It can be tempting to throw trash in a camp fire. After cooking a big dinner, is it wise to toss garbage in the fire? How big of a deal are the fumes, and are there any other problems burning garbage might cause? Before I get into all that lets ask a simple question. Can you burn trash in a campfire?
You should not burn trash in a campfire. Garbage burned in a campfire can create chemical fumes that campers can inhale, release dangerous pollutants into the surrounding environment, and endanger humans, plants, and animals that come to investigate the garbage left behind in the ash. If you were able to carry it in, you should be able to pack it out.
There’s a reason why every campground has rules to prevent burning garbage in a fire pit. It’s bad for the environment, campers health, and there’s also residual garbage left behind. I’ll get into all these details below and go over some of the chemical pollutants you’ll be breathing in if you decide to my warning and burn garbage anyway.
Why Can’t I Burn Trash In a Fire Pit?
I do a lot of camping and there’s one thing that really bugs me. People love to throw garbage into the fire. It doesn’t matter what it is everything goes into the fire. They toss in food, disposable plates, plastic forks/spoons, aluminum cans, beer bottles, bags, and everything else they want to discard. Anything that can possibly burn will be tossed in and some things that won’t.
Burning trash doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people. I can remember my boy scout troop leaders telling everybody to toss our trash into the fire so there’d be less to pack out. There was even a time when it was common practice to bury trash, but the times have changed.
Now we know that there are a few serious problems with burning trash. There’s a very simple reason why every national/state park bans trash burning. It’s bad for the environment and the surrounding wildlife. While I wouldn’t consider myself a tree hugger, you can easily see why burning trash can be a problem.
- Pollutants In Air: Multiple studies have concluded that burning trash releases dangerous chemicals into the air. Even burning wood releases a significant amount of pollutants, but throwing on garbage multiplies the problem. This isn’t just an environmental issue! You’ll be standing around the fire and breathing in all the chemicals as well. Do you really want to breath in formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, benzene, styrene, and who knows what else?
- Leaves Toxic Chemicals In The Ash: It should seem obvious, but not everything you toss into the fire burns off completely. You’re always left with some type of waste product like ash, melted metals/glass, burnt plastic residue, etc. All the garbage you burn collects into one big biological/chemical mess. It might not look like a big deal, but those chemicals get absorbed by burnt ash, get washed into the water supply, and spread through the surrounding environment.
- Dangerous Cleanup: Have you ever tried to clean trash out of a fire pit that’s been burning for a few days? You go out to clean everything up and all the partially burnt cans, bottles, etc. will still be hot. I have a serious scar on my palm from trying to pick up a beer bottle that was sitting in my firepit days after a bonfire.
- Violates Leave No Trace: Every backpacker/camper should be aware of the leave no trace policy. The basic principle is, you shouldn’t do anything that will have a negative impact on the surrounding area. This is impossible since we always leave some impact on the environment, but you should try not to cause permanent damage to the area. Burning garbage is a very obvious problem with an easy solution. Just carry everything you brought in back out with you.
- Leftover Trash In The Fire: It’s rare to find a campsite, that doesn’t have some residue of burned trash in the fire pit. You could be miles away from civilization in the backcountry and you will find evidence of burnt garbage. If nobody cleans it up it will sit there until it breaks down into the soil. It can take decades for biodegradable items to disintegrate, and things like plastics, foil, Styrofoam, will be leftover for your great-great-grandchildren 100s of years from now.
- Attracts Animals: Animals have learned to associate humans with food and anything food related that gets tossed into the fire is bound to attract them. This is an obvious problem while you’re there, but it can lead to animals being burned by smoldering embers once you leave.
- Against The Rules: Almost every state/national park and campground has rules that strictly forbid burning garbage. People have been ignoring those rules for decades, but they’re still in place.
Most of it burns, but at the end of the night you’re always left with a mismatch of smoldering cans and random garbage that didn’t fully burn. I love the outdoors, but I wouldn’t consider myself a tree hugger.
What Chemicals Are Released Into The Air?
It would be impossible to list every chemical that gets released into the air by burning plastic, aluminum, rubber, cardboard, etc. I won’t even try to guess what dangerous chemicals might be lingering in your garbage, but I’ll go over a few of the most common items that get discarded into fire pits.
|Trash Burned||Toxins Released|
|Plastic (bags, silverware, bottles, etc.)||Benzene|
BPA, BPS, Phthalates
|Styrofoam (Cups, Plates, Bowls)||Benzene|
|Cardboard and Paper Boxes||Cadmium|
|Aluminum Cans (Contain Paint and Plastic)||Aluminum Oxide|
It really doesn’t matter what you toss in a fire there will always be toxins going up into the air and residue left behind in the ash. Things that may seem safe to burn can be manufactured with lots of toxic chemicals. Burning trash isn’t just bad for the environment! Do you really want to breathe in toxic fumes?
Cleanup Can Be Dangerous
Campfires can smolder for days if you don’t put them out with water before heading to bed. Almost everything that gets tossed in a fire will leave behind some type of residue that needs to be cleaned up. Aluminum melts down into a molten blob, plastic burns into a hard black blob, tin and foil remain intact, glass melts and stays hot for days.
Do you plan on leaving a mess behind or will you try to clean everything up? I might be overly optimistic, but most people fall into the cleanup category and try to leave the campsite how they found it. This means digging into the firepit and taking out all the burnt up trash.
Unfortunately, this can very easily lead to injuries. Campfires can smolder for days and continue giving off heat. A fire that looks like it’s completely out can have smoldering embers hiding below the ashes. Go to pick up an aluminum can or glass bottle and you can get burned.
Be careful picking up garbage out of a fire because the contents may still be hot. You should always throw water on a campfire and stir around the ashes to make sure it’s completely out. Be especially careful removing objects like glass and metal that retain heat. They can stay hot for a long time if they’re insulated in a bed of ash.
You Can Burn Paper and Wooden Trash
Burning paper and wooden trash shouldn’t be a problem. It burns clean and it’s just like burning any other piece of firewood. Paper might have some fumes from the bleaching agent and glue, but they should be generally safe to burn.
Just make sure the wood isn’t pressure treated or covered in paint. Pressure treated and painted wood can release toxic fumes into the air that can cause health problems. It probably won’t be a big deal to the average person, but can be life threating to asthmatics and people with breathing problems.
What About Burning Food?
Tossing food into a campfire won’t release chemicals, but it will draw animals to your campsite. Animals in popular parks have learned to associate humans with food. They’ll start rooting around in the trashcans, campfire, and around the site the minute you leave(sometimes before).
Tossing food in a campfire won’t stop animals from trying to root it out. You may end up with rodents, raccoons, skunks, possums, etc. hanging around the site waiting for scraps. Once they become habituated to humans they can even become aggressive with campers.
I can remember going to old boy scout camp as a child near Cleveland Ohio called Camp Stigwandish. We made smores and hot dogs around the campfire and had great time. Some of the hot dogs and smores fell into the fire and we didn’t think anything of it.
The second the sun went down, 100s of racoons, squirrels, rats, and mice swarmed the campsite digging through the fire, forcing open coolers, ripping open tents, toppling trash cans, and breaking into any pack that was left unattended. That was an important lesson for all of us. We quickly learned how much damage wild animals can do once they get domesticated to campers.