Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Burning solid waste materials on a residential property © DNR File

Burning solid waste materials, such as treated wood, plastic, household garbage and most other trash, is prohibited statewide, and local ordinances may be more stringent than statewide requirements.
© DNR File

August 2014

Illegal burning only stops with education

Know Wisconsin's Open Burning Laws.

Steven M. Miller

If you visited the small town of Augusta, Wis. a couple of years ago, you might have found Mark Karow burning yard debris, brush, leaves and household trash. Like many Wisconsin residents, Karow grew up during a time when burning these materials was commonplace.

Flash forward five years though, and you'll find that Karow is a leading voice in his community for alternatives to open burning of trash and waste. In fact, if you visit his community today, you'll find weekly garbage and recycling pickups, organized just a few years ago with the help of people like Karow.

Open burning has been illegal in Wisconsin for almost 30 years, but still some people don't know that. Education continues to be the best weapon in combating open burning.

Why ban open burning? Open burning, especially the torching of materials in traditional burn barrels, is a leading contributor to toxic air pollution. Residential burning is the number one source of dioxins in Wisconsin, and dioxins can bioaccumulate into crops and animals, and affect the food we eat, which is definitely a concern, explains David Hon, a DNR waste management specialist.

As more people learn about the health hazards and other dangers of open burning, they are speaking up. Last year, open burning complaints comprised 46 percent of all air quality complaints, up from 27 percent in 2010. The increase in complaints doesn't mean there are more people burning today. It likely means more people are aware of the dangers. "Information and education are the best ways to curb open burning," emphasizes Jill Schoen, a DNR regional supervisor for the waste and materials program.

Burn barrels

For many Wisconsin residents, having a burn barrel in the backyard has been a way of life. The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are about 500,000 burn barrels scattered throughout the state and upwards of 20 million barrels throughout the United States.

While it is legal to own a burn barrel, burning most waste materials in them is against state law. Local ordinances may be even more stringent than state laws, and in some local municipalities, open burning is prohibited entirely. Under state law, burning the following materials is prohibited under any conditions:

  • wet, combustible garbage, including wet cardboard or paper
  • treated or painted wood, not including campfire wood
  • oily substances, including oily or greasy rags, oil filters, etc.
  • plastics of any kind, including plastic bottles, packaging materials and plastic bags
  • rubber products, including tires and hoses
  • asphalt products, such as shingles or tar paper

Most household trash needs to be recycled, disposed of properly in landfills or dropped off at a licensed waste incinerator facility. Licensed facilities have emission controls and reach much hotter temperatures than the average burn barrel.

Typically, burn barrels operate at low temperatures, resulting in incomplete waste combustion and the formation of carcinogenic dioxins and furans, as well as other chemicals such as arsenic, formaldehyde and benzene.

In Wisconsin, burn barrels are the largest source of dioxins of any generator, including industry, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Dioxins are bad for air quality and accumulate in the soil. From there, dioxins can enter the food chain as they are absorbed by plants. Animals eat these plants and become contaminated. The dioxins then ultimately circle back to people as they harvest and eat wild game, or consume local dairy products.

Burning garbage

It's important to point out to people that it's not your grandfather's waste anymore, says Schoen.

"It's different," she adds. "The health impacts to individuals and neighbors are much more severe."

"The content of our garbage has changed over the years," says Hon. "It used to be a lot of paper, wood, cardboard and pigment-based paint, and if you burned it, it wasn't great, but at the same time, it wasn't as toxic either."

But that's no longer the case. Today, garbage includes a lot of plastics, rubbers, inks and synthetic chemicals all of which are dangerous when burned and released into the air.

Burning structures

Another health concern is the burning of old structures. Some people choose to demolish old structures such as barns, sheds and other buildings by burning them. The fumes and ashes from these burns are often loaded with toxins, including asbestos.

DNR officials warn that this practice is illegal and dangerous.

"With the exception of authorized fire training burns conducted by fire departments, it is illegal to burn any structures in Wisconsin," notes Mark Davis, DNR statewide asbestos coordinator.

Most forms of asbestos burn at temperatures higher than the fires they are a part of, resulting in asbestos being redistributed with the ashes.

"Once asbestos is released into the air, it has a chance to unknowingly expose those who are downwind from these sites," explains Davis.

Demolition and recycling of old materials and structures is a much safer alternative to burning.

Open burning gone wrong

Open burning is also the number one cause of wildfires in Wisconsin, says Jed Kaurich, a DNR forester at the Augusta Ranger Station. During "fire season" in the spring, forest rangers may receive five to 10 complaints a day, often from neighbors or motorists reporting the burning of illegal materials or burning during dangerously windy and dry conditions. Sometimes, this illegal burning will lead to forest fires which the Department of Natural Resources and local fire departments respond to.

"We staff several fire towers here in Augusta, with staff looking for signs of smoke, caused either by forest fires or people burning illegally," Kaurich says.

The department has more than 75 towers statewide that are staffed throughout the spring and dedicated to looking for smoke and potential fires. DNR fire control personnel respond to fires throughout the state and the cost of fire suppression typically falls back on the source of the fire. Fire suppression costs range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.


Wisconsin is a national leader in recycling and composting, which are excellent alternatives to open burning.

Reduce and Reuse: Try to buy in bulk to reduce the amount of packaging materials that need to be disposed of. Using washable containers for storage over single-use counterparts makes a difference over time.

Recycle: You can put a dent in your trash stream by separating newspaper, magazines, cardboard, paper, glass, plastics, aluminum, steel and tin cans and recycling them.

Compost: Compost materials that will deteriorate. Many people compost their food already, but you can also mulch leaves and plant clippings, and create wood chips out of brush and clean wood. Garbage disposals are also one of the best ways to dispose of food scraps and other materials.

Proper Disposal: After eliminating a good chunk of your trash stream, properly disposing of the remainder is still vital. Discard non-recyclable waste materials at a licensed landfill or through a curb-side collection agency.


While most states in the Midwest have citation authority, Wisconsin does not, explains Hon. However, local municipalities can have more stringent laws, which can include citations for open burning.

Ultimately, ending the practice of open burning is going to come back to people like Mark Karow, who are willing to break away from bad habits.

"I couldn't stand the smell of what we were burning anyway, and I knew it wasn't good to be burning," says Karow. "So, we started recycling more and got on a bi-weekly dumpster service that is way easier and safer."

What is open burning?

The Department of Natural Resources defines open burning as any fire that produces pollutants that are emitted directly into the surrounding area, via a burn barrel, pile or unconfined area.

This includes burning treated wood, plastic, most types of trash and household garbage and other yard waste such as leaves, brush and clean wood. Some yard waste may be burned with a burn permit during appropriate times of the year.

For more information visit dnr.wi.gov and search keywords "burn permit."

Steven M. Miller is a communications specialist for the DNR's Air, Waste and Remediation and Redevelopment Division.