Burn Baby, Burn

If anyone ever wanted to do a social experiment on “habit beyond all reason” the first place they should start is my kitchen. At the Memorial House I got into the habit of sorting all of the trash into garbage, burnables, compost, and recyclables, and it became so ingrained in my routine that for the last three weeks you could often find me wandering aimlessly from sink to fridge to pantry with a banana peel in my hand, trying to figure out what the hell to do with compostable items without an actual compost bin to put them in.

That problem increased tenfold with burnable items, which I started hoarding in various rooms of the house even though there was a perfectly good half-empty 30-yard dumpster sitting right in my driveway. So finally, last week, when I found I had to turn sideways and suck in to squeeze through the narrow maze of junk mail, paper bags, and empty boxes lining the mudroom and hallway to the kitchen, I decided something had to be done.

Now, I’ve found four wheelbarrows in various states of disrepair and one mini-landfill on this property, mind you, but there wasn’t a 55 gallon drum that could be used as a burn barrel in sight. And so I bit the bullet and did something that you will be shocked to learn I had never done before– bought something through Craigslist. 

I know, right? My mom has bought things off Craigslist, and here I am all holed up with my shotgun giving the stink-eye to any kind of newfangled technology that would require going to a strangers house with cash to buy something out of their garage.

However, I was soon going to find myself on an episode of hoarders, and a $20 burn barrel within a few miles of my house was too good of a deal to pass up. Turns out the seller was a very nice gentleman who got a kick out of me showing up at 7:30 in the morning in my fancy work clothes and then manhandling a 55 gallon drum into the back of my SUV. Hey, a girls gotta do…

Right now I have the most basic set up possible, because, frankly, I don’t have time for anything fancier at the moment. It went something like this:

Steal a couple of 8″ concrete blocks from my rubble pile…


Set my shiny new barrel on them…


And light ‘er up.


However, before anyone gets up in arms about the dioxins I’m responsible for putting into the atmosphere, I have a few things to say:

  1. I don’t burn garbage. I burn “clean” paper… paper shopping bags, newspaper, paper towels, and cardboard. The only bad thing I put in the burn barrel is junk mail that contains dyes., and it’s a very small percentage of what I burn.
  2. I do have plans to turn this into an actual high-temp incinerator eventually. The reason burn barrels are discouraged is because they burn at a low temperature due to the lack of oxygen inside the barrel, and from what I understand this is what releases the dioxins into the atmosphere. So one of my future projects will be to turn this into something like this.

Or, better yet, this…

For now I’m going to stick with the standard throw-it-in-the-barrel-with-a-match kind of burning, however, because I’m lazy and hate the environment. Or because I have a 150 year old house that keeps surprising me with fun little things like the kitchen sink filling with water every time I take a shower,  and I just need to get the trash out of my living space.

This, my friends, is country living at it’s finest. And hey, if you’re going to do it, burn responsibly.



9 Responses

  1. Nice job getting rid of some burning papers. My parents have used a burn barrel forever. I grew up automatically putting paper into a burn bag instead of the garbage.

  2. With the amount of pollution that society puts out in a day I don’t think you have to feel too guilty abouty using your burn barrel a couple times a week. That being said, clean paper like newspaper, cardboard and paper towels can also be composted. The dyes in newspaper are soy based these days and are fine for composting.

    1. Oh and it’s maybe once a week, if that. I think I make one back of “garbage” and one bag of burnables every two weeks. At Memorial I did use the ash in my compost bin/garden as well and composting is a great idea (although it does take longer to “get rid of” that way.

  3. All the families where I grew up used burn barrels simple style like your current one, especially to burn the raked up leaves, twigs/branches (and cardboard & paper that might be handy). That was a few decadees ago. Now, burn barrels are illegal, I guess because the guys on garbage pick up weren’t getting enough real “garbage” so they needed to pick up leaves as well to earn their pay! Of all things, I envy you having a burn barrel!

  4. We are only allowed to burn leaves, branches, lawn cuttings in my area of California. The fines are STEEP for illegal burning (yes, paper, cardboard, etc. qualifies as illegal). And we have designated “burn days” which are declared on the day so there is no planning in advance for burn days. Just another day in the Nanny State…

    1. Ha. No. They don’t even pick up actual garbage where I live (unless you go through an independent hauler) and none of them offer recycling service. Plus this is Michigan, where you get a refund on bottles and cans, so all the grocery stores have in-house recycling centers that only take plastic/glass and no bins for paper like I was used to in Ohio.

      I have a hard enough time managing things like showering regularly and feeding myself properly, so while I try to be environmentally conscious, realistically I’m not going to let paper materials pile up for months and then try to find time to go take them to a paper recycling center when I can just take them out back and burn them.

  5. I am so inspired by all of your projects – love the incinerator diagram – We keep burn ‘piles’ as well (old cardboard boxes and papers as kindling for evening bonfires – which are more social celebrations then just garbage day (safety first of course) although the piles of broken boxes and receipts do sometimes make me feel like a total hoarder.

    I relate to rural garbage being a pain to deal with – I always end up borrowing a truck to bring ours local dump – not my favorite chore by far!

  6. Burning anything in an open barrel has been outlawed here for forever, so I now make papercrete from all our waste paper. Great insulating material, and folks out here in the West even build with it. Something to think about… You do need more projects, don’t you?

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