Burn Barrels

In the early ’50s, I spent summer vacations with my grandparents in Denver. Like many of their neighbors, they burned their garbage in a backyard fireplace. They didn't stop this routine until the city outlawed trash burning because of the pollution it caused.

Years later, I had a summer job at a dude ranch in the Rocky Mountains. As part of my job, I would take the lodge's trash, including its wet kitchen waste, and haul it 30 miles to the nearest dump. There, I would empty the trash barrels, pour gasoline on the pile of garbage and set it on fire. At the time, this was completely legal. But now that I'm older and wiser, I know it was dumb.

I thought this kind of uncontrolled trash burning had pretty much disappeared as a result of the Clean Air Act and RCRA. Then, in the early '90s, I learned that burn barrels were becoming common in rural, upstate New York in response to outrageously inflated disposal fees caused by flow control.

This spring, I was a guest speaker at the Indiana Recycling Coalition conference. One of the sessions concerned state attempts to stop leaf burning and burn barrels. As it turns out, burning trash never really disappeared from rural America. This is because garbage service wasn't available or the tradition of burning trash and leaves provided a way to socialize with neighbors around a fire. Imagine my surprise when my suburban neighborhood association's listserv contained an e-mail alleging that one of our neighbors was burning trash in his fireplace. The letter writer was hopping mad about the pollution being created.

But is burning trash in a fireplace or a burn barrel really a problem? My grandparents' garbage was mostly paper products. Today's waste stream is more sophisticated — full of plastics, disposable diapers and other goodies. Adding this waste stream to the low-combustion temperatures and inadequate oxygen in burn barrels guarantees trouble. According to EPA data, emissions from open burning can produce a higher magnitude of emissions than controlled combustion. In fact, a single household that burns trash in barrels produces more pollutants than a well-operated municipal waste combustion facility. Unfortunately, the EPA doesn't say how much that household's or their neighbor's health is being threatened. Why burn your own trash when safe disposal is available?

But when local governments try to outlaw burn barrels, they ignite a passionate defense by citizens who believe that they have the right to burn whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want.

Sometimes, alternatives to bans are attempted. One rural Idaho county recently tried to impose mandatory garbage collection. Local officials thought that if burning trash was illegal, people would happily use the pickup service. I bet they didn't ask themselves if the burners, who were avoiding garbage collection, would pay for the new service or just freeload on their neighbors.

I suppose the best solution is to enforce the laws and educate people about the hazards of inhaling the toxins of barely combusted trash. Not the greatest solution, but foolishness doesn't include its own cure.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.