This article was originally published in the Teton Valley News on September 5, 2013. It is reposted with permission.
To burn or not to burn? That is the question. I remember burning trash on my grandparents’ farms when I was a young child. In those days, burning was the only way for a rural farmer to get rid of the scraps that remained after the goods they reused finally wore out. Today, our county has a modern trash transfer station and recycling facility, so there is no need to burn trash. However, many residents still do. It is not illegal to burn waste in Idaho; however, almost all household and manufactured products, including treated wood products, dead animals, and food waste, ARE illegal to burn. Regulations aside, backyard burning of anything besides brush and yard waste comes at a high cost.
First, burning trash can have detrimental effects on human health. Emissions from backyard burning aren’t filtered or treated, and contribute to respiratory diseases, heart disease, various types of cancer, headaches, nausea, and other health problems. Plastic, rubber, vinyl, and treated wood products should never be burned because they release toxic chemicals such as dioxins. Even when plastics and treated products are removed, there are enough trace sources of dioxin in household trash to be hazardous. These toxins aren’t always inhaled; once released in the air they eventually settle on crops and water, where they can be ingested. Because dioxins are stored in the fatty tissue of livestock and passed on to humans through meat consumption, rural areas like our own should be especially vigilant about backyard burning.
Safety is another concern with backyard burning. The Little Horsethief Canyon Fire in Jackson last summer serves as a reminder of what can go wrong. The fire cost $9 million dollars to suppress, risked the lives of dozens of firefighters, and threatened homes. U.S. Forest Service investigations pointed to a backyard burn barrel on private property as the cause of the destructive blaze.
Burn barrels are also a hazard for our county employees. Embers can continue to smolder in them for weeks or months, starting fires at transfer stations when the ashes are dumped. Teton County encourages residents to bring their waste and recycling to the transfer station instead of burning it. Recycling and sorted waste is free up to 350 pounds and can significantly reduce household waste, making proper disposal affordable for even the tightest budgets.
One final argument against burning is that it undermines recycling efforts. Why burn a product that could be made into something useful? Cardboard recycling brought over $13,000 in revenue to Teton County in 2012 and is set to earn even more in 2013. Would you burn dollar bills? Even brush dropped off at the transfer station can be chipped and sold.
Recycling programs in Teton Valley are growing, but they need more participation before they can reach the next level. The next time you think about lighting up anything more than your backyard barbeque, remember that proper waste disposal helps keep our air clean and our drinking water and food safe, reduces the risk of destructive fires, and, when recycled, generates revenue that is reinvested in our community.
Tanya Anderson is the executive director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information on burning issues, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or check the Idaho DEQ website, http://www.deq.idaho.gov/air-quality/burning/residential-burning.aspx.
Trash Burning: http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/backyard/
Little Horsethief Canyon Fire: http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/article.php?art_id=9597