2011-01-06 / Outdoors

Burn barrel ban begins April 1

Just about anyone who has a little gray in their hair remembers the days when their mom would send them to the backyard with a brown paper bag filled with discarded mail and food wrappers and a strike-anywhere match. The mission: Burn the trash.

Now, burning household waste – anything from paper to wood, plastics and foam products -- is an anachronism in most of the state. Beginning April 1 – it should be just a distant memory everywhere as new regulations on open burning go into effect.

The current exemption to state regulations against open burning that allows folks to burn their household trash will be eliminated.

“This is not a novel idea,” said Jim Ostrowski, an environmental analyst with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment’s Environmental Assistance Program. “In fact, Michigan is one of just a handful of states that still allows people to burn trash without restrictions and the only Great Lakes state that does not restrict or prohibit the activity.”

Simply put, burning trash is not a good idea. It allows the release of environmental contaminants – such as hydrogen cyanide, benzene, lead, mercury, dioxin and carbon dioxide -- into the environment. Just the fine particulate matter in the smoke itself is potentially harmful to people with respiratory issues and can result in both acute and chronic health effects, such as asthma. Youngsters and the elderly can be especially vulnerable.

And the other side effects? Trash burning not only results in numerous smoke and odor complaints, it is often the cause of wild fires as well as property fires.

The change in regulations will not include burning leaves, brush or yard clippings, but even in those cases there are alternatives that are more environmentally sound, such as composting.

Prior to the change in April, burning household refuse is allowed in burn barrels, though unattended fires are never a good idea and can always have serious consequences. The DNRE estimates that 30% of all wild fires are caused by burning debris and hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage occurs annually because of outdoor burning.

Burn barrels are often a source of conflict between neighbors; which “right” is more important: allowing people to burn household refuse or guaranteeing that everyone can open their windows without noxious smoke and odors getting into their homes?

Forest fire regulations require a burn permit for any fires outside of a burn barrel at anytime the ground is not covered with snow. In northern Michigan, most burn permits are issued by the DNRE, though in southern Michigan – and some larger northern Michigan communities – burn permits are issued by the local fire department.

Information about burn permits is available at www.michigan.gov/ burnpermit.

The change in regulations will generally not effect open burning of trees, logs, shrubs and brush as long as the burning occurs at least 1,400 feet outside the limits of an incorporated village or city. However, there are a number of areas in the state that the DNRE considers priority areas where such burning is not allowed. A list of these priority areas can be found at the web site www.michigan.gov/openburning, under “Michigan Open Burning Laws and Rules.”

Typically, open burning of leaves or grass clippings is prohibited in municipalities with populations exceeding 7,500 unless local ordinances specifically allow the practice.

The new rules do not apply to recreational or camp fires. So you don’t have to worry about the youngsters missing their s’mores.

The DNRE has no intention of forming a posse to round up people who continue burning household refuse, but prefers to focus on educating people about the dangers and potential adverse health effects of burning. However, local officials may choose to enforce the provisions if they deem it necessary in response to complaints from residents adversely affected by burning. The department expects that some local units of government will either change existing ordinances or create new ones to address open-burning issues.

“We realize that there are going to be some road blocks and challenges,” Ostrowski said. “It will take a cooperative partnership with local units of government to implement this change successfully.”

Among the tools the DNRE hopes will ease the transition is a database to help citizens identify waster disposal options in their areas and outreach materials – developed in partnership with the Department of Community Health – to educate both citizens and elected officials about the open-burning rule and the dangers of trash burning.

Ideally, the change in regulations will result in less pollution, less smoke, less odor, fewer wild fires, and better health for everyone.

(Editor’s note: This article was provided by the DNRE as part of its Showcasing the DNRE” program.)

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