Is it OK to burn brush?
Question: Our property is surrounded by trees and we often get downed limbs that we collect and burn. I’ve heard that this isn’t the best thing to do, because it contributes to climate change? Can you explain why?
Answer: Many New Yorkers, especially in rural areas, have been in the habit of burning brush that accumulates on their property. But this practice adds carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, as well as adding particulates and other air pollutants.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that contributes to the greenhouse effect. GHGs essentially insulate the Earth, making our planet warm enough to inhabit. However, humans have pumped excess GHGs into the atmosphere, causing the average temperature of our planet to increase over time. (See Climate Science for more on the basics of climate change.)
Growing plants, including woody trees and shrubs, absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. That carbon is stored in plant tissues, and in the case of woody plants is only slowly re-released as the wood decomposes.
If you burn 100 pounds of brush, you will release about 40 pounds of carbon – which translates to about 147 pounds of carbon dioxide – back into the atmosphere.
Leaves also contain lots of carbon. Instead of burning them, you can compost them, use them as mulch, or even use a mulching lawn mower to shred them back into your lawn. (Small diameter brush will break down relatively quickly when layered with leaves and grass clippings in compost piles.) Composting does release some carbon dioxide, but much of the plants’ carbon remains locked up in the compost. (See Gardeners part of climate-change solution.)
As a bonus, you can use compost to improve soils, which will help your gardens thrive despite the unpredictable rainfall (more storms, more drought) caused by climate change. And brush piles make great wildlife habitat for rabbits, ground-nesting birds and other species.
If piles aren’t feasible, you can chip the brush for mulch or haul it to a community solid waste facility. True, both of those options use fuel, but are likely a better alternative than burning. Some areas of the country are served by waste-to-energy power plants where wood waste is burned to generate electricity.
If you do choose to burn some downed limbs, also be aware that New York State has regulations limiting when and where you can burn brush. See Open Burning Regulations (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation).
- Trees: The Carbon Storage Experts (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)
- Does Burning Trash Make it Disappear? (New York State Department of Health)
- Evaluation of Emissions from the Open Burning of Land-Clearing Debris (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
- Particulate and Trace Gas Emissions from Open Burning of Wheat Straw and Corn Stover in China (Environmental Science and Technology)
- Before you burn your garbage consider this… and Is this your idea of taking out the trash? (brochures from Cornell Waste Management Institute)
Category: Climate Change Q&A