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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Many communities and townships ban open burning outright. Others strictly limit what can be burned, and when burning can occur. © DNR Photo
Many communities and townships ban open burning outright. Others strictly limit what can be burned, and when burning can occur.

© DNR Photo

December 2004

Open and outdoor burning

A tradition to discard

Natasha Kassulke

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 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:

  • wet, combustible garbage or rubbish including wet cardboard or paper
  • oily substances, including oily or greasy rags, oil filters, etc.
  • asphalt products such as shingles or tar paper
  • plastics of any kind, including plastic bottles, packaging materials and plastic bags
  • rubber products, including tires and hoses
  • treated or painted wood

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.

Most communities encourage healthy options to burning yard wastes, including backyard composting and brush chipping. © Tracey Teodecki
Most communities encourage healthy options to burning yard wastes, including backyard composting and brush chipping.

© Tracey Teodecki

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.

Hazecam: Seeing is believing
MidwWest hazecam is bringing air quality information into homes from rural and city locations across the upper Midwest.

With hazecams, video cameras mounted high in the air, you can literally see the effects of air pollution on visibility. Impaired visibility has been a problem throughout the United States for years, and especially in national parks and wilderness areas. In 1999, EPA created rules to address haze caused by man-made pollution that is carried hundreds of miles by winds.

A hazecam is a web camera that posts photos on a website, displaying a visual image of the skyline. Images are updated every 15 minutes and then archived. This information along with real-time ozone and fine particulate matter concentrations, ambient temperature, wind speed and direction, and humidity is posted on the hazecam website.

There are two hazecam sites in Wisconsin – in Milwaukee and Mayville.

Daniel Nickolie, an environmental specialist responsible for the hazecam operation sites in south central Wisconsin, says, "We decided to compare the visibility between Milwaukee, our largest metropolitan area, to a more rural area such as Mayville."

Mayville, in east central Wisconsin (Dodge County), is located near the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Here, the camera looks to the north. Air pollution issues include infrequent high eight-hour ozone levels during the summer.

In Milwaukee, MidWest hazecam-Milwaukee also looks to the north. Milwaukee experiences occasional high eight-hour ozone levels during the summer. Health advisories also are issued due to elevated concentrations of particulates in the air.

Note: The Wisconsin Hazecam sites were discontinued in August 2010 due to budget constraints.

The Midwest Hazecam is part of a national air visibility national network. The Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO) formed the Midwest network and funds the system.

"Seeing is believing," Nickolie says.