In industries, as in life, there are technology optimists and technology pessimists.
Technology pessimists run to the halls of government trying to relax new rules that threaten to impose stricter requirements on them. Technology optimists turn to the lab. It doesn't matter whether it's cars or crayons, every manufacturer faces the choice at one time or another.
Whom would you patronize?
Consider the current regulatory squall in lawn and garden equipment. In 1990, it became clear to state and federal regulators that the United States had a backyard pollution problem. After mowing their lawns, many Americans returned with a phalanx of hand-held machines: string trimmers, hedge trimmer, lawn edgers, leaf blowers, and chain saws. By the time the equipment parade was over, their yards were neater but the air was dirtier.
California's Air Resources Board estimates lawn and garden equipment creates as much pollution as 10 percent of the state's cars. Worse, the garden-bound engines run most frequently during the summer, the peak season for smog. So California and federal regulators passed emissions standards for hand-held equipment and the industry went along.
Now, state and federal regulators want to do more and worried manufacturers have gone the lobbying route. Manufacturers have already worked out a deal with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to cut emissions a further 30 percent in phases during the period 2002 to 2005. And they're pressing hard to have California relax its proposed 70 percent emissions cut by 1999.
"We are very concerned," says Karen Hutchison, director of public affairs for the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association, based in Bethesda, Md. California's proposal would eliminate 85 percent of hand-held garden equipment sold in California today.
Poppycock, says Japanese manufacturer Ryobi. "There's plenty of technology out there to meet these regulations," company spokesman Frank Coots says. "We saw the regulations as an opportunity."
Ryobi is not only urging state regulators to keep their emissions standards for hand-held garden equipment, it has already built a multifunction trimmer/blower/edger/vacuum that meets them.
Called the TrimmerPlus and introduced in 1994, the machine relies on a four-cycle engine typical of lawn mowers and cars rather than the two-cycle engines commonly used in hand-held garden equipment. Manufacturers like the two-cycle engine because it's lightweight and cheap to make. (You know you have one if the engine requires gasoline mixed with oil.)
But this gas-oil engine is inherently more polluting and less fuel-efficient than four-cycle engines. To make the TrimmerPlus lightweight, Ryobi had to rethink every aspect of a four-cycle engine from heat dissipation to super-small spark plugs.
True, the TrimmerPlus weighs about a pound more than the company's two-cycle versions. And it costs an extra $50 to $60. But next month, the company will show off a commercial version of the engine that sheds the extra pound. And when production ramps up, the company estimates the new four-stroke engines will add only a $20 to $30 premium on the store shelves.
Other companies are making similar strides. Honda has begun selling a lightweight four-cycle engine in Japan. Husqvarna, a Swedish manufacturer, has developed a two-cycle engine that very nearly meets California's 1999 standards.
Homeowners, of course, can choose to go with electric trimmers, which don't cause any direct emissions. Of if you have a big lawn, you can buy the gasoline-powered equipment that best suits your environmental-comfort level.
Fortunately, some companies give us the choice - thanks to a spoonful of optimism and hard work in the lab.
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