Backyard Burning
(from Maine Townsman, June 1996)
by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

Backyard Burn Barrels. In case you hadn't noticed, these rusted 55 gallon barrels with or without screened tops are sprouting up all over the state these days, like mushrooms after a summer rain.

They go hand-in-hand with the adoption of pay-by-the-bag systems, according to a recent study by the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy, which found that backyard burning of trash will likely increase in your town and persist, especially if you do not have curbside pickup of recyclables such as paper and cardboard.

If you doubt it, just ask the folks in Durham (pop. 2,000), where they adopted a pay-by-the-bag program in 1993. The current estimate is 150 backyard burn barrels, with half that many more being used without a permit.

That said, you should know that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is currently waging an intense education campaign against backyard burning noting, among other things, that household burning of today's trash produces far more pollution per pound of trash than high-tech municipal incinerators.

You should also know that there are state laws (12 MRSA 9321-25) governing the backyard burning of household trash; laws that are enforced by the Maine Forest Service; laws that the state is considering amending in the light of the recent rise in backyard burning.

And last, but not least, you should also know that not only can your town enact stricter standards than the state's, it can even ban outright the backyard trash burning.

So for those reasons and more, if you are planning to adopt a pay-by-the-bag system of solid waste management, you should know what you are getting into when it comes to backyard burning of trash and what your options are.

That said, this article looks at what current laws say about backyard burning, and what at least one town has done on its own to ban it.


Household burn barrels produce low temperature fires. They receive very little oxygen and produce a lot of smoke. Under these conditions a great many toxic substances are produced. Virtually all of them are released into the air, close to ground level. Virtually all of the pollution from burning in them is spread over a radius of only a few hundred yards at ground level.

The burning of bleached paper products (any light weight cardboard that is white) releases halogenated hydrocarbons (carbon compounds with chlorine and fluorine). These compounds have been associated with blood abnormalities as well as liver damage from continued exposure to high doses.

Synthetic inks in slick colored papers and cardboard contain heavy metals. The absorption of heavy metals by humans has been linked to birth defects.

Foam cups, meat trays, egg containers, yogurt and deli containers contain styrenes Styrene gas can readily be absorbed through the skin and respiratory system. The vapor can damage the eyes and mucous membranes. It is listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1940 Clean Air Act.

*From Materials Distributed by The Maine Department of Environmental Protection


As indicated above, it is not illegal to burn trash outdoors provided you can get a permit from the Maine Forest Service. But that does not mean that everyone can get a permit.

It depends on whether or not your town provides-through property taxes-for the collection of that trash or not, according to 12 MRSA, section 9324 (6).

Which is to say, if your town does not provide for such collection, your residents may burn their household trash. Unless of course you pass an ordinance that says otherwise.

But if you don't provide for such a service and if you don't ban burning or restrict it in any way, it doesn't mean your residents can burn any kind of trash. Only highly combustible trash-like paper and cardboard boxes, according to Chapter 102 of the Bureau of Air Quality's Rules on Open Burning, can be burned.

Nor does it mean you can burn the highly combustible trash in any manner you choose to. Only in an "incinerator" that has been inspected and approved by a municipal fire chief, town forest fire warden ( usually the chief), or forest ranger, according to 12 MRSA, 9324 (6).

As to what the criteria used for approval are, one need only look to the permit that is issued by the warden or ranger for details or to Chapter 3 of the Bureau of Forestry Rule on Incinerator Permits.

As such,

Permits to burn household trash in an incinerator can only be obtained from the town forest fire warden or the forest ranger having jurisdiction over the location where the burning is to occur.

According to a spokesman for the Maine Forest Service, the permit is good until the end of the calendar year in which it was issued. The permit can be revoked by either the forest ranger or the town fire warden if the incinerator is operated in a fashion that causes a public or private nuisance or if it violates air quality standards.

Ken Wing of the Maine Forest Service says that while the town forest fire warden is empowered to enforce the rules, in practice the Forest Service does not expect local officials to undertake law enforcement.


According to those who have studied the issue of backyard burn barrels, the problem with Maine's current law is that it was not designed to manage the frequency of burning requests that have arisen in response to the development of a municipal pay-by-the-bag solid waste management program.

Frequency aside, the current law also allows for burn barrels anywhere in a town, downtown as well as in the countryside.

But most important, it allows for the burning of materials that may be targeted for recycling such as newspapers, corrugated cardboard, office paper, and magazines.

And it allows for the burning of seemingly benign materials such as pizza boxes, that when burned release highly toxic pollutants.

The current law also is unclear when it comes to the question of what constitutes a municipally supported trash collection system. What if the collection is partially subsidized by a pay-by-the-bag program? What if the collection occurs at a transfer station?

Then there is the issue of enforcement. With the rise in backyard burning, is the state prepared to undertake the necessary enforcement of its laws?

It should be noted that backyard trash burning is currently banned in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Rhode Island allows local jurisdiction over open fires, although state law has eliminated open burning to the maximum extent possible but does allow some burning of combustible materials with written permission of the Director of the Rhode Island DEP.


State law aside, under 12 MRSA, section 9321 (5) municipalities may adopt their own ordinances specifying stricter criteria than the state for out-of-door fires. While the TOWNSMAN does not know how many local ordinances have been adopted, there are at least three options that munici-palities can pursue, according to a memorandum on the subject pre-pared and distributed by the Northern Maine Development Commission:

For towns interested in adopting their own ordinance, the Maine Municipal Association has a model draft ordinance that has been developed by the Northern Maine Development Commission.

Stakeholders Meeting

A meeting with legislators and other interested parties to discuss what legislative action to take if any in light of the growing problem with backyard burning is planned for sometime this summer or early fall. For details contact Debbie Avalon-King at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection at 287-7028 or 1-800-452-1942.

Banning Burning: Houlton

Houlton (pop. 6,717) is one of a growing number of municipalities that has gotten completely out of the solid waste business. It has done so by "franchising" the work to a private company. No tax dollars are spent on solid waste disposal. Residents either pay a weekly flat fee ($3.84) to the franchisee to have their waste collected curbside or drive the material to the transfer station where they pay a $1.19 per 25 pound bag of trash.

All of which is to say there are no tax dollars spent in Houlton on the collection of trash. All of which is to say that under the current state law, residents of Houlton would be permitted to burn trash in an approved backyard barrel.

But that is not the case in Houlton. A newly adopted solid waste management ordinance makes it "unlawful for any person to burn or incinerate any solid waste within town other than wood, trees, tree limbs, branches, ties, logs, leaves, twigs, grass and plant cuttings."

And waste generators who violate this provision "shall be punished by a fine of not more than $100.00 plus costs and attorney's fees for the first offense and a fine or forfeiture of not more than $500.00 nor less than $200.00 plus costs and attorneys fees for each subsequent offense.."

According to Allan Bean, Houlton's town manager, the ordinance, recently approved, is enforced by the town's code enforcement officer.