfsream), but the one area in which they do deserve it is their propensity for causing traffic jams by sticking their cars where they don’t belong. For years, I’ve been getting letters from both my kids’ schools imploring parents to stop double-parking and making life miserable for everyone within a one-mile radius, and I smile to myself as I throw it in the trash knowing I’m part of the solution and not the problem.  In fact, I’m this close [indicates tiny distance with fingers] to getting a “One Less Asshole Double-Parked in Front of the School” sticker printed up for my bike.

Not all parents have a blithe disregard for the world outside their minivans. Some are just helpless victims of The Way You’re Supposed to Do Things, and they go through the motions despite themselves, like the Day-O scene in Beetlejuice. These are the parents who will ask questions about my cargo bike and talk about how they too would like to take their kids to school this way. But it never seems to happen. The only change I see as the years go by are more speed bumps to slow the enraged drivers who mash the accelerator as soon as there’s a lull in the parental motorcade. The irony of it all is that the roads are most dangerous in exactly the places where they should be the safest—all because of our insistence on driving kids to school.

Nevertheless, I certainly don’t blame these parents for driving to school. A century of automotive marketing and lobbying has duped families into believing that the car is the responsible choice. And even as the city adds bike lanes and (ostensibly) encourages people to commute by bicycle you never seem to hear anybody in an official capacity advocate for people using bikes to get kids to school. (Or for older kids to ride there themselves.) On a municipal level, we’re just getting comfortable enough to send the adults unto the breach, but the unspoken message seems to be that children should be spared the exposure.

This is a shame, because once you unlock the convenience of riding with kids you’re really onto something. Freeing yourself from the misery of the school drop-off is just the beginning. Then there’s getting to the playdate, and the weekend activity, and the park outing. Before you know it, you’re using the bike to run errands too, and suddenly that garden trough on wheels starts making a hell of a lot of sense.

“Do we really need two cars?” you may start asking yourself. “Do we even need one?”

As for the perception that transporting children by bicycle is somehow more dangerous than driving, 40,000 car-crash deaths per year suggest otherwise, and I have yet to see any numbers or hear any horror stories that lead me to believe carrying kids on bikes is any more dangerous than pushing them around in strollers. The truth is you’re never more engaged than when you’ve got a kid on your bike. Meanwhile, Forgotten Baby Syndrome is a thing, so there you go.

And here we are. We’re perfectly comfortable with the idea of cycling as a recreational activity involving thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and we’re increasingly comfortable with the idea of cycling as a form of urban commuting. But until the bike truly becomes part of the family, it will always remain on the fringes.

Maybe this is why people remain resistant: once the full convenience of the bicycle is unleashed on society, then the takeover will be complete.

Filed To: Biking / Culture / Kids

A Low-Budget Gift Guide for Your Favorite Cyclist

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One of the greatest things about cycling is that you can spend as much or as little money as you want on it. In fact, once you’ve got the bike, it’s pretty much free to ride it, unless you’ve got an expensive Gran Fondo addiction or something.

Similarly, when the holidays roll around, you don’t need to spend a fortune to delight the cyclist in your life with a gift. Forget the $2,000 carbon wheelset. Here are a few gifts you can buy with the tiny balance sitting in that Paypal account you forgot you had.

Socks ($15 to $20)

Ordinarily, when it comes to uninspired gifts, nothing underwhelms like a pair of socks. It’s the present that says, “You exist, and you have feet.” Cyclists, however, get genuinely excited about socks: they’re our “pieces of flair,” and sock choice is really the only way we get to express ourselves stylistically (unless you count really bad calf tattoos), especially if we’re on a team and all have to dress the same.

Of course you can’t just get your favorite cyclist a pack of regular old tube socks and call it good; this is cycling, so they have to be special socks—and by special I mean more expensive. Still, even a really sweet pair of cycling socks only costs about as much as two cups of coffee…well, okay, that special coffee that cyclists drink, but even so you’re getting off pretty easy here.

Inner Tubes ($5 to $10)

Hey, not all gifts have to be dazzling: sometimes you’re just looking for a cheap, practical little stocking stuffer. To that end, why not give the gift of butyl? See, when you’re a cyclist you can never have too many inner tubes, and while it may seem a bit cold and impersonal to give them as gifts, just remember you’re talking about people who get excited about socks for chrissakes.

Plus, in a way an inner tube is an even more meaningful gift, since when was the last time a sock saved you from being stranded 90 miles from home? (That was a rhetorical question, though please feel free to address your epic “How My Left Sock Saved My Life” pitch to Outside’s features department.)

Just make sure you get the right size and valve type, and that your gift recipient doesn’t ride tubeless. Or, if they do ride tubeless, you can always buy them a bottle of sealant instead, which is seasonally appropriate as it’s exactly the same color and consistency of egg nog. (Warning: do not attempt to drink sealant—or egg nog for that matter.)

A Tool Roll ($35 and Up)

Looking for a more personal gift? Something special, perhaps even handmade? An elegant yet practical item that they’ll carry with them at all times and think of you whenever they use it? Well, if you were shopping for a normal person you might get them a wallet or a handbag. However, this is bikes we’re talking about, so the nearest equivalent is a really fine tool roll.

Sure, a saddlebag will let you carry the basics, but with a tool roll you can practically carry enough stuff to rebuild your entire bicycle, and you can do so stylishly and unobtrusively. Plus, they’re far classier: tool rolls are to saddle bags as crystal tumblers are to Dixie cups.

The Gift of Smugness ($25 and Up)

This may blow your mind, but lots of people work really hard to make cycling better for the rest of us, and despite what you may have heard they’re not all underwritten by George Soros. Does your mountain biker support IMBA? Is your bike commuter a member of the local advocacy group? If not, make a modest donation on their behalf, or buy an item that benefits them. Bikes Not BombsWorld Bicycle ReliefStar Track, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association…there are all sorts of two-wheeled organizations dong all kinds of good work who need your support.

(Note: this is an especially thoughtful gift if the person you’re shopping for is a roadie, since when left to their own devices, roadies won’t do anything to help anybody.)

A Skateboard ($100 and Up. This is by far the most expensive gift on the list, but it’s worth it.)

Hey, we’re all adults here, so let’s be honest: sometimes you’ve got ulterior motives over the holidays, and giving a gift is less about pleasing someone than it is about teaching them a much-needed lesson. Is there a middle-aged person in your family who’s spending too much time on the bike? Was mommy late to the school play because she flatted on the group ride? Did hubs postpone your anniversary celebration because it fell on the same weekend as the Filthy Nebraska 350-Mile Gravel Grinder? Are you sick of suffering through your wife’s ride reports at dinner?

Well, now you can recoup all the time the bike has stolen from you by giving the gift of a skateboard! Yes, no fit person over 40 can resist the allure of a skateboard, nor can they stand on one without sustaining an injury just bad enough to keep them off the bike for awhile and force them to appreciate you! Just find a reissue deck from the halcyon days of their youth, sit back, and let physics and nostalgia do the rest: “Whoa, a Rob Roskopp! I used to have one just like this! You know, I used to be pretty good…”[Stands on skateboard, immediately breaks coccyx.]You’ll be enjoying that romantic anniversary dinner in no time—though your partner may be sitting on a doughnut.

Filed To: Gifts / Socks / Bikes / Family
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