Home » Is It Legal To Burn Trash: The Answer For All 50 States

Is It Legal To Burn Trash: The Answer For All 50 States

Do you have a pile of garbage you want to get rid of but don’t want to pay a disposal fee?  Burning it seems like an economical way to get rid of trash but you may want to think twice before striking a match.

Many people assume that you can burn anything you want on your own property.  However, after a great deal of research, I have found that isn’t the case. 

Is it legal to burn trash?  No.  In almost every state, burning garbage in both rural and residential areas is prohibited year-round with very few exceptions.  Doing so can land you in legal trouble, in addition to expensive fines.  Burning trash releases extremely dangerous fumes called dioxins and furans that cause significant health problems and pollution.  

Wondering what makes burning garbage so dangerous?  Want to know if you can burn yard waste?  Keep reading and not only will I go over which states ban garbage burning, I’ll also cover some of the most common questions people have about burning trash. 

Is burning trash worse than using landfills

Our trash today hardly contains the same stuff that our grandparents might have burned in their backyards.  The majority of modern garbage contains plastics, dyed and treated paper, oils and other man-made products.  All of which generate highly toxic smoke and ash when burned.

For most of us, the only other option other than burning is using local landfills to discard our daily trash.  In most urban areas, garbage collection allows for easy disposal.  Put out your trash can and poof, it’s gone the next morning, never to be seen again.  

Of course, we know better.  Your trash eventually makes it to the landfill which obviously has an impact on the environment and our health.  But is a landfill any better than burning?  After all, at a landfill, the garbage sits there forever.

In general, burning trash releases far more pollutants and toxins into the air and groundwater than dumping it at landfills.  

The thing is, environmental and health mitigation at a landfill is easier to control.  With proper engineering, harmful breakdown products can be contained.  Whereas burning releases toxins right into the air.  Ground level smoke dispersal is governed by the will of the wind and spreads far and wide.  Toxic smoke from burning is inhaled and contaminates surfaces, while ash settles and makes its way to our groundwater supply.

Obviously, landfills are not perfect and they do have significant impact on the environment.  However, garbage burning poses a more immediate threat to human health.

Burning Garbage: Laws For All 50 States

It’s pretty well understood that burning trash is bad.  Yet, that doesn’t mean the laws prohibiting it are always clear.  It makes sense that large scale garbage incineration is highly regulated and usually illegal.  

However, the rules applying to individual residents for burning household trash in their own backyard varies from state to state.  So, it’s no surprise that people are unsure about the laws.  To simplify it for you, I have made a list of which states ban it all together and which states allow trash burning under certain exceptions.  

IMPORTANT NOTE:  I am not a law expert.  The list of laws for all 50 states was compiled with great effort using the most up-to-date information I could find online.  It is your responsibility to investigate all applicable rules in your area.  Local ordinances and laws put forth by other governing entities supersede any interpretation I have made.  Always error on the side of caution before burning anything.  Consult with local officials and your local fire department for laws in your specific area.

Backyard Burning of Trash: Is it Legal?

(With Exceptions)
South Dakota
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
West Virginia

As you can see, almost all states ban barrel or open pit burning of household and commercial waste.  This includes plastic packaging, coated papers, cardboard, waste oils, construction debris and most other common trash materials.  

In states where exceptions are listed, allowable garbage burning is very limited.  Upon researching the laws of every state, I found that several states allow individual residents to burn trash under the following restrictions:

  • You must live in an area where garbage service is not available.  That doesn’t just include local garbage pick up.  It also means that landfill drop-offs are not within a reasonable driving distance from your home.
  • You can only burn garbage that your household generates.  Garbage cannot be brought from other homes or businesses outside your property.
  • You must have fewer that 2-4 domiciles on your property (varies by state).
  • Proximity to other residents should be more that 200-500 feet away (varies by state).
  • An approved waste burner must be used.  Burn barrels are permitted in some states but additional restrictions apply.
  • Not all trash is allowed to be burned in areas with trash burning exceptions. 
  • All burn bans must be obeyed whether trash burning is permitted or not.
  • Even those of you able to burn are not permitted to create nuisance smoke that affect your neighbors or create traffic problems.
  • Permits may be required in some areas.

As you can see, trash burning laws are complex and require a fair bit of research on your part to ensure you are burning trash legally.  After spending so much time deciphering each state’s laws, it has become obvious that it is safer to assume burning trash is illegal no matter where you live.  

Instead, seek out an alternative means for disposing of your trash whenever possible. 

Is there any garbage you can safely burn

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know which garbage may or may not be safe to burn.  Most garbage contains some form of chemical treatment or manufactured materials that can produce toxins when burned.  It is always better to dispose of waste using alternative means when possible.

In some states that allow open burning, untreated paper and untreated wood scraps can be burned.  Although, there are often other regulations that must be followed before doing so.  Check for necessary permits and whether or not you need a special incinerator style burner before proceeding.  

A good place to find out current rules and regulations is with your local fire department.  Remember, error on the side of caution so you don’t get in trouble or endanger yourself and others.  Be safe and don’t burn any garbage.

Can you burn yard debris

Yard debris is often excluded from state level restrictions on open burning.  Unlike garbage, burning yard debris in most states is permitted assuming that local ordinances and current burn bans do not say otherwise. 

There are some exceptions to take note of.  Keep in mind the following common restrictions on yard debris burning.  

  • Burning yard waste like leaves, grass, tree trimmings and brush is often limited to rural areas.
  • Smoke from burning yard waste should not impact neighbors.
  • Local ordinances may be more restrictive than state laws.  Check before you burn.
  • Burning yard waste during burn bans is almost always prohibited.
  • It is illegal to leave an open burn unattended.
  • You may need permits to burn yard debris where you live.
  • Burning in any manner inconsistent with local law carries the possibility of legal punishments and/or fines.
  • Don’t burn construction debris with yard debris.
  • Burning wet vegetation generates excessive smoke and may be prohibited.
  • Burning yard waste is often illegal in areas where yard waste collection services are available.

Again, your best source for more definitive regulations on burning yard debris is your local fire department.  They are often able to provide concise information about the laws or direct you to appropriate sources of information.

Why are burn barrels illegal

In many states, burn barrels are illegal since they burn at lower temperatures because of limited oxygen flow.  This increases the level of smoke, sparks and toxic fumes.  Additionally, burn barrels produce smoke and soot at ground level making them particularly dangerous for the owner and surrounding neighbors.

Even in states where burn barrels are legal, there are restrictions that limit what may be burned in them.  In most cases, using a burn barrel is limited to yard debris and certain refuse material.  You should also take note that there is a minimum distance you need to be from other dwellings before burning.  It’s often a minimum of 500 feet. 

The legal use of burn barrels is extremely limited.  Often reserved only for very rural settings where garbage services and landfills are not available.  Since so few people live within burn barrel permissible regions, it’s safer to assume that it is not legal to use one.  

If you have decided that you live in an area where burn barrels are permitted, make sure you understand all permitting requirements and be knowledgable about what you are allowed by law to burn.  

Should you report garbage burning

Illegal garbage burning is harmful to everyone and that makes it all of our responsibility to report it.  It is certainly understandable that you prefer to mind your own business and avoid confrontation with neighbors.  However, anyone impacted by smoke and the toxins it carries has the right to put a stop to it.  

Besides, you are often able to anonymously report illegal burning.  With that said, you should definitely report any trash burning that negatively affects your community.

Where do you report illegal burning?  The first place to call is the non-emergency number of your local fire department.  You’ll need to provide some information like the location of the illegal trash burning, the nature of the fire, who is burning it and your contact information for follow up questions. 

If your local fire station does not provide the response you need, you can call your state’s environmental agency or other air quality control entity.  

Parting words

For many, it seems convenient and harmless to get rid of a little garbage in the fire.  Yet, the harmful impacts of burning garbage, both health and environmental, far out way the inconvenience of using a responsible means for disposing of your garbage. 

Burning any amount of trash is illegal in most states for a reason.  For the few who must burn trash, make sure you follow all local guidelines and ordinances.  Not doing so can result in some hefty fines.  Burn garbage only as a last resort.  Even if it is legal in your area.