How to Make a Burn Barrel – Burn Safe with Less Smoke
These instructions will help you make your own burn barrel for a country property or for emergency trash disposal. There are also a couple of commercial burn barrel options you can buy at the end of the post. You don't need to “build a burn barrel” so much as assemble the right parts correctly to minimize smoke and ash. Love them or hate them, burn barrels are a part of country living. With the cost of dropping trash at local dumps going up, more and more people are returning to using burn barrels. People sometimes complain about the smoke and the smell of a burning barrel of trash, but if you burn correctly, smoke and odor should be minimal.
- What is a burn barrel?
- How do I make a burn barrel?
- What can I burn in a burn barrel?
- How do I use a burn barrel?
- What do I do with the ashes and unburned contents in the barrel?
- Other Burn Barrel Considerations
- If You're Going to Burn, Burn Safely
- Buy a Burn Barrel
- Other Common Sense Preparedness Posts
What is a burn barrel?
A standard burn barrel is a metal 55 gallon open head drum, modified to burn household trash safely and cleanly. (Inside diameter 22.5 inches, inside height 33.5 inches.) Basically, it's a personal incinerator. If you don’t have one and are thinking of making one, please check local ordinances. You can also buy burn barrels ready made. (See bottom of post.)
How do I make a burn barrel?
Materials needed for a burn barrel:
- 55 gallon, open head (open on one end) steel drum (not plastic)
- handgun or drill for making air holes
- 2 concrete blocks
- metal grate or heavy fencing section to cover barrel opening
- piece of sheet metal to cover barrel opening
Where to Locate a Burn Barrel
Choose a location for your barrel that is down the prevailing wind of your home and free of trees and other combustible materials. Some locals will dig up the sod under their barrels and fill in with sand…nice, but not necessary.
Assembling the Burn Barrel
Place air holes in your metal drum for air to enter during the burning process. How you put holes in the drum is up to you. Some people use a drill, others use a handgun.
- Drill four 1/2 inch holes in the BOTTOM of the drum to allow any rainwater to run out
- Drill approximately 20 holes in the sides of the drum, at varying heights
- Create a fire cover – using an old grill top or fencing and bend it so it fits on loosely
- Cut a piece of steel siding or roofing as a “rain cover” – put hooks or a tie on it if you have strong winds
Don’t drill too many or your barrel will rust out faster or fail in the event of an aerosol can exploding inside the drum.
Once the holes are in place, set the barrel, open end up, onto some concrete blocks. Make sure the edges of the barrel are on the blocks but there is an airspace directly under the barrel. This is done to permit airflow and help with drainage.
Burn Barrel Covers
When the barrel is in use, the opening should be covered by a burn cover. A burn cover is a metal grate, fencing or hardware cloth that will trap burning materials in the barrel. This limits the risk of combustible material escaping the barrel.
When not in use, the barrel should be covered by the sheet metal rain cover. A cover will stop the contents inside the barrel from getting wet and make for an easier burn, if you have trash waiting to burn. It will also keep the barrel from rusting as quickly.
What can I burn in a burn barrel?
Households produce trash. It’s a fact of life. The efficiency of how well your barrel will operate begins in your kitchen.
- Food scraps (compost or feed to chickens)
- Other non-combustible items, like light bulbs
- Household hazardous waste, such as paint and chemicals. Contact your local municipality for proper disposal options.
- Don't burn furniture or any large items, such as bags from silage. This is strictly for small amounts of easily burnable trash.
- Non-recyclable plastic (I'm talking the occasional small container, not large volume waste.)
- Food wrappers
- Paper and cardboard not suited for recycling (waxy or coated with food waste)
Recycle and Compost
Separate out any recyclables and use your local recycle centers. Many common plastic containers such as laundry jugs, shampoo, dish soap, vinegar, etc are #1 and #2, which are recyclable in most areas. Plastic grocery bags can now be dropped off at many retailers. #5 containers (such as yogurt cups, sour cream containers, lip balm containers and others) have been difficult to recycle, but there is a new website that lists over 200 locations worldwide that now accept #5 plastic for recycling.
Separate out your food scraps and feed them to your animals or throw them in your composting bin. (EVERYONE should have one!) The EPA estimates that roughly 14% of municipal solid waste is food scraps, and 13% is yard trimmings. That's close to 30% of waste that should be composted.
Other items can be thrown into the trashcan as usual. When your burn bag is full, take it out to the burn barrel!
How do I use a burn barrel?
This is where a lot of folks screw up, the results of which lead to smoky, stinky operation of burn barrels that irritate neighbors and are just plain nasty.
Place your bag of trash into the burn barrel. Burn your trash ONE bag at a time!!!! If you fill your burn barrel with too much trash, it will not burn completely and will smolder instead of burn. If you have more then one bag of trash, you can either light the first one and wait for it to burn down then insert the next bag or, as most locals do, have another barrel with a rain cover, and insert the second bag into the second barrel and cover to burn at a later time.
Editor's Note: Growing up on the farm, we never used an accelerant for lighting trash fires. We always set aside some dry newspaper and used that to start the fire. While CJ Harrington did provide instructions for using an accelerant, I can't share those due to liability concerns. If you can get a charcoal grill or campfire started, you should be able to start a trash fire. If you need fire starting tips, visit Camp Fire Dude.
Note: Common Sense Home and CJ Harrington assume no liability for burn barrel use. Please be careful.
At this point, your trash is burning, smoke is (hopefully) blowing away from your house, and you still have eyebrows!!!
What do I do with the ashes and unburned contents in the barrel?
After using your barrel for awhile, you will have a build up of ash and small un-burned/un-burnable items in your barrel. What do you do with it? Locals will wait until the barrel is about ½ full of ash. Then, they will empty the burn barrel into a large, heavy-duty trash bag and take it to the local dump. Seems silly to take the “leftovers” from a burn barrel to the dump? Not really. When you consider the money saved by burning many bags of trash in your barrel, or the space you are saving in a landfill, it makes sense. Also the ash may contain metals and other chemicals you don't want in your compost or yard.
Other Burn Barrel Considerations
For safety, don’t burn on windy days. Place your trash in your barrel and put the rain cover on and wait for a calm day.
Make ABSOLUTELY SURE there are NO aerosol cans in your trash! They WILL explode in your barrel! If your barrel has too many holes in it or is badly rusted, this could cause the barrel to fail, sending flaming trash everywhere!
Watch your weather. If it’s been hot and dry, there might be a fire ban in effect. Then, you will want to take your trash to the dump until the ban is lifted.
Be considerate of your neighbors! Burning your trash during the evening, when people are eating dinner or enjoying sitting out on their deck, is NOT advised! In this case, try to burn your trash during the day when the neighbors are at work. Some locals will come together and arrange a time to burn. That way, no one is hanging clothes out on the line, having a party in the yard or has windows open when the neighbor lights up his burn barrel.
If You're Going to Burn, Burn Safely
More and more people are returning to the traditions they grew up with and going back to using burn barrels. Look in backyards, behind garages…. you will still see them. You can be assured, they are still being used. If you choose use a burn barrel, do it the right way, stay safe and keep it neat.
This is a guest post by my friend, CJ Harrington, who homesteads in northern Wisconsin.
Buy a Burn Barrel
For those that are not inclined to make their own, there are a few options available for purchase.
Behrens has a modified 20 gallon metal trash can burn barrel. Note: This can is originally designed for composting, so it won't hold up as well as a burn barrel as the Burn Cage and Hi -Temp Burn Barrel listed below.
Bad Idea Blaze Burn Cage Incinerator is well reviewed and made with heavy duty steel.
Burn Right has an Extra Large 100% Stainless Steel Hi-Temp Burn Barrel – Including Ash Catcher. These units are made in the USA in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
From the reviews on their website:
“Evelyn G. – What a fantastic, friendly company! We got a phone call within a short time of ordering our incinerator checking on our shipping address. The gentleman was beyond friendly and even refunded a portion of the sale when he found out my husband had been in the military.
The incinerator arrived quickly, was easy to assemble and was put to use the following day. And boy, does it work! Hubby couldn't be more pleased to have a way to burn yard waste in a contained manner. Nothing left but a few ashes at the bottom. Wonderful product!”
Other Common Sense Preparedness Posts
- 25 Cheap Ways to Keep Your House Warm in Winter
- 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Buy a Wood Burning Stove
- Vermicomposting – How to Start an Earthworm Bin for Composting
Originally posted in 2012, updated in 2017.
Funny, I just posted on making a burn barrel too but ours is a more permanent type that functions as a dumpster plus incinerator. You can see my husband and neighbor putting it together here.
My friend CJ decided to write the post because my garbage guys keep switching the time they show up, so I never know when to have the trash out. I don’t like to put it out the night before because of the wind and critters. I’m not a huge fan of garbage burning, but if someone is going to do it, I prefer they use something like this rather than burning it in a smoky heap.
Now THAT is one NICE burn Barrel!!!!!!! Good ventilation too! IMPRESSIVE!
Great job, how big is the burn barrel? I think they could sell plans on the web.
This is a disgusting post. It is really hard to believe that an educated person, self proclaimed advocate of “green” and mother would advise to burn plastic in ones backyard. My state bans such practices because the litany of evidence as to the detrimental health and environmental effects of trash burning makes the couple of dollars is costs to dispose of anything not recyclable or compostable “common sense”. In fact speaking of common sense, how about stop paying “garbage guys” and drive it yourself to the transfer station to save money. My family’s monthly trip cost about $5 in fees and I’ll send you that if you take down this post.
Mike and Lyn,
My preferred method of dealing with waste is to eliminate it at the source – reduce, reuse, recycle. Buy in bulk. (Wanna see my pantry? It’s filled with mason jars of home preserved and repackaged bulk goods.) That said, we still generate some waste. I’ve gone to the town board meetings in our location, and found out that we get penalized if not enough people sign up for trash pickup. So taking my waste to the dump myself could get the township in trouble with the DNR (Department of Natural Resources).
When trash goes to landfill, you’re basically making a time capsule – it doesn’t degrade, or degrades very slowly. There is only so much room in landfills. They also pose a number of environmental risks – http://earth911.com/news/2009/03/30/the-lowdown-on-landfills/
I have neighbors who burn around here, and I don’t care for it, but it is legal. The thing is, when I’ve driven by and looked at how they are burning, one has his barrel hugely overloaded, and the other’s burning out on the ground, which is especially dangerous with as dry as it’s been this year.
What CJ gives instructions for in this post is a quick, controlled burn with minimum emissions and maximum safety. We in no way advocate the burning of large items such as furniture or anything that can be reused or recycled.
I realize that this reply is being written nearly 2 years after Mike’s post but I just purchased a home in the country and checked out the two nearest dumps. One is over an hour away and the other starts at above $80 for a pickup or trailer load of trash. A little hefty for my budget.
Yes, we just took in some larger non-burnable items to the waste processing center this past weekend, and it wasn’t cheap.
Not only that, but who wants to drive all the way to the dump for a bag of trash? And I don’t want – or want my neighbors- to let trash pile up on their property until there is a full truck load; it’s unsightly and unsanitary. I also don’t see the ‘green’ savings of having 100 vehicles in a neighbor drive their cars to the dump vs a single garbage truck driving through the neighborhood to pick up the trash on trash days. Maybe a difference in communities how trash is handled. I agree everyone should do what works best for their community and be responsible when burning. Good post, thanks.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
For every reader of this blog, #2 and #4 plastics can be recycled as long as they are clean.; that covers about 90% of plastic trash. Polyethylene (plastic bags) are basically candle wax. Hold a piece on the end of a stick and light it; it’ll burn with a paraffin smell and little smoke. Trying that with saran wrap will produce black stinky smoke; don’t burn it in a burning barrel. If you are not sure about recycling or incinerating a type of plastic, do the smoke test.
Good tips. Thanks.
Mine is 60 a month I’m going to the burn barrel
Let me guess Mike: you’re a California hotshot know-it-all. Why did you come to this page if you were just going to complain? Tell you what, since you decided to be such a self righteous loudmouth, I’m going to burn a whole pile of tires and styrofoam in your honor. When I’m done with with that, I’m going to empty my motor oil in the nearby creek and throw out some six-pack rings in order to give the ducks some new jewelry. If you have a hateful, arrogant opinion, it’s best to keep it to yourself ya dingus.
Since I think we all respect our neighbors and ourselves more than Mike thinks we do, I’ll assume this is in jest.
Great article! Although I have cheap trash pick-up. Burn barrels are fantastic for fall leaves ,junk mail and magazines.
I love the eyebrow comment. Too funny. Yet, lost mine from a gas grill!
I would also suggest when burning have a hose nearby just in case.
mike musta missed the word “countryside”. there is a lot more to deal with when you have some acreage with vegetation.
Want some cheese with that whine? Liberals snowflakes should never be around an open flame of any kind.
Why does EVERYTHING have to end up being about politics?? Really? That’s your argument that he’s a liberal snowflake and thus is against burning trash? I’m liberal AND I have a burn barrel! Grow up and use your brain before you speak!
I think if you don’t know what you are doing … just don’t do it. If you want to do it but you are not sure what to do, try to find out who does it with your friends and ask them if you can join them so you can observe on how to do it right.
this is about burning trash, the absolute best way of dealing with it if you are able to do so and often the only way if you live outside the city. If you read the post it said not to burn large amounts of plastic. the occasional small item is not a problem.
Came across this post because I was looking for a way to turn steel trashcans into a burn barrel and/or a fire pit. As for burning plastics, one must “educate”themselves about the types of plastics and which ones are recyclable the and which ones can be used for compost. Yes, I said some can be used as compost. Here is a link explaining the number system that is on every plastic item.
From the article linked above:
I’ve heard of compostable plastics, but have yet to see any used in the items I normally purchase. I always check for symbols before disposal or recycling and place the item accordingly.
I’ve been curious about them as well. I haven’t seen them for sale, but have seen them at events where dozens or hundreds of people are served outdoors. I assume the organizers pay extra for flatware and cups that go in the compost bin, but perhaps recoup that cost in disposal fees. Tossing plastic utensils in with kitchen waste definitely requires mental reorientation, but single-use disposables not buried in a landfill is a terrific idea, if it works.
I spoke with someone at a local fast food place where they had recently instituted different bins in an attempt to capture more of their plastic waste for recycling, and she says the majority of people do not use the bins correctly.
I burn everything in my yard, from plastics to fabrics. When huge companies burn stuff all the time and get away with it, how does what I’m doing cause any significant damage in light of that fact? Exactly.
If you do not care about your family or your neighbors health burn away!!!!!!!! PLASTIC IS THE MOST TOXIC MATERIAL YOU CAN BURN. I personally worked in a steel mill for 25 years and we just threw plastic wrap off of the materials we used, in ladles that were kept hot by gas pipes. It all came to an end when the overhead crane operators started complaining that their lungs were burning and they had a hard time breathing.
Burning plastic is one of the most toxic materials you can burn. DO NOT BURN PLASTIC PERIOD!!!!!!!!!
Sir Thomas..I agree that plastics are evil and nasty. Burned or not-they kill. SO why dont you and people like you who are sooo angry put your money where your mouth is and go after the big global cats who make and use this plastic. Stop plastic period. Return to paper and cardboard to carry out groceries and glass and tin for packaging? No sealife will be killed. Trees grow quick and can be replanted and this is all natural. Now even cars are stock full of plastic and i would bet you own one. I am sick of people preaching about the need to divide save sort and recycle your plastic food trash but never say one word about STOPPING plastic. Even the making of plastic is nasty and evil and it is even in our clothes. When you do that i may actually have a bit of respect for your opinion. Also do you have any idea how much plastic waste is incinerated in hospitals? They used to use glass needles not anymore. As to the bio hazard bags, the nebulizer masks, hosing im sure there are more natural materials..this is but a drop in the bucket. Im pretty sure the green new deal doesnt touch plastic. Know why? Because the 5-6 companies that own everything under them save money by making and using plastic. AS well as their mercury ridden green lightbulbs that cause headaches and all their technological waste that is shipped to ”lesser areas” full of mercury, plastic and other toxins. Are they not purposefully making this techno trash yearly and pushing it yearly and poisoning us all including the earth. However GOD has got this. Let us put the blame and finger pointing where it belongs.
I use 4 burn barrells at the same time. I use them for ridding my yard of brush and small tree branches and limbs.
People like you motivate me to burn tires on my property. Thank God I don’t live in your nanny state. Great article. I have several burn barrels . Lump it.
What Mike said ^ I just called the EPA on my neighbor out in the country for polluting the air I breathe on a daily basis….He burns furniture, construction materials you name it. They gave him a mandatory $500.00 ticket to appear.
I would burn everything I could find that stunk just for that, jerk. People like you are what is wrong with this country. You should have asked him to stop before you started getting others involved. You are the trashy neighbor.
You could kiss my ass! I would burn dog shit just for you every night
Although I agree in some respect, the fact that “He burns furniture, construction materials you name it.” is above and beyond what should be burned. I do think you should have had a “neighborly” discussion with him first though. However, my guess is that he’d continue anyway but at least you would have given him a chance first. I live in the city suburbs and it seems everyone has a fire pit and lights them all at the same time. I love a good campfire but sometimes, I can’t even open my windows in the summer without my house smelling like it’s burning down. Oh well, guess you guys deal with this stuff in the country too!
You are an ASS. Best move back to the city. You ignorant freak.
This is way past when this comment originally posted, but I am compelled to respond to Lyn’s post of 2012. You must be so proud! To be able to force someone you don’t even know well, to comply with your wishes must be of paramount importance to you and shows your true character. I think these characters find their way into stories as the bully. It’s a shame people have to feel that they can’t have a conversation with someone they obviously disagree with. When you notice your neighbor doing something you don’t like, the wise and neighborly thing to do is stop and talk with them about it. Find out what exactly they are doing before you assume you know, and then, when it is discovered or revealed that they are doing something inappropriate, call them on it (nicely). A simple, “would you mind not doing (whatever it is you disagree with) while, (such and such is occuring) or during the evening hours (or whatever hour is inconvenient for you). Calling in the so called authorities is a cowardly way of confronting your neighbor, and make you not a neighbor at all, but a bad (levite, traveller) samaritan.
Honestly, are you incapable of actually asking nicely for people to comply with neighborly attitudes?
He could have been completely ignorant of the ordinances, or he could be a jerk, and if your judgemental attitude is any indication, you are in the moral wrong. If you don’t think your neighbor would respond well, that doesn’t mean he won’t, if given the chance. Nor does it mean you have to call in the “big guns” to force someone else to do what you want. What are you? A bully?
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Kathy.
Wow. Interpersonal relationship advice.
It usually is worth what you pay for it.
We have a neighbor also. Everybody does. This one, however, has the law right in front of them. They let the dogs out at 2 am, 5 am, anytime, with them barking up a storm. People ask. She does not give a rip. Cops come after the dogs run the elementary kids down who are walking to school in the early morning am.
No matter the times I went and asked politely. I got the door shut in my face. I understand when a neighbor is not willing to comply, and grossly abuses the law and their neighbors. At some point, we do NOT take the law into our own hands, but use the system.
I think the number of people who are griping on thios page about turning in someone have not thought out all the problems we already have with some people.
Man, Y’all have not grown up in the Country! EVERY farm had a burn barrel! As far as bring trash to a “Transfer Station”…..maybe in your neighborhood! NOT mine! We have whats called a “dump”, we bring our trash to it and they bury it. I don’t advocate the burning of plastics. As I stated in the article, remove all items that can be recycled…but SOME plastics will be burned (plastic food wraps etc.) The “air pollution” caused by a burn barrel (the air is cleaned and purified by plants and trees) is LESS of an environmental impact then burying waste where it can pollute ground water and take DECADES to break down!
In closing, Burn barrels are NOT for every living situation! They don’t make sense in towns and cities. But out here in the Country, they are a part of the landscape…love them of not…they are here. Been here for generations!
We had a burn barrel growing up and it’s only the naive that think it’s safer and better for the earth to send trash to the dump. We have Rumpke in Cincy and let me tell you what it’s called: Rumpke Mountain(s). We recycle everything we can, inc organics in our own turning composter and to burn whatever we can would save on the refuse dumps (which emit so much methane that pipes have to be placed in the mounds to stop the trash from catching fire.)
I love this, thank you. My only comment is that I wish folks would NOT burn any plastics. This releases volatile organic compounds into the air we breathe. Many people only notice this as a bad smell but for some, like me, these smells can make us very ill. These compounds are not good to release into the air, really. So if there is ANY other reclamation or recycling option, please, please do that instead of burning any plastics.
Leslie – I agree. Folks should take their #1 and #2 plastics in to municipal recycling facilities. Most dry cleaners will recycle their plastic bags and hangers. Many grocery stores now have plastic bag recycling (this includes plastic wrappers for things like toilet paper). Reuse packing materials such as styrofoam and bubble wrap. Plastic content should be very minimal in your garbage. If you can avoid it all together, so much the better, but I know of no facility (in our area) that accepts food wrappers or things like cottage cheese containers.
We very carefully sort our waste into recyclable, compostable, burnable and none of the above. Burnable means DRY paper and very minimal plastic. We burn about 2 grocery bags a week, recycle as needed and take a grocery bag of none of the above about once a month to a dumpster.
There is very little smoke and no noxious odors when we burn.
Always makes me sad when “the way we’ve always done it” is the argument against weighing the facts and making educated decisions. I did grow up in the country and in fact had a burn barrel as a kid, but I now understand that the complex, carcinogenic compounds released by burning trash aren’t magically taken care of by plants and trees and are in fact breathed by yourself and neighbors and accumulate were they land (like the soils where you grow your crops to store in the pantry). Landfills have their problems, but it has been long determined that they are environmentally preferrable to uncontrolled burning and the chemistry of the emissions it creates. If your local government doesn’t support responsible waste managment – change it.
My local Township has a dump and a recycling center. I take my recyclables there. I can’t see how burying trash in the ground is any better then burning. I get my water from a well, once a well or aquifer is contaminated there are no other solutions to a water supply for us….Like I said, burning trash is not for everyone. I was just making suggestions for doing so (because people ARE doing it!) with safety in mind and to make as little of an impact on your neighbors as possible. Out here, most people burn. Sorry if you don’t agree with it but it’s a fact of life for many….
Our family burns in a burn barrel as well as in an enclosed burn unit. First we recycle absolutely everything imaginable. Second we sort out the clean items that can safely be burned. Finally all that is left ends up in a landfill bag.
We choose to burn because it is the best way to dispose of these clean items. Wrapped in a plastic bag, it would be many years before any of them actually begin to degrade in an ever-overflowing landfill. At $1.50 each — and caring for the waste of a family of 8 — I prefer to use as few bags as possible.
As much as we seek to reduce, reuse, and recycle, we still find ourselves throwing out more than I’d like. Our budget took quite a hit this summer due to the drought. We stopped burning before there was a ban, and didn’t start again until well after the ban was lifted, because we knew that our little neck o’ the woods wasn’t ready for flying sparks. We had to pay for all of our waste during this time (aside from the recyclable materials).
Wow, there is a lot more that goes into this than I thought haha.
I burn in a barrel several times a year. I mostly burn cardboard and the clippings from my shrubs and trees. When the barrel is about halfway full , I scoop it out and spread it on my garden. The dirt is mostly clay and plants never did well. When I began adding the ashes from the barrel my plants took off the following year.
Nancy – thanks for sharing your experience.
I was looking for a way to get rid of branches and twigs that take too long to break down in a compost pile. The method described is in no way different than someone using their BBQ. People who have issues with someone following the law, but not doing what they would personally do need to check themselves. This is still a somewhat free country, if you are following the law have at it, and if you have an issue with the law work to change it. I personally see most laws as an infringement on liberty, but if you would rather live in a totalitarian state than have your neighbors burn I guess that is your prerogative.
I generate a lot of tree trash—pruned branches—that I pile up (well away from the house) as a refuge for small creatures. It gradually decomposes into the ground, at about the same rate I add more to the top. It’s been there 45 years, approximately the same size. The point? No need for chopping, burning, burying or chipping, and the critters go there instead of into my barn.
Good article! I came here looking for ways to make “Biochar”. Producing biochar involves slowly heating biomass (wood and other plant materials) in a low-oxygen environment. This type of charcoal can do a number of things:
Help return much of the depleted carbon to the soil
Improve overall soil quality
Raise soil’s water retention ability
It may also help “filter” toxic chemicals in the soil, much like carbon-based water filtration systems can filter toxins out of your water
When put back into the soil, biochar can stabilize the carbon in the soil, in the form of charcoal, for hundreds or even thousands of years. It serves as a type of ‘coral reef’ of the land, where it’s porous and massive surface area provides a great benefit to soil microorganisms
The introduction of biochar into soil is not like applying fertilizer; it is the beginning of a process. Most of the benefit is achieved through microbes and fungi. They colonize its massive surface area and integrate into the char and the surrounding soil, dramatically increasing the soil’s ability to nurture plant growth. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/10/12/biochar-production.aspx
I’ve actually discussed biochar on the site in the post “How to Grow Lots of Tomatoes Organically“. I was fascinated when I first learned about the use of biochar as a part of Terra Preta in South America to create islands of fertility in the jungle suitable for growing crops. It’s amazing that char and pottery can stabilize soil that would otherwise wash away in the heavy rains.
Where can you purchase a 55 gallon, open head (open on one end) drum made of steel?
Amazon.com has them for sale (SKOLNIK Carbon Steel Open Head Drum, 55 gallons, Bolt Ring, 1.2mm Body Gauge (Pack of 1)). A less expensive option would be to look around locally for somewhere that might get oils or other industrial chemicals in large quantities.
I couple of years ago, I was looking for a piece of property to build a warehouse on. Real estate agent said he had the perfect property, but it could not be use for housing. An old household dry waste site. This site had not been used for 30 years. We decided to have the the site tested and dug six holes with a backhoe for investigation. Each hole we dug came up with waste that looked like it was there for a month! The environmental company we hired to dig the holes and I were amazed.
There’s a reason old midden heaps make such great archaeological finds. Buried waste tends to stay remarkably intact.
I wonder if someday a technique will be developed to implant a thermonuclear device in the center of closed landfills, generating slow but intense heat incinerating everything in a prescribed diameter sphere (actually time, but visualized as volume). The eventual result should be a slightly radioactive caldera, with a heck of a lot of CO₂, H₂O, and a smidgen of heavy metals escaping into the atmosphere. Kind of like an extremely efficient burn barrel.
I think something like plasma arc waste recycling is more likely – https://www.explainthatstuff.com/plasma-arc-recycling.html
Years later, I’m thankful for your post. If the county stops picking up trash or local disaster happens you need to know how to fend for yourselves. You need to keep your property clean. Which and relying on what you know without county or government help. Canning, preserving, having food on hand, a way to purify your water, and take care of your trash. At that time you don’t have the Internet, you just your knowledge. Burning is also a good way to get rid of personal papers that have too much info that can destroy your credit & life if they get into the wrong hands. I know thats what shredders do but when you have alot to shred it’s faster to burn. Thanks for the post. I’m off to build a burn barrel.
Thank you, Virginia.
Rubbish is a problem, because too much stuff we use to be clean, makes the environment unclean.
Plastic bottles, and containers, being the main culprit, but if you can’t go to a recycle centre or have a recycle bin collection service come to you, then glass and tin cans, are even more of a problem, because they can’t be burned like plastic.
It is not easy for everyone to travel, a long distance,just to put these empties, in a recycle bin, and not everyone is comfortable with going next or near rubbish disposal facilities, or if they’re lucky enough to have a car, why would they want to load garbage into it, to go to a scummy dump?!?!
Sometimes burning rubbish far from houses, in an empty field, in a safe manner, like using a fireproof container as described in this article, is really the best option for some people. I heard if you get the fire going naturally, with timber and sticks, and turf /peat briquettes, then once its gotten very hot, quickly add the plastics and other waste, and maybe add some more natural kindling material like sticks, and paper on top, that it should burn cleanly.
I think less dioxins are produced, the hotter the fire is.
Rubbish is a problem, because too much stuff we use to be Clean, makes, The Environment Unclean.
Plastic bottles, and containers, being the main culprit, but if you can’t go to a recycle centre, Or have a recycle bin collection service come to you, then glass and tin cans, are even more of a problem, because they can’t be burned like plastic.
It is not easy for everyone to travel, a long distance, just to put these empties, in a public recycle bin, and not everyone is comfortable with going next, or near rubbish disposal facilities. And if they’re lucky enough to have a car, why would they want to load garbage into it, to go to a scummy dump?!?!
With the cost of electricity, and heat, and rent / mortgage, many people cannot find money to afford refuse disposal, and it’s one of the bills which can be solved by an easy enough alternative, depending on where you live, to make a small fire and add the rubbish.
Sometimes burning rubbish far from houses, in an empty field, in a safe manner, like using a fireproof container as described in this article, is really the best and only feasible, and affordable option for some people.
I heard if you get the fire going naturally, with timber, and sticks, and turf /peat briquettes, then once it has gotten very hot, quickly add the plastics, and other waste, and maybe add some more natural kindling material on top, like sticks, and paper, to cover the plastics, etc. that it should burn cleanly.
I think less dioxins are produced, the hotter the fire is.
Thanks for the article Laurie, and the posts everyone, it made for interesting, and thought provoking reading.
The best thing I do for the environment, is to try avoid buying plastic packaged products to begin with (not easy, all washing products are contained in plastic, except powder detergent), and I avoid buying stuff in tins and glass, unless I intend to keep the tin or bottle / jar, for storage.
Which is one reason I only buy powdered detergent, the others being that it’s cheaper and cleans better.
That it also occupies less storage space and presents less leakage risk are small bonuses.
You have to think a tiny bit, rather than just dumping it in the washer, but I haven’t found that too taxing.
In my burn barrel i only burn paper, wood from trees, leaves, non-painted and non-treated scrap lumber.
That way all the ashes are biodegradeable and they go in the garden.
Considering drilling holes in barrel about 8 inches from bottom, sliding in 2-4 rebar pins and setting some expanded metal inside barrel for an air and drainage space.
Best biodegradeable fire starter is dryer lint!
Great idea! I’ve used dryer lint packed inside toilet paper rolls to start fires in the past, works great!
I have 10 acres of property that needs constant maintenance & our town has no trash pickup, there are just a few hundred people living in our town where I built a place way out in the hills above the village, consequently most people burn by necessity or travel 20 miles to the nearest recycling center at least once a week or your garbage storage area will draw racoons, bears, coyotes, skunks, etc right to your house.
The reason barrels & burn pits are a pain the backside to maintain is because a fire must have a free flow of oxygen & barrels with holes are very restrictive with regard to airflow & the standard fire pit is not much better. The problem is that compacted trash inside the barrel/pit reduces flame retention to keep a steady hot fire going.
Fluidized bed combustion is the most efficient manner of generating hot flame retention. This requires a constant freeflow of air to the bottomside of whatever you’re burning so that the fire freely starts burning from the bottomside upwards & not the topside down.
I have constructed a small 3 x 4 x 1 raised bed burn pit that burns so hot that it will even melt beer bottle caps, aluminum foil, copper, etc and it’s simple to construct, it’ll take you about 2-4 hours.
I collected a few dozen flat shale rock about 12 – 18 inches in diameter. I constructed two parallel walls by simply free stacking the flat rock on top of one another to a height of about 12 inches. I left a 2 foot space between the two parallel walls leaving two open ends. Over the top of this I placed caging wire that is commonly used for pig & chicken pens, the caging wire is about ten gauge welded wire that you buy in 4 x 8 sections at Central Tractor Supply stores. I cut the 4 x 8 in half so that it neatly fit across the top of the stacked shale. It is on top of this wire mesh I stack dry kindling wood, mixed with pine needles & leaves that is already laying around all over the place. I stack about a foot of kindling material on top of the wire mesh, don’t worry about some of the finer kindling material that falls into the space below the wire mesh, it will actually enhance getting the fire started. Do not dig a hole, any hole you dig will be detrimental to the burn process because it reduces airflow.
I use a propane torch to set fire to the pile of kindling that is on top of the wire mesh. I will usually have some of the drier trash already on top before starting the fire so that paper, plastics & cooking oils will enhance the burning process. As the fire builds I will then add the wetter garbage. I will add needed kindling depending on how well the wet garbage dries out from the fire beneath it & is burning it up.
The secret to a hot fire is the two open ends that provide a constant free flow of air to the bottomside of the wire mesh. This is a basic fluidized combustion process. If you do not include leaves in your kindling, very little sparking will occur from the fire because it gets so hot from the constant supply of air from beneath the wire mesh. Your wet garbage is the last thing you add to the fire after it’s been burning for at least a few minutes, this will create some smoke but nothing like trying to burn wet stuff inside a barrel. After 3 or 4 burns ash will collect below the wire mesh, I simply use a spade to pitch the ash over into the nearby weeds, usually it it easier to simply lift the wire mesh from the top of the stone walls to do this.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Thank you foe the advice, I in vacation in haiti it’s a such a hassle for garbage, we had to burn them in our backyard, I thought there should be be a better way. So gave me a good idea about barrel burning trash it is so great again thanks, my vacation is a little bit more relaxing now……
To save costs of recycling plastic jug and what not. When shopping, bring old gallon glass jugs or large mason jars you have labeled yourself, go to the stores big rubbish bins( in the back of the store usually)
Fill the appropriate labeled glass containers you brought to the store with the corresponding item you just bought from the store. Toss the emptied plastic into the stores rubbish bin. Waaalaaa! Problems solved. Money you saved. Time you saved.
Thanks for this guide. I have learnt a lot from it. My problem so far has been that I need to burn dry branches but whenever I do that smoke is generated and this bothers the neighbours (especially when they have their washing out to dry) , so I am trying to find a smokeless (or at least reduced smoke) method. I have access to a metal tank such as you describe so its is already a step forward to use that as opposed to an open bonfire, but was thinking that apart from holes on the sides I could maybe add a couple of fans (the type used in computers) connected to the side towards the bottom end (by a hose) to drive air into the fire. Would more air being pushed in help reduce the smoke or just make things worse? Thanks.
More air flow will get you a hotter burn, which may reduce your smoke levels, but will reduce the lifespan of your barrel. Adding air holes as described and elevating the barrel should be adequate. If you decided to add extra airflow, be really careful putting anything near our fire that could melt or catch on fire.
One of the most critical parts of a low smoke fire is to get whatever you’re burning as dry as possible. Small diameter pieces will keep the burn quicker, also reducing smoke levels.
Thanks for clarifying. May I ask what in practise happens to the barrel over time, apart from it rusting from being out in the garden? Does the iron get consumed by the fire over time so it gets thinner and weaker? In this respect I don’t know if it worth the cost but I remember there used to be some paint for stoves, which was like an enamel coating for hot surfaces. Maybe painting the barrel with something like this would keep it going for longer? Now you might say well its only a barrel and does not cost much to replace. While that may be true, it is still a hassle to obtain and lug one (especially when one does not have access to a van or trailer) and one also has to clean it out of oil or whatever, so I would imagine that it might pay to invest some time in protecting it as best one can. Or is any such effort a waste of time?
The cover will help with the rust. (Standing water in your burn barrel will shorten the life significantly.) You could paint it if you want, and it may extend the lifespan a little longer. Many barrels have some sort of coating to start.
The reason that higher temps may shorten the lifespan of the burn barrel is basic expansion and contraction. The wider the temperature range your material sees, the more it’s going to expand and contract. It’s a relatively small difference, not something that’s visible to the naked eye, but it adds up over time. I don’t think the paint would help much with that, unless it was somehow insulating, too. (That might be an option. I haven’t looked into high temperature paints lately.)
As an example – we have a masonry stove. Our house is almost thirteen years old at this time. Most of the stove is in pretty good shape, although it did settle a little on the foundation. The inner burn box of refractory cement is fine, the external masonry is fine, the doors are fine. The only thing that busted is the bottom ash grate. About eight years in, my son was cleaning it off outside on the lawn, and it slipped through his hands, about a foot down to the ground. It shattered into several pieces – on grass. This was a heavy duty steel grate that got extremely brittle simply due to repeated extreme heat. Storage barrels are not generally designed for extreme heat.
If you follow my guide a few posts above for making a small fluidized bed combustion fire pit, you avoid all the trappings that containerized burning entails, in addition you never need to concern yourself with replacing barrels ever again due to corrosion.
The more free the flow of air is to the bottom of a fire, the hotter it will burn thus generating far less smoke than stuffing things inside a burn barrel. There is never any maintenance to my burn pit except once in awhile to scoop out ash that falls between the 1-2 foot shale rock walls using a spade shovel. Oversize branches from yard cleanup are easily dropped onto a burning fire pit with zero risk of burning yourself when trying to stuff material into the confines of a barrel.
I have about 50 lbs of personal papers to get rid of & decided today, I was not going to pay 0.75 cents/lb to have them shredded at the local store. As i was pondering the issue, I again concluded we have come so far from a former state self reliance. To even consider paying that price is absurd. We had a burn barrel growing up & im going to make or buy one. I had the same ‘awakening’ last week as I picked up a package of dehydrated instant potatoes. Great for emergency or survival food but no reason except laziness to use them daily cooking. I
Instead bought 5 lb bag potatoes &
made my own. Gotta fight against the
urge to place convenience about
Self reliance. Bagged potatoes are a convenience themselves. No need for bagged instant. Im glad I woke up, Ive been walking along like a sheeple. Not the way I was raised. Burn barrel it is.
It’s easy to fall into a habit of convenience over self-reliance. Glad you had your epiphany.
I’m happy to hear this, Lauryn. I also have had an awakening and purchased a burning barrel and have cancelled our garbage pick up. Between composting and recycling, there’s very little left. I am also thinking about what convenience foods I am purchasing and have started making as much as I can from scratch. I love who I am becoming! and this will probably make you feel very wise, for I am 69 y.o. and still growing, learning, loving every minute! So, good for you! and, keep learning!!!
I found you by accident while trying to find When I can burn leaves where I live… And…
Now! I’ll ask here IF can burn Leaves in my Soon to purchase Barrel, (Hopefully:)
Barring local regulations that say you can’t, I don’t see why not. Just follow the same rules as for burning anything else in terms of dryness, airflow and safety. We compost our leaves. They’re great for the garden.
How can I get one of these metal barrels to burn leaves not gonna be burning anything else but leaves so how can I get one?
You can order the linked burn cages online, but to find metal 50 gallon drums locally, you’d have to inquire around your area at places that use them. Avoid any chemicals that may outgas when the drum is used for burning.
Oh my lyn you MUST be so proud of yourself!!!
HEY LOOK EVERYONE, THIS LYN BTCH IS A TOTAL SNITCH AND SNITCHES NEED STITCHES!!! I truly hope you got yours!!!
If not…… you WILL!!!
DO BURN Non-recyclable plastic? Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy? The thing that has me looking this up is that I just had to clean the contents of an old burn barrel that was left on the property by a previous owner. It was disgusting. He had burned tons of plastic and layered on a bunch of dirt, and it’s obviously a mess of toxic hydrocarbons. I’m throwing it all in garbage bags and getting it off my property.
When I google “burning plastic” this is what comes up: “When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates.” Why the F would anyone routinely engage in such a practice? If you have non-recyclable plastic, why wouldn’t you just throw it out?!
It sounds like the burn barrel on your place was poorly managed. We’re not suggesting that people burn large quantities of plastic, like silage bags, but an occasional bread bag, wrapper, or small container. Ash is gathered and taken to the dump, where it takes up much less room because the hydrocarbons have been burned off.
Why not just throw it out? Because landfills are filling up.
This article from 2018 notes:
Since China stopped accepting many materials for recycling, most recyclables that we carefully sort out now go into the trash. I’ve watched my trash guys. I sort into two bins, they empty both into one receptacle.
Exactly, I lived in Seattle many years back and those clowns sorted their refuse into several different containers…on trash day a lone truck came by and picked up all of it.
Thanks for the well-considered reply Laurie. That’s a crappy stat about the landfills. Maybe some day there will be an alternative to the heavy waste stream that humans seem to have to buy into to survive.
There are ongoing attempts to reduce waste, but they are often ill-considered and poorly organized. As an example – to give the appearance of reducing packaging on items, a friend who worked stocking at a local retailer said that they were instructed to take items (like snow globes) out of their packaging for display. Then they would throw away the packaging. When customers purchased the items, they would ask if there were boxes available – which had been thrown away. Bogus “greenwashing” made things worse instead of better.
Other attempts, like using truly biodegradable materials, are gaining some traction, but the majority of the population opts for cheap and easy. As such, we are drowning in our own waste.
You may find the book Cradle to Cradle interesting. It talks about manufacturing that produces products that can be reused again and again. I thought it was a great idea when I first read it. Alas, it’s been nearly 20 years since it was written, and I don’t see much improvement, but perhaps some day.
I know that this article is old, but… you say that you didn’t provide instructions for using an accelerant due to “liability issues,” yet you tell people to shoot holes in the barrel with a handgun!? I’d be more scared of a ricochet than a fire risk.
Anything larger than .22 caliber is not going to ricochet, provided it is not frangible or hollow point. 50 gallon barrels are not that tough. If you are not familiar enough with guns and ammunition to choose those that will puncture metal, please use a drill with a metal bit. Guns are designed to put holes in things. Accelerant canisters generally are not designed for that purpose.