We’ve helped our Elks with an annual Flag Day Ceremony and Flag Retirement Ceremony for many years. Some years we have over 400 flags that have been collected during the year to retire during the evening. We want to retire these flags with the utmost respect, but at the same time, the emissions from burning mostly synthetic flags for several hours has us worried, for the environment, but mostly for our Scouts. These chemicals can’t be good to breathe in.This year, several neighbors came by to comment about the unpleasant fumes. Does anyone have a better way to retire flags? Next year, plan to retire only the cotton flags, but those are pretty few; and we don’t know what to do with the synthetic flags. Since the Elks’ Lodge collects the flags, and we provide only service, we don’t have any control of how many flags are collected, or to limit the materials. I’ve checked out a couple of flag recycling websites, but the cost is prohibitive. Our Lodge will not ask folks for money to retire their flags. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
Synthetic flags do indeed create hazardous gases when burned prompting some states to prohibiting the open burning of plastics and synthetics. This is no small matter, the chemicals released when burning plastics can be very toxic and very dangerous.
Flags can be recycled and, as you note, some people are willing to do this for a fee. I seen burial mentioned several times as an alternative but I can’t imagine that this is much more ecologically sound than burning.
The heart of the matter is “destroying in a dignified way”. The Flag Code is the single federal statute that refers to flag disposal. It states:
(k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
The code was written in 1923, well before the advent of synthetic fabrics. I think it is clear that the code directs us to not simply dispose of flags but to destroy them so they cannot be displayed or used in a disrespectful manner. There’s nothing in the flag code that specifies exactly when a flag is destroyed. Flag retirement ceremonies I have attended seem to favor cutting the flag down the center of the long axis between the bottom of the union (blue field) and the first long stripe before it is burned.
The code seems to contemplate alternatives to burning in the use of the modifier ‘preferably‘. I think any reasonable person would consider recycling a dignified method of disposal. Perhaps the best way forward is finding a local resource for fabric recycling and asking them to accept flags you have destroyed by cutting as described above in a dignified manner.
It is worth mentioning that the Flag Code is the single official source for flag etiquette. All other sources , suggestions, directions, ceremonial observances, history and laws you may find floating around the internet (including the one you are reading now) are the opinion of an individual or a group and nothing more.