When does a bonfire become an illegal burning site?

By Sandra Dick

AS the rhyme reminds us, November is a time to remember gunpowder, treason and plot.

It’s also hard to avoid the distinct whiff of smoke as bonfires mark an event that unfolded almost 420 years ago.

What began with a few straw-stuffed effigies of Guy Fawkes being burned in the 17th century to mark the ill-fated plot to blow up Parliament, is now a national festival of fire.

That may seem good fun for the kids, yet there are ‘burning’ issues surrounding not just the types of waste material that’s set alight in his memory but also the mounting problem of bonfires being deliberately used as a method of disposing of commercial waste.

Fireworks display in Newcastle Emlyn,
Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Wales.

If it’s okay for the general public to set fire to waste in the open, what rules are in place for them and waste operators?

Bonfire blitz
One issue this year has been the decision by some local authorities to ditch traditional Guy Fawkes’ fireworks events to save money.

That’s led to concerns of higher numbers of ‘unofficial’ bonfires in multiple locations than usual: challenging for fire services and Environment Agency officers trying to keep on top of what is being burned and where.

While most bonfires are built by well-meaning organisations and individuals, former Environment Agency officer Adam Wilson, who is now director of Severn Compliance, specialists in helping waste businesses comply with environmental regulations, says they can attract people looking for a cheap way to dump their rubbish.

“The pub bonfire might start as a pile of untreated pallets, and next thing there are sofas on them, or someone decides to throw their old shed with the tar roof on it – that poses a risk to human health.”

According to the Environment Agency, items such as plastic, used furniture, household rubbish, mattresses and even old caravans and broken boats have all been found being burnt illegally.

Remember, remember: the rules
Under the Environment Agency’s RPS50, members of the public can burn waste at traditional events such as Guy Fawkes’ bonfires and Scout and Guide campfires without needing an environmental permit.

However, they must follow certain rules and ensure they do not breach environmental laws which make it an offence to burn material that causes harmful fumes or smoke which affects human health, causes a nuisance or leads to pollution.

Only clean, dry, untreated and unpainted wood should be used in a bonfire: painted wood constitutes a health hazard.

And although wet or green garden matter, such as hedge clippings and cut branches, may be burned, they can create excess smoke – raising the chances of causing an annoyance and potentially breaking pollution laws.

Although burning garden waste seems no different to popping some kindling on the log burner, research into pollution from bonfires carried out by French scientists showed each kilogram of garden waste burned on bonfires produced 30 times more ‘particle pollution’ – smoke – than burning logs in a stove.

Only small amounts of cardboard and paper are allowed to kickstart the bonfire, and no plastic, rubber, glass, oils or metal should be present – they are likely to produce dark smoke and harmful chemicals.

Bonfire organisers are also obliged to ensure their site is secure so others can’t add illegal waste to the pile, and they should know where the material for their fire originated.

The rules also specifically state that bonfire waste should not come from a waste management facility, nor should the bonfire be held at one.

Waste rules
In general, it is an offence to burn anything on industrial or trade premises. Authorities don’t even have to see material on fire or even witness dark smoke; just finding evidence that materials have been burnt can be regarded as evidence of an offence.

Disposing of waste by burning it – including waste on construction or demolition sites – carries a fine of up to £50,000 and/or 12 months in prison.

There are a few exceptions: a D7 exemption allows certain commercial concerns to burn waste in the open if they produce the waste themselves on the site: such as a landscape gardener who wants to tackle hedges and branches by burning them.

Waste can’t be brought to the site; however, up to 20 tonnes of waste can be stored at any one time, and up to 10 tonnes of waste can be burned in a 24-hour period.

A D6 exemption allows for small amounts of specific waste produced on site to be burned in an incinerator with strict rules surrounding the amounts and what can be burned.

Don’t get burned
Adam says waste operators should be wary at this time of year when members of the public are seeking wood for bonfires: a simple act of goodwill could land them in trouble.

“Don’t be tempted to give stuff away,” he advises. “You might provide clean wood, but if it ends up on a site where it is mixed with other material that’s not suitable, how can you prove that you didn’t supply that too?

“Someone might do something as an act of goodwill and hand over some clean pallets for the bonfire, then someone else piles other stuff on top that shouldn’t be there.

“Then the Environment Agency and local authority get involved, and they want to see a waste transfer note for the wood and you can’t provide it.”

A burning issue
These days, bonfires are not just for November.

At the height of the pandemic, local authorities were inundated with complaints about waste fires and smoke pollution as, with council recycling and waste centres closed, householders reached for the matches to tackle the build-up of general rubbish as well as garden and, in some cases, commercial waste.

Earlier this year, a Cambridgeshire man who burned commercial waste at his garden was fined £5,000.

Unscrupulous waste operators have also been caught dumping and burning commercial waste, from paperwork and packaging to office furniture and electrical equipment.

In August, an Essex man was jailed for 14 months after EA officers found he was operating two waste management sites without a permit and burning material.

Adam adds: “Burning waste is such an easy thing to be reported by the public – you can smell it and see the smoke.

“There are fire restrictions at waste sites because of the high risk of fire.

“The general rule for waste operators to remember is not to be tempted to give away any form of mixed, treated waste wood and remember at any time of year that they cannot burn material.”

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