Farm Horizons, May 2011

The backyard burn barrel –use with caution

By Linda Scherer

Open burning of household garbage is banned in Minnesota with the exception of farms where regularly scheduled garbage service isn’t reasonably available to the resident.

This isn’t a new law. It has been illegal since 1969 according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) website on burn barrels.

Garbage has changed, according to the MPCA. Until a few decades ago, burning garbage in the backyard was much less dangerous to your health because most household garbage contained only untreated paper, wood, and glass.

Today’s garbage contains paper, plastics, and other types of packaging waste which, when burned, release a hazardous mixture of carcinogens and other toxins (such as lead, mercury, and arsenic), according to the MPCA. Even seemingly harmless items like paper, mail, packaging, and cardboard boxes used for frozen pizzas and vegetables, can give off toxic emissions, according to the MPCA.

Minnesota’s Southwest Region Pollution Control Specialist Paul Kimman (whose territory includes McLeod County), provided a list of what is acceptable burning materials, and what is prohibited. Kimman said it was a good idea to review the fact sheet because many people are not aware of requirements for solid waste disposal.

The following materials can be burned with a DNR permit: vegetative debris which includes brush, logs, stumps, grass, leaves, and untreated, clean wood.

“Paper isn’t allowed,” Kimman said. “My suggestion would be to recycle.”

Even with a burn permit, Minnesota law prohibits burning rubber, plastics, chemically treated material or other materials which produce excessive or noxious smoke. These items would include tires, railroad ties, chemically treated lumber, composite shingles, tar paper, insulation, composition board, Sheetrock, wiring, paint, or paint filters.

In addition, other items explicitly prohibited from burning in Minnesota are hazardous waste, demolition debris from commercial or institutional structures, motor vehicles, and garbage.

General burning permit information

Burn permits are issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or someone designated by the DNR such as a fire warden. In southern Minnesota counties lacking DNR forestry offices, county sheriffs often serve as fire wardens.

A burn permit is needed when the ground is not snow covered. Snow-covered means the ground depth of three inches or more, surrounding the immediate area of the fire, sufficient to keep the fire from spreading. A burning permit is also needed when you have a fire in an approved burner and it is in use between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

A permit is not needed for a campfire, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other device designed for the purpose of cooking, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website on burn permits.

A burn permit is also not needed for a fire in an approved burner if there isn’t any combustible material within five feet of the base of the burner and if it’s in use between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.

County buy-back program reduces burning

Leading the way by example, Chisago County reduced the number of residents who use burn barrels by 40 percent in four years after passing a no-burn resolution and conducting an education and incentive program called the Burn Barrel Buy-Back Campaign (4Bs).

In a joint effort with local haulers, this program offered six months of garbage service at half price to residents who turned in their old burn barrels and signed up for garbage service. The haulers collected residents’ old burn barrels and ash and disposed of them at no charge. This had the added benefit of increasing the number of customers for local haulers; and after a short time, the haulers were actively promoting the program to residents. This project was funded by a grant with the MPCA, and MPCA staff worked hand-in-hand with the county to develop the program.

Burning waste can be a costly choice

Burning waste to avoid disposal costs can be a costly choice. If caught, the violator may be required to pay a fine.

However, according to Kimman, for a first offense, if it’s a minor infraction, it would be a low level reprimand – possibly by letter.

“But if we keep getting calls, we will increase the action with a penalty,” Kimman said.

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