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Name: Charlie
Status: Other
Grade: N/A
Location: ID
Country: United States
Date: June 2006

I just came home from a group camping trip where every one was burning their trash including plastics of all sorts. Also they were burning gallons of used cooking oil along with the plastic container. I know this is not good, but I would like some facts so I can write an article for the club's newsletter encouraging them to stop this practice.
Can you help?

This has previously been addressed in Newton, particularly regarding PVC burning and dioxin production.

There are of course plastics other than PVC, and some of them have little or no chlorine, less than even wood which can also produce dioxins on burning. Some plastics are entirely hydrocarbons, which would be no better or worse for the environment than burning heating oil or gasoline.

Other things to be concerned about would be metals and other additives to the plastic that would also be released on burning plastics, so it would be far better of course to pack it out and recycle it upon arriving home, presuming of course your municipality has recycling or you can find a recycling center to take it to.

But if it is going to end up as landfill, then the best fate for the plastic is less clear cut. If you can be fairly certain that there are no additives in the plastic, they might be better off burned, but it would take some research to know whether any particular plastic had possibly harmful additives (e.g. brominated flame retardants, fluorinated hydrocarbon (Teflon-like) coatings, metal paints or dyes).

The burned cooking oil represents no particular risk other than the usual for fires of any sort: carbon monoxide, particulate material, unburned aromatic and other hydrocarbons, loss of containment. So if you are burning wood and not worried about that, then I would not worry about the cooking oil unless it ends up flowing out and spreading your fire outside its ring. Of course if you have gallons of cooking oil, someone with a biodiesel vehicle (like Willie Nelson) might like to have it rather than having all that energy wasted in just an open fire.

Don Yee

The most environmentally friendly rule is this: "If you brought it with you when you entered, take it out with you when you leave." In principle, vegetable oils can be degraded by microbes; however, in practice, this is a slow process. Meanwhile, the oil could enter a waterway before this happens. Then, the water insoluble oil will spread out over the surface of the water depriving aquatic plants and animals of needed oxygen.

Vince Calder

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