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If you've ever burned a pile of leaves in your backyard you've likely walked away coughing and rubbing your red eyes. Now consider what happens to the air quality around you if your neighbors next door and across the street do the same thing.
Burn barrels and open burning are major contributors to air pollution. In Wisconsin, they are the number one source of uncontrolled dioxin emissions and the number one source of citizen air pollution complaints, explains Kevin Kessler, DNR's Open Burning Team leader.
"While burn barrels themselves aren't illegal, burning most waste materials is illegal," Kessler says.
The problem is huge. For many Wisconsin residents burning garbage continues to be a tradition, even though it's been illegal for over 25 years. The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are about 500,000 burn barrels in Wisconsin. Nationally, there are up to 20 million. Wisconsin residents generate 4 ½ pounds of garbage per person per day. Nationwide, 1.8 billion pounds of household waste is burned every year.
Burn barrels operate at low temperatures (400 to 500 degrees F), resulting in incomplete combustion of wastes and the formation of cancer-causing dioxin and furans. Burning trash also produces other toxic chemicals such as arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. An EPA-funded study found that a single household that burns trash daily in a burn barrel can produce more toxic air emissions than a medium-sized municipal waste incinerator with air pollution controls. Ash left behind in a burn barrel contains heavy metals and other toxic chemicals that can contaminate the soil.
Open burning regulations are a combination of state air pollution laws, solid waste rules and local ordinances. Local ordinances may be more stringent than statewide law and in some localities may prohibit open burning altogether. Under statewide law, burning the following materials is prohibited under any conditions:
Local recycling ordinances prohibit burning sorted recyclables such as plastic containers, newspaper, cardboard and magazines. Penalties can be assessed to individuals and businesses for improper recyclables disposal. Currently, every state resident has access to a community recycling program.
While most open burning has been illegal for more than 25 years in Wisconsin, the legal procedures for enforcing the state's open burn regulations are very cumbersome. DNR hopes that the Legislature will soon review that problem.
Open burning also is the number one cause of wildfires in Wisconsin, explains Kessler. Because of the danger, burning in designated forest fire protection areas requires a DNR permit. Permits may be obtained at a DNR Service Center or from volunteer fire wardens in the community. Local ordinances may require a burning permit in incorporated municipalities and areas not subject to state permits.
Solving the trash-burning problem will be a major task. Nearly two years ago the Department of Natural Resources formed several stakeholder groups to collectively work on the trash-burning issue. Their report recommended education, developing a model ordinance for local municipalities, legislation and developing better alternatives for agricultural plastics like silage bags.
There's definitely a need for better education and enforcement at the state level, but there's also a role for local governments. In response to stakeholder recommendations, the Department of Natural Resources recently published a new model ordinance on open burning that's been endorsed by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Towns Association, the American Lung Association of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Counties Association. Although local municipalities can't be less stringent than state law, the model ordinance contains many suggestions and options for local governments to regulate open burning to meet local needs.
A closely related emerging issue is the use of outdoor wood-fired boilers (tin sheds with boilers inside) that some people use to heat homes. Wood-fired boilers can smolder, people sometimes burn other things in them and the boilers have low stack heights so they create smoke closer to ground level. Complaints can occur, Kessler explains, when neighbors are located too close. Suggestions and alternatives are included in a new open burning model ordinance for local governments that have received complaints and want to address the issue.
To change the widespread practice of burning trash, education is going to be key.
"A lot of waste burning is the result of people not knowing that it's illegal or not knowing that they have other options," Kessler says.
DNR education efforts are teaching what's illegal and what the alternatives to burning are. Plastic containers, paper, cardboard and tires should be recycled. Leaves, brush and grass clippings can be composted. Many communities have local collection programs and backyard composting information is available at local DNR Service Centers.
"We know it is hard for people to change their ways and open burning has been a tradition for many, "Kessler says. "Some habits are worth keeping but open burning definitely isn't one of them."
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.