Health & DiseaseSoil Erosion & ContaminationWater Contaminaton & Loss

A Festival of Toxic Waste

How about building bonfires without the old sofas and painted boards?

by George Monbiot

“Bonfire Night Kills Whales” is the sort of headline that gives environmentalists a bad name. But the facts can’t be helped, even if the messengers must be shot for sounding like killjoys.

Most communities have festivals of subversion, in which the rules by which they live for the rest of the year – placid, ordered and obedient – are upended in a marvellous explosion of chaos. Without these festivals – May Day, Holi, Carnival, the Day of the Dead, Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes Night are examples – we would all go slightly mad. Or madder.

There is no better antidote to the extreme civilisation which afflicts us than burning things and blowing things up. I’m all for it. Though with certain qualifications.

One of the better rules that gets upended on Fireworks Night is the law prohibiting fly-tipping. At all other times of year, most householders would no sooner drag their old sofas into the park and set light to them than torch their neighbour’s car. But build a community bonfire and it becomes a magnet for people who can’t be bothered to take their junk to the dump. Old furniture, skirting boards covered in paint, treated outdoor timber: the whole lot goes on – and goes up. And no one seems to care. The practice seems to be acceptable even in the most unlikely places.

At a children’s event run by a community garden group last weekend, I saw that the bonfire had been stacked with old painted boards. The group that runs it, which emphasises its green credentials, boasts that the garden was created on land reclaimed from a “toxic waste-filled old garage site”. So let’s celebrate by burning toxic waste.

Dioxins and furans are created when substances containing chlorine are burnt at low temperatures. They are extremely toxic. They can cause cancer and disrupt the endocrine (hormone-producing) system. They can affect the development of foetuses and babies. They are persistant and they bioaccumulate. This means that they build up in fatty tissue faster than they can be broken down or excreted.

They are particularly damaging to animals at the top of the food chain, as these species collect all the persistant organic pollutants in the bodies of the animals they eat. Much of the dioxin and furan load released into the air is eventually washed into the sea, where it is passed up the food chain. These chemicals are likely to shorten the lives and reduce the reproductive success of whales and dolphins.

They also find their way into human breast milk, mostly through the milk and meat of animals eating grass or grain onto which dioxins have fallen. It should be emphasised that doctors advise mothers to breastfeed, despite the pollutants that might be passed to their children: the levels are low enough to ensure that any danger is outweighed by the massive benefits. But this doesn’t mean that we should not seek to eliminate these horrible chemicals from the food chain.

On the whole we’ve been doing pretty well. I spend much of my life attacking governments and their failure to stop corporations from harming people and the living planet. But in this case, in most developed nations, regulation has been effective.

In the UK, for example, dioxin releases to the air fell from an estimated 1188 units of toxic equivalence in 1990 to 265 in 2006. And this was before a new set of regulations came into force in 2008. I have not been able to find more recent figures, and nor, so far, has the government (I asked yesterday).

But two sources remained – and probably remain – constant. They are roughly equal in size, and between them they produced, in 2006, over 40% of our dioxin emissions. The proportion is likely to be higher today.

One of them is houses catching fire. With the exception of dodgy developers with generous insurance packages, we already do all we can to prevent this from happening. The other is burning junk on bonfires.

Here’s the graph produced for the government’s environment department by AEA Technology.

Lilac is incineration, grey is the power sector, most of the rest is other types of industry. The bright green is people burning rubbish and houses catching fire, which make a roughly equal contribution. Every other source has shrunk dramatically. This has not.

Plastics, paints, timber treatments and other manmade chemicals contain chlorine. The best way of manufacturing dioxin it is to stack up your junk outdoors well in advance, make sure that it gets nice and damp, so that it burns at low temperatures, and then roast it in an uncontained fire. Which is just what we do on November 5th.

Precise measurements of the pollutants arising from unregulated bonfires are difficult, and perhaps as a result of this I have found estimates of the contribution made by Bonfire Night alone to the UK’s total emissions of dioxins that range from 2% to 14%. These use old figures, so the proportion is likely to be higher today.

This shouldn’t be hard to stop: a public information campaign about chucking rubbish on fires reinforced by a few spot checks is likely to be quite effective. But perhaps officials are so scared of being labelled elf’n’safety puritans that they dare not get involved.

It’s not about extinguishing people’s fun. It’s about not being bloody stupid. Burning untreated wood has little impact. It is surely not beyond the wit of humanity to build a bonfire, go a bit mad and have a great night without creating a cloud of toxic waste.


  1. Get a grip man.
    From that same AEA report
    Residential combustion in 1999 was 17.45 g- I-TEQ
    Residential combustion in 2006 was 4.41 g I-TEQ
    It has dropped by three quarters in 7 years.
    If a similar drop has happened since 2006 then we are looking at a figure of 1.10 g I-TEQ.

    In the grand scheme that is life on earth this level of burning treated wood in the UK is not the environmental disaster the author alludes to.

    1. Except for the people standing around the fire copping the smoke into their lungs Bill. Whether George is over-reacting or not, he has a point, chucking these sorts of timbers into a fire is just plain stupid. I don’t know what people in the UK are thinking but I have long known that you just don’t throw painted timbers into any sort of fire and it shocks me when people think otherwise. Wood smoke, at the best of times, is known to be carcinogenic. Why add to the risk by throwing in painted timbers?

      1. Dean
        The dangers of wood smoke, even from painted or treated wood, created by bonfires is over played, as most things are in the mainstream media of which the author is a fully paid up member.
        The point of my comment being there are next to no bonfires on bonfire night on these islands these days.
        They have been put to death by the health and safety crew on the grounds. Permits are required for ‘large bonfires’ and you cannot get a permit without having insurance (the ambulance chasing culture prevalent in America is thriving here to) hence the death of the bonfire.
        There is no health problem caused by burning wood, fresh, old, clean, dirty, painted or preserved unless you are stupid enough to stand downwind of the fire in which case the heat and embers will set you alight pretty damn quick or if you are further away ‘get in your eyes’ causing you to move long before any potential hazards in smoke will get you. This isn’t being flippant it is the reality of standing by tending bonfires which I have done hundreds of times throughout my life.

  2. This is a problem in Australia too; even though most of us are banned from enjoying my beloved Cracker Night.

    I live in a country town in NW Victoria and in winter you can hardly breathe at night and my whole family gets an asthmatic wheeze. It is legal to have wood stoves here, a very good idea from an energy standpoint, but a very bad idea if they are used as an incinerator to dispose of plastics up the chimney.

    Even without the plastics, most stove owners don’t grasp the need to use dry wood and also the importance of getting their fire very hot very quickly before easing off their stove’s air supply—result more wood-smoke than heat.

    In the vine and citrus country that surrounds the town, consisting mostly of 40 to 100 acre farms, the farmers commonly burn chlorinated plastics, (e.g., PCV irrigation pipes and polystyrene “broccoli boxes”) and treated pine trellis posts, rather than paying to dump it. When they replant e.g., a 20 acre patch of vines they just bulldoze the lot into a heap, throw on whatever else that needs to go to the tip and then they douse it with enough diesel to get the fire started; which then covers the surrounding area in black smoke (containing a witches brew of dioxins, furans, heavy metals, and sundry plastic/wood-smoky hydrocarbons). Further afield, the really big Almond farms around here (1000’s of acres) have enormous black smoke bonfires that can be seen from tens of kilometres away.

    Nobody regulates any of the above activities, and nobody: not residents; small farmers; big agribusinesses; or government authorities; seems to understand and/or care, that this contaminates the air, soil, and water systems with some of the most toxic, persistent chemicals known to man (as noted in Monbiot’s above article). Good luck for Adelaide’s water supply, for the local rainwater tanks used for drinking water and for the safety of the enormous quantities of food that comes from this region.

    The winter air here is so acrid that I don’t dare grow autumn and winter vegetables. I am forced to stick to summer crops in fresh soil brought-in—a dream come true for a permaculturist NOT.

    1. Rob
      The problems you describe are way beyond the ones George Monbiot describes. Perhaps if the dumps were free the farmers wouldn’t feel the need to burn the plastics.
      It’s the same here. Councils charge any business over a certain size a fee for collecting and processing plastic (by processing they usually mean shipping it across country by diesel powered trucks to go into landfill in another part of the island or exported overseas).
      If recycling plastic or processing it into something else or making it inert or whatever the latest thinking deems is the best way of dealing with it, is such a good thing why isn’t all the collection and processing done for free?

      Or why don’t the manufacturers of the products get together and stick a ‘penny on the bottle’ type scheme to encourage the return of the packaging?
      In other words pay people to do the right thing rather than expect them to pay.

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