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To Burn or Not to Burn, That is the Question

Solid Waste

Summer brings hot sun, swimming in clean lakes, working in the yard and blue skies... full of smoke?

Many people are raking yards, mowing lawns and cleaning garages or storage sheds during Wisconsin's beautiful summer months.  But backyard burning of mixed garbage, scrap wood, household items and yard materials can cause ugly problems for neighbors and the state's natural environment.

  • Smoke from burning common household trash can irritate eyes and aggravate breathing conditions like asthma or emphysema, especially in children and the elderly.
  • Smoke can contain formaldehyde, arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, lead and sulfuric acid. Common household items that seem nonhazardous may release harmful pollutants when burned. 
  • Some plastics contain petroleum-based chemicals that create toxic emission like hydrochloric acid and dioxin.  Formaldehyde, the most common hazardous air pollutant, is almost always produced when materials are burned in the presence of moisture.  It is the most prevalent reason for respiratory irritation complaints.  Toxic emissions like these affect local and regional air and water quality.
  • Once something is burned it can't be reused or recycled, two waste management options that can extend the life of a product indefinitely.
  • The leading cause of forest fires in Wisconsin is open burning of garbage, causing an average of 40% of all forest fires annually.

State regulations prohibit individuals, businesses, industries, and municipalities from burning any banned recyclables (unless in a licensed incinerator). These materials include:

  • Aluminum, steel or bi-metal beverage containers.
  • * Glass containers.
  • * Plastic containers #1 & #2.
  • * Plastic containers #3 through #7 if recyclable in your area.
  • * Corrugated cardboard, newspapers, magazines and publications printed on glossy paper.
  • * Office paper (commercially-generated only).
  • Tires, used motor oil and lead-acid batteries.
  • Major appliances
* Some compostable item may be burned with energy recovery at a licensed incinerator. Contact your municipal recycling coordinator for more information.
Individuals or businesses cannot burn these non-banned materials under any condition.
  • Wet, combustible rubbish such as wet cardboard or paper.
  • Oily substances such as oily or greasy rags, oil filters, etc.
  • Asphalt such as asphalt shingles or tar paper.
  • Plastics of any kind including containers and bags.
  • Rubber products like tires or hoses.

Individual property owners may not burn structures like houses, sheds, cabins, garages, etc. at any time.

What can be burned?
The state does allow residents to burn small amounts of clean, non-banned recyclable paper generated at home, unless prohibited by local ordinances.  You must obtain a free burning permit from a ranger station or fire warden before burning anything. Be sure to contact local government representatives or ask a fire warden about local restrictions when you request a permit. Your regional DNR waste specialist can also answer questions about what can and can't be burned.
Can I burn yard materials?
Organic materials like leaves, grass, clippings, and other woody vegetation may be burned by individuals in small amounts after obtaining a DNR or local burn permit.  However, this is discouraged because of air pollution and smoke.  Instead, yard materials can be composted in backyard bins or may be collected at the curb by municipality composting programs.
What are safe disposal options?
The DNR recommends these alternative to burning.
  • Reduce your use of disposable items by purchasing similar products in recyclable materials. Buy in bulk or larger sizes to reduce the number of containers you generate
  • Reuse what you can. For example, bring unwanted household items to resale stores; bring plastic and paper bags with your when you shop.  Sue plastic tubs to store leftovers instead of purchasing ready-made food storage containers.
  • See Waste Disposal Options for more information on DNR recommendations for alternatives to burning.

Recycling News is a publication of  DNR's Bureau of Waste Management, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921

Managing Editor: Lissa Radke (715) 635-4039. Articles may be submitted to DNR-NO, 810 W Maple, Spooner, WI 54801. Articles may be reprinted. No permission is necessary.

Copy Editor & Designer: M.J. Kelley, (608) 267-7382.

Contributors to this issue: Dan Fields, Mary Kohrell, Kathy Oppegards, Lissa Radke, Joel Stone.

Subscriptions are free. To subscribe, call (608) 267-4039, or write the DNR, WA/3, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921.

We use several mailings lists to distribute this newsletter. If you receive multiple copies, please share or recycle them.

The Department of Natural Resources has a web page at To find an employee, use to find their contact information.

The Department of Natural Resources is an equal opportunity employer functioning under an Affirmative Action plan. Copies of this document are available in alternative format by calling (608) 267-7566.