Having a burn barrel is a great way to cut down on the amount of waste you send to the landfill. From wood scraps to leaves, burning is a good way to get rid of natural waste if you can’t compost it, or dispose of it in another fashion.
Whenever we complete a construction project, we burn the wood scraps. They are usually those that are too large to compost, but too small to be reused in any other fashion.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are strict regulations in place in most areas that guide what can and cannot be burned in a backyard fire pit or burn barrel.
To protect your health and that of the environment, you should avoid burning these common items in your garden/burn barrel at all costs.
❌ What You Cannot Burn in a Burn Barrel
Plastic is a major no-no when it comes to burning things in your burn barrel. Not only does it release chemicals into the air, but it can also emit fumes containing things like furans, dioxins, and styrene gas – all of which are extremely bad for you and the environment alike. You don’t want to inhale this stuff!
You might be tempted to pour a bit of gasoline or diesel fuel on a backyard fire to really get it going. After all, starting a fire can be hard – especially if you don’t have the best kindling to start with.
However, pouring accelerants on a fire is not a good idea. They are simply too flammable, making them risky as they could cause explosions. If your fire is small or is slow in getting started, just add more dry pieces of kindling (the smaller, the better).
Although it’s fine to add most kinds of paper to your fire, you’ll want to avoid adding anything that contains bright-colored dyes. That includes magazines along with some types of junk mail, and colored wrapping paper.
These items often contain dyes that can release toxic fumes when they are burned. Instead, just recycle the junk mail and magazines or use them for some other household use or craft.
❌ Pallets and Other Treated Wood
If you search Criaglist, you’ll find all kinds of people trying to get rid of pallets and other types of treated wood.
They might be free, but they’re not a good choice for your fire pit. Wooden pallets are often treated with methyl bromide, which releases into the air when you burn the wood. This is not only bad for your own health, but it’s bad for the environment, too.
Not all pallets are treated with this chemical, but unless you have a way of knowing for sure that your stack of pallets is safe, steer clear instead.
Cheaply made, inexpensive furniture is often crafted with particleboards. I’m not a huge fan of particleboards, and try to buy furniture that is made out of real wood instead. However, if you have a bunch of this stuff lying around, try to resist the urge to toss it in your fire pit.
It is often held together by high-strength adhesives that emit toxic gases when they are burned.
❌ Painted Wood
Anything that has been painted (along with paint itself, although that might be obvious) doesn’t belong in your garden’s burn barrel. Paint can release toxic fumes.
Keep in mind, too, that if the paint or the painted wood is extremely old, it could contain lead, which is extremely toxic.
As with magazines and paper products, cardboard seems innocuous enough. However, cardboard can cause a fire surge that could injure you if you happen to be standing too close. It also can release chemicals into the air from the dyes used to print the boxes.
❌ Poisonous Plants
You may have spent hours clearing your garden of all the poison ivy you could find, but the burn barrel is not a great place to dispose of it. From poison ivy to poison oak and sumac, these weeds should not be disposed of in a fire.
When you set fire to the oils in the plants (the same ones responsible for creating the painful, itchy allergic reactions we all hate) you can cause severe lung irritation, damage, and major respiratory problems.
Oleander is a plant that is incredibly beautiful to look at, often grown as a shrub in the garden. It produces lovely pink, red, and white flowers.
However, as beautiful as this shrub is to behold, it’s really important that you avoid burning it in a burn barrel. It is incredibly toxic, and burning it can sicken your heart, central nervous system, and gastrointestinal system, too.
Styrofoam should also not be burned in your burn barrel. You’ll release a toxic gas that can affect your central nervous system. Plus, Styrofoam doesn’t really burn that well, producing a sooty black flame and smoke that will irritate your lungs.
❌ Christmas trees
Have an old Christmas tree to get rid of? You might be tempted to burn it in your burn barrel.
When you take the proper precautions, you might be okay doing so. However, beware that Chirsmtas trees contain lots of resin, which can make your fire pop and crackle. Don’t stand too close.
❌ Non-Local Wood
If you’re burning wood that you got from somewhere out of the area, exercise caution.
If it came from more than a few miles away, you need to be super careful about introducing invasive wood pests, like emerald ash borers or gold-spotted oak borers, to your local ecosystem. These pests often move to new areas in firewood, so be careful.
Under no circumstances should you burn furniture in your burn barrel.
❌ Compost, Yard Waste, and Food Scraps
Ok, so you technically could burn food scraps, yard waste, and compost in a burn barrel. But why would you want to? Compost them, and use them in your garden instead.
❌ Dryer Lint
Believe it or not, even dryer lint should not be burned in a burn barrel. It can release toxic chemicals that were used to dye your clothes.
❌ Green Wood
Burning green wood is not necessarily dangerous. However, burn with caution, since it will produce a ton of smoke. You may have a harder time getting it started, too.
If you live by the ocean, you might be tempted to toss some driftwood into your fire. Don’t do it – even though the beautiful blue-lavender flames the fire produces might be intoxicating to look at.
The colorful flames aren’t so innocent, though. They’re produced by metal salts absorbed by the wood while it was in the water. Sadly, most of those are toxic.
Rubber not only smells terrible when you burn it in a burn barrel, but it can also release toxic chemicals into the air.
❌ Trash of Any Kind
This one is just gross – don’t do it. Lots of people burn trash in their backyard and burn barrels, but it’s a terrible idea. Not only does it smell bad, but it releases a lot of black smoke and a lot of toxins. In most places, it’s illegal, anyway, so you can expect to get a ticket if you get caught.
☑ What You Can Burn in a Burn Barrel
Not to sound negative, but unfortunately, the list of what you can burn in your burn barrel or garden is much shorter than what you cannot.
Only burnable rubbish should be thrown in your burn barrel. Avoid overfilling it, even with the good stuff, as this could cause the trash to spill out on the ground when it’s on fire. Yikes!
You may be able to burn garden brush, like tree limbs, along with natural fabrics (such as cotton) as long as they haven’t been dyed. You can burn any kind of wood, too, as long as it doesn’t fall into one of the categories listed above.
Things like food wrappers can also be burned, as long as they aren’t plastic. Some people actually advocate for burning non-recyclable plastic in small amounts in their burn barrels.
I’m not a huge proponent of this idea, but it’s lamey your choice. If you must burn plastic, keep it at a minimum.
The same goes for cardboard and non-recyclable paper – just be aware of what everything you add to yoru burn barrel might contain, and try not to breathe in the fumes if you knowingly burn something that could be toxic.
Again, if you’re having trouble getting your fire to start, don’t use an accelerant. That includes lighter fluid! This will cause your flare to flare and may cause it to burn out of control.
Other Tips for Burning in a Garden/Burn Barrel
Ultimately, burn barrels offer homeowners a convenient way to get rid of burnable waste. Making your own barrel is often as simple as finding a 55 gallon drum, removing the lid, and punching holes near the bottom to add ventilation.
Just make sure you research the local laws and regulations in regards to burning – and be aware that these often change based on the time of the year and various climatic conditions (many areas issue burn bans during periods of dry weather).
Adhere to these laws, because no amount of trash is worth a citation!
Regulations aside, try to avoid burning on days that are hot and dry – or on those that are exceptionally windy. Don’t burn anything like aerosol cans, which can explode in the barrel, and above all, be considerate of the health of your neighbors – and of your own health, too.
Otherwise, just make sure you keep your fire well-attended so that it doesn’t get out of control. You’ll be able to make good use of your burn barrel when you follow these tips!
Rebekah is a part-time homesteader. On her 22 acres, she raises chickens and bees, not to mention she grows a wide variety of veggies.