Cities Limiting Use of Lawn Fertilizers, Pesticides


If you pull the trigger on a bottle of weed and feed and launch an all-out chemical assault at the first sign of a dandelion, you might be forced to put down your weapon. A growing number of cities are banning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

“Education is making a big difference,” says Avery Yale Kamila, co-founder of Portland Protectors, a nonprofit environmental group in Maine. “The more people learn about the health and environmental impact of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the more they want to make different choices.”

Portland, Maine, Ban

Portland, Maine, passed its ban in January 2018.  The pesticide use ordinance prohibits the use of weed and feed products that contain a combination of fertilizers and pesticides; Roundup and other weed killers containing glyphosate; and insecticides with a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid.

The city still allows the use of products that are “acceptable for organic use” or Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) certified. Failure to comply with the ban could leave homeowners with up to $500 in fines.

Other cities and states that have passed bans or enacted strict regulations on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers include Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Vermont. Concerns over pollution, including toxic algae blooms that are killing aquatic life, also led more than 30 Florida counties to enact tough regulations that range from establishing fertilizer-free zones within 25 feet of ponds, streams, wetlands and other waterways to testing plant tissues before applying phosphorous.

Toxic Troubles

Homeowners apply 90 million pounds of pesticides to their lawns and garden annually. Growing a lush lawn comes at a cost: Common lawn chemicals have been linked to a host of health issues ranging from allergies and skin irritation to birth defects and cancer. The environmental costs are also high. Landscape chemicals could cause air pollution, soil erosion, run off into water and harm wildlife.

Kamila, who sits on the Pesticide Management Advisory Committee, believes the widespread availability of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers has made consumers complacent, explaining, “People often think, ‘Oh, if it’s for sale, then of course it’s fine,’ but that isn’t the case. Just because the neighbors are using [these products] and the lawn companies are applying them doesn’t mean they are safe and the awareness of that is changing around the country and around the world.”

Studies show that the bans can help the environment. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that phosphorous levels in the Huron River dropped an average of 28% after the city of Ann Arbor adopted a fertilizer ban.

Backlash on Bans

Although companies like Bayer that manufacture products containing neonicotinoids and glyphosate that are often prohibited as part of fertilizer bans, have not made public statements about the ever-increasing number of cities enacting strict regulations (or outright prohibitions) on these ingredients, their website reassures consumers that products are safe.

Regarding glyphosate, Bayer writes, “Glyphosate is one of the most studied herbicides in the world – and, like all crop protection products, it is subject to rigorous testing and oversight by regulatory authorities. There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides … that confirm that glyphosate and our glyphosate-based formulated products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic.” 

Some lawn care companies are frustrated, too. In a 2018 Lawn & Landscape’s State of the Industry report, 29% of landscape and lawn care companies were very concerned about bans impacting their businesses. One operator said bans have made it harder to treat certain weeds, which makes it more difficult to meet homeowner expectations. He added, “Even clients who are purely organic get tired of the results sometimes.”

In Portland, Kamila says, residents were in favor of the ban.

“Here in Maine, we want a clean environment, we believe in conservation so there was no one saying, ‘Let us keep our pesticides,’” she says. “We got the pesticide ban passed by the City Council and there was really no resistance … The response was, ‘Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago?’”

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based journalist who writes about farming and the environment.