Burning the environment

There was a time, 50 years ago, when every farm — every farm — had a corn crib. And a windmill. And a weathervane. And a ditch full of junk. And a bunch of other stuff you don’t see much of anymore.

Except for burn barrels or fire pits. You still see burn barrels in rural Minnesota, and they still smoke with the refuse of rural living.

It’s the smoke that’s changed. Fifty years ago or more, the paper in the burn barrel didn’t contain all the additives — bleaching agents and other chemicals — that it does today. For example, inks on today’s printed page — or the paper itself — may contain lead, cadmium, chromium and other heavy metals. There is more plastic and packaging material. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one family burn barrel throws out as much dioxin (a carcinogen and endocrine disruptor) as a 200-ton-a-day municipal incinerator.

Dioxins are chemical compounds that usually form when burned; some occur naturally (forest fires) and many more are man-made (incinerated household trash). Much progress has been made since the 1970s in reducing dioxins in the environment, but the compound breaks down so slowly that past releases will hang on for years.

There’s a patchwork of regulations in Minnesota about burning (or burying) your garbage. Sometimes it’s legal, sometimes it is not. Farmers are generally exempt if regular garbage pickup is not available in their area — and if their county has not banned the practice. Twenty-nine of the 87 counties prohibit burning.

Focus on education
Banning backyard burning is among the older environmental laws in Minnesota — it dates at least to 1969. It was loosely written and it’s widely ignored. A 2005 survey found that 45 percent of rural Minnesotans dispose of their household wastes in burn barrels, fire pits or similar places. Partly as a result, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) is attempting to educate citizens about the issue this year with a program called the Burn Barrel Reduction campaign.

“You could put a law in place tomorrow and I’m of the mind it wouldn’t change anything,” said Mark Rust, solid waste planner for the PCA who works with the program. “You’ve got to focus on education and getting the infrastructure in place for hauling the waste.”

That’s what the campaign does. Among its pieces are public service announcements, a new Web site and educational resources for schools. One series of ads features former Star Tribune outdoor writer Ron Schara; others star an animated character called Bernie the Burn Barrel. You should be able to tell them apart.

The state funds grants to counties for local no-burn projects; there is also a bill at the Legislature to eliminate the farmer exemption by 2010.

Fifty years ago, burning was the only waste disposal option for many rural citizens; but garbage, like everything else, has changed with the times.

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