Burning Trash

The whole topic of what to do with trash is a little tricky to talk about since so much depends on where you’re cruising.  In most of the US, Canada and many other places, there is good trash service at various ports so dealing with trash is primarily a case of stowing it until you reach a place where you can get rid of it properly, albeit sometimes with a fee attached.

But other places, such as most of where we cruised in the Sea of Cortez, really didn’t have much in the way of trash disposal.  In many places, locals simply took trash to a spot in the desert nearby and dumped it — we actually came across a few of these in our hikes.  Sometimes the “dump” would have someone who burned trash, more often, not.

Rather than contributing to the town dump in places without modern trash disposal, most cruisers chose to burn what they could.  There were a few generally accepted “rules” for doing so (other areas may have different or additional customs, so if you know of any, please leave a comment):

  • Sort out burnable trash from non-burnable.   We kept two small trash bins side by side to sort items as we discarded them.
  • Never try to burn plastic — if something that is otherwise burnable has some plastic on it (such as a milk carton with a plastic spout), cut the plastic out and put it with your non-burnable trash.  Plastic will not completely burn in an open fire and will also emit noxious and often poisonous fumes. Note that Tetra Paks have a layer of plastic sandwiched in them — don’t try to burn them!
  • Don’t try to burn cans.
  • Small amounts of garbage (food waste) may be able to be burned, but don’t try to burn bones or large amounts of food scrap.
  • Tear or crumple larger, thicker paper and cardboard so it will burn more easily.
  • See if there is a spot that others have already used for burning — in the Sea of Cortez, we found several beaches with a “burn pit.”
  • Choose a day without strong winds so that trash (or flaming material) won’t be blown around.  If necessary, you can create a wind block with some rocks or perhaps a log.  Just be sure to put them back in their original location when you are done.
  • If there’s not a burn pit or burn barrel, the best thing to do is wait for low tide and then burn on the beach between the low and high tide marks.
  • Where possible, choose an out-of-the-way location at one end of the beach and not immediately adjacent to a hiking trail or “attraction.”
  • A little cheap vegetable oil sprinkled on paper will go a long ways in getting a flame going (see my article on lighting fires).
  • Do everything you can to keep the trashing burning, not smoldering.  A “stirring stick” like Dave is using in the photo will help a lot!
  • Keep the fire going until there is nothing but ashes.  Don’t leave partially-burned materials.
  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • When all the trash is burned, put water or wet sand over the top to make sure that the embers are out.  This is especially important if on a beach where someone could walk along barefoot before the tide covers the spot.
  • Do your best to leave the area looking at least as good — and hopefully better — than when you found it.

So much of how you deal with trash depends on where you are.  If you’re in an area with non-existent or inadequate trash service, you simply have to do the best you can to dispose of it responsibly.

If you’ve got more tips on burning trash, please leave a note in the comments!

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  • Bob Bechler
    Posted at 10 August 2014 Reply

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with burning trash rather than add to the overstressed island disposal sites. Good tips in article.

  • Jim Allen
    Posted at 10 August 2014 Reply

    A friend was looking at this as I was reading it and he asked why don’t we burn a sea. I pointed out the fires on a boat wasn’t a good idea and he suggested a floating burning can you could tow behind while burning??? anyone ever tried this?

  • Bob Bechler
    Posted at 10 August 2014 Reply

    As if we don’t carry enough stuff. We should add a burn can? Properly provisioned there should not be a lot of burnable garbage anyway. Cans and bottles sunk at sea. Foodstuffs put in the ocean where something will eat it. That leaves only paper and plastic. Plastics should be minimized when provisioning.

  • Kenneth Arnold
    Posted at 10 August 2014 Reply

    Democrats will say you’re causing Global Warming/Cooling… 😉

  • Phillip Blair
    Posted at 12 August 2014 Reply

    Here in Jamaica it’s gonna be burned when it gets to the dump anyway…

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