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.
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.
Click here to return to the Environmental and Earth Science Archives
Update: June 2012