person mowing lawn

Operating a gas-powered lawn mower for one hour emits as much pollution as driving 350 miles in a car. No one wants their yard to create air pollution, but who wants to give up evening Frisbee games or afternoons lying on the grass with a good book? Relax, you can have your lawn and clear skies, too. It’s as simple as choosing a greener lawn mower.

Manual Mowers

It’s no surprise that a manual, or push reel, lawn mower is the most environmentally friendly choice — they use only muscle power. Despite their reputation, however, reel mowers are not really harder to use than powered mowers, especially if your lawn is relatively flat. The trick is good maintenance. If you let your lawn go for a while, a manual mower will have a hard time cutting the extra-long grass. Also, the blades of a push reel mower need regular sharpening. If you have a big lawn, this could be every time you mow. However, don’t feel like you need to rake up all your grass clippings. Grasscycling is an important part of ecological landscaping.

If you are ready to commit to mowing your smallish lawn weekly and regularly sharpening mower blades, push reel mowers are the clear winner. Plus, the quiet snick-snick of the reel is much more pleasant than a motorized buzz.

Power Mowers

Gas mowers are responsible for 5% of the United States’ air pollution and result in more spilled fuel than the Exxon Valdez each year. So if you need a motorized mower, electric is the best choice. Exactly how good a choice depends on your electricity source and options for battery disposal or recycling. Even so, electric lawnmowers win against gas in every test for environmental impact and mower performance.

Electric mowers are also quieter than gas mowers, so they’re easier on your neighbors’ ears if you like to cut the grass early on a Saturday. One drawback? Mowing the lawn while tethered to a power outlet requires a strategy.

A new generation of battery-powered mowers frees you from the cord. If you can afford one, a cordless electric mower can make the job easier.

Lawn Tractors

What if your lawn is too big for a push mower? Should you get a riding lawn mower? Unless you are maintaining ball fields, there is a better option.

Most families’ activities that take place on the lawn — playing catch or badminton, spreading a teddy bear’s picnic — can take place in a relatively small space. Consider converting part of your lawn to other uses. Many options are both easier and more environmentally friendly than grass. Plant a pollinator paradise in one corner of your yard. A shrub border requires seasonal, rather than weekly, maintenance. Berry bushes are less work than lawn and reward both you and the environment. If you have more lawn than you really need, replacing some of your grass can make your yard prettier and free up your Saturday mornings.

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Originally published on May 9, 2018, this article was updated in May 2021.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.