A reader (who wishes to remain anonymous) asks;
My son recently joined a Scout troop who, to my horror, burns almost all their trash in the campfire. Most leaders that do this either don’t think it’s a problem, or have just learned to be indifferent.
As a cub leader we didn’t let the youth put anything other than paper in the campfire and taught them what Styrofoam or plastic can do to the environment or their bodies when burned at low temperatures.
Are there any rules or regulations about this?
First I must confess to burning plastic and trash in a campfire over the objections of one of the other adults camping with me. Our crew was midway through an extended canoe trip and I burned a big bag of trash after the Scouts were in their tents for the night. My fellow leader explained that this was dangerously toxic and I was a bit put out. I mean, really, how could this be that bad?
Turns out it is and I was wrong on several levels.
First: burning trash in campfires is likely to be prohibited just about anywhere you are likely to camp.
Second: burning trash is in contravention of the ‘pack it in pack it out’ principle of leave no trace.
Third: burning trash does produce highly toxic smoke and leaves toxic residue behind in the firepit.
Some of us were taught, years ago, to burn or bury our trash when camping. It is a practice as outmoded as trenching around your tent. It’s rare to find a campsite, even in the back-country, that doesn’t have some residue of burned trash in the fire pit.
The National Forest Service conducted a study of the toxins produced by burning trash in campfires. Here’s a table I gleaned from the study listing what toxins are produced by burning different items:
|Trash Burned||Toxins Released|
The study concluded:
This study shows that evencampfires that just burn wood release asignificant amount of air pollutants. Adding garbage to the campfire increases many of these air pollutants. The ash left from a campfire that just burned wood is made up mainly of nontoxic elements. When garbage is burned in the campfire, toxic elements inthe ash are greatly increased. Anyone handling the ashes from a campfire should wear gloves to reduce their exposure to toxic materials …
… The common-sense summary of the results of this study is: Do not burn garbage in a campfire! Pack it in, pack it out.
What’s Burning in Your Campfire? Garbage In, Toxics Out study in PDF format