It appears that you can burn household waste in your garden.’There are no laws against having a bonfire, but there are laws to protect others from the nuisance it can cause.’ That’s from the gov.uk website 1st May 2020.
In the US it was once acceptable to burn household waste but the nature of waste has changed. See: Why are burn barrels illegal?
Waste that’s been generated by industry or any kind of business can not be burned on the site where it’s generated. There may be exceptions to this, for example, waste to energy. Only the UK environment agency can give guidance on this. See: When is it illegal to burn waste?
It appears that you can burn household waste in the UK
Those of us who know anything about how to burn household waste in your garden, back yard or anywhere else, look at the law, as it stands, with disdain. As currently stated anyone can take their household waste, whatever this may include, and build a bonfire with it.
This freedom to burn household waste is tempered by, what amounts to, nothing more than a request that you don’t cause any pollution.
The statement on the UK government site continues ‘You cannot get rid of household waste if it will cause pollution or harm people’s health. This includes burning it.’
Then it goes on to say:
‘Your council can issue an ‘abatement notice’ if a neighbour’s bonfire is causing a nuisance. A bonfire must happen frequently to be considered a nuisance.
Your neighbour can be fined up to £5,000 if they don’t follow the rules of the notice.’
This isn’t to start an argument but someone in the UK government really needs to get off their pot and say what needs to be said. It is possible for home owners to burn household waste with almost no one knowing that they are doing it but they need to know what they’re doing. See: How do you burn trash or waste at home?
When is it illegal to burn waste?
This needs to be taken as a reference to commercial waste. Here the situation is different. It is illegal to burn waste that’s been generated from industry. This involves the environment agency who come-down hard on any business that disposes of waste by burning.
Some operators take the risk of burning industrial waste to save money. When businesses send industrial waste to landfill there is usually a significant cost involved.
‘Offenders can be jailed for up to six months and fined up to £20,000 if they burn rubbish rather than arranging safe disposal through properly licensed companies’ – the UK Environment Agency.
Why are burn barrels illegal?
With specific reference to the US, burn barrels were once common but burning garbage has been made illegal since 1969. In the early days when most people had a clean-out, they could burn household trash or garbage. The burn barrel is, generally, a good system but household garbage or waste has changed. Burning in a burn barrel can cause serious problems.
Burning in a burn barrel was a more efficient way of burning compared to having a burning heap on the ground. For garbage or trash to burn quickly there needs to be adequate air getting at it. This was largely achieved using the burn barrel.
The problem these days is that household trash and garbage has changed. There is much more plastic and other materials that have become part of modern living. Trash and garbage, of old, tended to be paper, cardboard and woody items.
It would send up smoke and it didn’t matter too much if it took longer to burn away at a lower temperature. But this has all changed. So much of the trash and garbage that we’re presented with, these days, still has a significant proportion of paper and wood-based material but look closely and you will see that there are extra attachments that are built into materials e.g. food packaging.
All of this new-style trash or garbage will burn and it’s possible to burn it without releasing toxins that are a cause for genuine health fears. The problem is that the burn barrel system doesn’t provide a high-enough temperature to oxidise everything completely.
This leaves us with the real risk that there will be half burned particles of plastic based compounds floating around in the air that we all breathe.
For a full explanation of the situation regarding burn barrels, see: Focusing on burn barrels
Can I burn garden waste in my garden?
If you have garden waste and no included plastic material, the burning of this is currently legal in the UK. The social requirements are the same for burning garden waste as for burning any type of waste.
Garden waste typically includes woody material e.g. trimmings from a hedge.
It doesn’t make any sense to send garden waste to landfill. If everyone sent their garden waste to landfill, it would take up a massive amount of space that would be needed for the type of waste that needs to be buried.
Another complication that can be avoided is gas. Garden waste is organic material. It will rot down in landfill-mass and methane gas will be generated. Methane will be produced at a landfill site regardless of whether garden waste is added. This will be due to the vast quantities of food-waste that often has nowhere to go other than landfill.
Can I burn garden waste in my garden? Yes. Take a load off of the landfill.
Gas generated at landfill sites is usually difficult to collect. There are so many points that are spread out over the mass of material at a landfill where gas can emerge, it would be a challenge to bring it all to one collection point.
Garden waste is less messy than food-waste. It’s not too much of a problem to handle. This is one area in the world of waste where we can all make a difference and take a load off the landfill facilities.
Garden waste can either be chipped or shredded to make compost or, if you are overwhelmed with so much that you can’t make compost from it, burn it.
How do you burn garden waste at home?
The best and most effective way to burn trash or any waste at home is to use an incinerator. In the UK we are, currently, allowed to do this. Burning of garden waste or anything else, should be seen as a last resort but if it’s what you have to do, then, you need to know how to do it.
The first choice should be to shred or chip this type of garden waste and allow it to rot down into compost.
This may not be convenient, so burning may be the only option. If you really need to burn waste in your garden, you need to consider everyone living around you.
How do you burn garden waste at home? Use an incinerator.
One of the biggest complaints about people burning garden waste is that garden fires generate a lot of smoke. In most cases this is due to the high level of sap that’s often found in garden waste.
Before setting a fire going you should look around and see if your neighbours have got any washing hanging out to dry. Then you need to consider which way the wind is blowing. If there is a risk that the smoke from your garden fire may drift across a road, then, you must abandon the whole thing.
The ideal conditions for burning garden waste are a calm day, where there is no wind. This will allow any smoke to go straight up and away from everyone else.
The smoke level can be reduced significantly if you allow time for the garden waste to dry out as much as possible. Dry, woody material will have little or no sap.
Don’t be tempted to burn garden waste on the same day that you cut fresh green material. Leave it to dry. Depending on where you are in the world, the time that this will take will vary.
Dry garden waste will burn at a higher temperature. This will help to abbreviate the whole burning process and the amount of smoke will be much less if the garden waste is dry.
Garden waste will burn in a heap on the ground but you will have much more control if you use an incinerator. Modern garden waste incinerators are designed to allow as much air as possible into the burning mass.
This will ensure speed of burning to reduce the garden waste to ashes as quickly as possible. It’s so much better to go for a quick burn with dry garden waste in an incinerator rather than leaving a smouldering heap on the ground.
A fast burn in an incinerator will help to ensure that know one else among your neighbours will know anything about it. It will be all over and done before they can say ’smoke’.
There are a few things you need to look out for when using an incinerator. A fast burn will generate a lot of heat in a short amount of time. The heat will go straight up. Position the incinerator in a place where there are no over-head cables, electric or telephone. There is a risk that any fierce heat may damage the cable-insulation.
Always arrange for the fire to burn during daylight hours. This will be less conspicuous than burning at night in the dark. A bright fire will show up from miles away. The last thing you want is the fire brigade to turn up and start stretching out their fire-hoses because somebody thought there was a problem. It would be quite a scene. Especially when you’re trying to get it done without drawing attention.
Another point that’s always worth remembering is that a fire that’s going well will generate sparks. This may be nice to watch but if the weather has been dry for a while and surrounding vegetation outside of your premises is very dry, there is the real risk of a bush fire.
This can be easily avoided by waiting until rain is forecast before attempting to start the fire. Time it right and you can get the fire over and done with followed by a shower of rain that will stop any chance of an escalation.
Is it better to burn waste or landfill?
If we are looking at the issue of choosing between domestic waste being collected and taken away for disposal, opinions are divided. To make a judgement requires an understanding of the chemistry involved in either route. Landfill contains the waste that’s deposited but only up to a point. To burn waste effectively the temperature has to be high enough to secure total oxidation.
The question can be divided. There is the question of either domestic waste that’s being burned at home or domestic waste that’s being collected for disposal.
If we look at the option of burning domestic waste at home we need to consider this very carefully. Garden waste can be burned in an incinerator. This can be done very effectively without causing a nuisance to others provided we exercise due diligence.
These days, household waste contains a lot of plastic. We can’t avoid it. It comes as part of the modern world as another element of convenience. Plastics are the issue. Plastics will burn; they are flammable. The problem is that for plastics to burn completely they need to be burned at a high enough temperature to achieve total oxidation.
This may happen if you burn garden waste at home in the garden incinerator but there is no guarantee that all of it will burn at the required temperature.
It’s better if you don’t burn plastic waste at home
The safest and better way is to hand this type of waste material over to others. It can always be collected and taken away to be managed by the local community collection facility.
Masses of household waste items are collected and have to go somewhere. Landfill has been the procedure for many decades but modern technology is offering alternative routes.
We now consider the broader question of: is it better to burn waste or landfill? Modern technology is giving us the ability to burn anything that’s combustible without releasing dangerous gasses into the atmosphere for us to breathe in.
Many people object and protest against the installation of large-scale incinerator plants, near where they live. The belief among those who protest is that anything that burns will make a smell. They seem to think that an industrial waste incinerator will smoke everybody out as though it was their neighbour’s smouldering pile of rubbish in their garden.
This is not the case. I’ve seen where an industrial waste-to-energy plant is in operation. There may be odd moments when there is the emission of an obnoxious effluvia but this only appears to happen during the start up phase.
When the plant is running at the correct temperature there’s no smell and there’s no smoke. The buildings where this takes place tend to be modern, clean and generally unobtrusive.
The waste is fully oxidised. Elementary particles are released into the atmosphere which can be reused by plants without any lasting adverse effects. One element will, of course, be carbon which is a staple input that all plants require. Another will be sulphur which plants also need.
So, when we come to the question of: is it better to burn waste or landfill we need to take the burn option seriously. The choice is quite simple. Burning waste will produce energy without messing up the environment. Landfill is a way of leaving a problem for later for someone else to deal with.
For more guidance on the subject of bonfires and burning waste in the garden, got to Environmental protection UK.