Burn Barrels

Many people use burn barrels to get rid of household waste. But, the waste generated by today’s households is much different than what it was years ago.  

Bleached paper, plastics and other synthetic materials make up a large part of today’s waste.  When burned, many of these substances release toxic pollutants.

The oxygen in a backyard burn barrel is usually limited, which makes the waste burn at a fairly low temperature. This low temperature fire creates such pollutants as dioxins and furans that are released into the atmosphere. The smoke containing these substances can easily be inhaled, and particulates can be deposited on plants and soil.

Dioxins and furans refer to a group of chemical compounds that share certain similar chemical structures and biological characteristics, Dioxins and furans are unwanted byproducts of combustion that come from natural sources like forest fires and from man-made sources like power plants, burn barrels and industrial processes. Both chemicals pose serious health concerns.

An E.P.A. study estimates the amount of dioxins and furans emitted from burning household waste in the U.S. is greater than all other sources, including residential and industrial wood burning and utilities. In fact, burn barrels produced dioxins at levels more than two times greater per ton of refuse than municipal incinerators.

In Illinois, open burning of food waste, food packaging and diapers is prohibited. Other items that cannot be burned include furniture, construction debris and tires. Burning of household waste is permitted only on the premises where it is generated, and the premises must be more than 1 mile outside any town with a population of 1,000 or more. Some communities have even more restrictive burning rules.

If you do burn waste, do not overload the barrel. That way, more oxygen will reach the fire and create a higher burn temperature. To reduce the amount of material being burned, buy fewer disposable items, recycle as appropriate, and compost if possible.  

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