BySarah Lozanova

Jun 14, 2023
Mowing the grass with push reel lawn mower

To many Americans, the perfect lawn symbolizes success, time for leisure, social gatherings, and family fun. Unfortunately, keeping that grass perfectly green and well-maintained is resource-intensive. It requires irrigation, weeding, fertilizing, and mowing. And as lawn technology — including tools, fertilizers, pesticides, and watering systems — improves, we dedicate more resources to these highly manicured monocultures.

A considerable amount of gasoline is consumed to power two-stroke gas mowers, which spew out emissions that account for up to 5% of the United State’s total air pollution. This figure doesn’t include gas-powered leaf blowers and edgers, which are also known to cause considerable pollution. Keep this in mind the next time you shop for yard equipment: Using a gas-powered lawnmower for just one hour generates as much air pollution as driving 350 miles.

Thankfully, these air quality issues can be largely solved by using alternative techniques and mowers. Push mowers and scythes are both good options, depending on your lawn’s size, interest in learning a new skill (scythe), and terrain. Let’s explore some of the possibilities.


Push-Reel Lawn Mowers

These mowers are human-powered and turn a spiral of several blades that rotate when pushed, cutting the grass.

Pros: These mowers don’t use fuel and generate no exhaust. They are quiet to operate, so you won’t annoy the neighbors if you are an early bird in the yard. Push lawn mowers are lightweight compared to gas-powered units, making them easier to lift and maneuver. They are simple, cheaper, and don’t need to be powered up. When properly maintained, they can last a long time.

Better yet, a push mower is also a good form of exercise.

Cons: Push mowers don’t always cut every blade of grass, and most aren’t suitable for very tall grass. Many push-reel manufacturers recommend taking two passes at the lawn, which is more time consuming, especially for larger lawns.

The blade needs to be sharpened, requiring occasional maintenance. As the name implies, some physical exertion is required, making them a poor match for people with physical limitations or large lawns.

Mowing with a Scythe

A scythe is a curved blade attached to a long handle that is commonly used to cut grass, wheat, and other crops. Scythes were used extensively in Europe and North America until the beginning of the 20th century. They can be used successfully on sloped landscapes and have been experiencing a revival recently in certain places. The ideal time to mow is early in the morning when the lawn is covered with dew. The blade needs to be sharpened and then honed with a whetstone.

emissions-free mowing with a scythe
Emissions-free mowing with a scythe. Image by pixabairis from Pixabay

Pros: Scythes are suitable for hilly and rocky terrain, and they can cut very tall grass that isn’t suitable for gas or push mowers. Some people find it quite gratifying to use a scythe — even meditative. The scythe is human-powered, so it requires no fuel is required and it generates no emissions.

Like the push mower, the user gets a workout, which is a pro or con depending on your perspective.

Cons: Mowing with a scythe requires physical exertion and there is a learning curve involved in getting started. Proper technique is essential, yet this is not a widespread skill. The blade needs to be kept sharp to cut properly.


Electric Lawn Mowers

These mowers use either batteries or a long cord to provide power instead of gasoline. The battery capacity limits the run time on a battery-powered mower. When deciding between a gas versus an electric trimmer, many of the same benefits and drawbacks exist.

Pros: Although electric mowers don’t require fuel or directly create emissions, they do still consume electricity. Their environmental friendliness depends partially on the type of fuel used to generate that electricity, so it’s good to know what energy sources your local utility uses. Electric mowers are economical to maintain because they don’t need oil changes, spark plugs, or air filters, although replacement batteries (if needed) can be expensive. Electrified mowers are lighter in weight than their gas-powered counterparts, making them easier to carry and maneuver.

Cons: If you want a long run time — greater than 60 to 90 minutes — a battery-powered mower might not be the ideal option unless you have spare batteries. However, it can be difficult if not impossible to mow a large yard with a corded mower, especially if there isn’t an outlet near the lawn. Also, beware of tangling the cord into the motor. If much of your power comes from dirtier sources such as coal, the environmental benefits of an electric mower decrease.

This article was originally published on August 18, 2020.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.