Burning Stuff

So You Want to Burn on the Playa?

You’re going to Burning Man this year, and you’ve decided to create something — a shelter, art installation, or whatever. Like most people, you are working with materials at hand or those freely or cheaply obtainable. And, like some, you’ve decided that your piece probably won’t make the trip back with you because you plan to burn it during the week. You’re tired, blissed out, in a hurry to leave, and your truck is looking awfully full. Besides, it is called BURNING Man, right? Truth is, the most efficient policy is to haul your piece out. Putting your structure back on the truck is much less time-consuming than waiting for it to burn in the Burn platform, for the ashes to cool, and to then remove them. Taking your art with you also helps reduce the amount of toxins produced. If you absolutely must burn your art before you leave, there are a few things you should know, including how to burn the environmentally-friendly way, and the health issues inherent in burning.

Tips and Hints

  1. Do NOT Burn Toxic Materials

    Most importantly, do not burn materials that are toxic. That includes painted materials, plastics, PVC, couches, rugs, carpets, or decorative items. Treated plywood is NOT ok to burn, nor is composite board. Learn more below in the Frequently Asked Questions.

  2. Offset Your Burn With Carbon Credits

    You can offset the environmental emissions of your burn by calculating its emissions, and purchasing carbon offsets in the form of carbon credits. Learn more at www.coolingman.org.

  3. Do NOT Burn on the Playa Surface

    Never burn directly on the playa! Fires built on the playa surface create a burn scar or patch of discolored, hardened playa sediment that, unaided, take years to fully recover. The process of manually restoring them requires many hours of picking out residue by hand (mainly shattered bottles, nails and screws), breaking up the fire-hardened layer and returning the following year (after the rainy season) for further treatment. There are many dozens of these from past years events that we are still working on; it is our goal to not make any new ones! The ash and soot, which may be dispersed by the wind or leached by water, will contain toxic contaminants. These toxins will then be leached from any ash remaining at the site. This could lead to the contamination of surface water or ground water, and unquestionably to soil contamination. To burn without leaving ashes or a burn scar, fires must be elevated, staked down, attended and cleaned up. Learn to build a burn platform.

  4. Use the Public Burn Platforms

    If you are creating a large piece that is impractical to elevate or insulate from the playa, you might consider dismantling it instead and burn a symbolic portion at one of the public burn platforms, which are located at the ends of each of the city’s radial streets, across the Esplanade.

Frequently Asked Questions

What toxins are produced when you burn?

Burning building materials like PVC, rebar, and plastic, or old couches and decorative objects can pose a serious environmental and health risk as they burn.In order to get a good idea of the toxins produced when items like these are burned, we looked at the production of toxins from accidental construction fires and open burning of household wastes.According to a study done by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, open household waste fires burn at low temperatures and can result in particulate emissions, heavy metal vapors, acid gases and other pollutants. Most are highly toxic and some can cause cancer.

Unlike incinerated waste, fire in a barrel or pile does not burn hot enough to destroy the poisonous substances released by burning materials. Since there are no safeguards to capture the toxins released in the smoke, they are released in a concentrated form at ground level where they are easily inhaled. A study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that each pound of garbage burned in a barrel emits 40 times more particulates than if that same pound of garbage was burned in a high-temperature incinerator with air pollution controls.

Another chief concern is the production of dioxin and furan. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man; burning common household trash at low temperatures can form these compounds, both of which are carcinogenic. Benzopyrene is another potent carcinogen produced by low temperature fires. Open fire smoke contains 70 parts per million of carcinogenic benzopyrenes, about 350 times higher than cigarette smoke. Studies of construction fires point to another major hazard of playa burning.

PVC — the playa construction material of choice — is highly dangerous to both personal health and the environment when burned. PVC is one of the worst offenders when it comes to toxic substances. PVC can emit highly corrosive and toxic hydrogen chloride when burned. It is also is a source of dioxin and phosgene gas when burned at temperatures below complete combustion. Coincidentally, phosgene, an odorless gas that can damage the lungs, is one of the substances used in chemical warfare. Samples of soot taken from fires in PVC-containing buildings that have burned have been found to contain dioxins in very high concentrations. The soot, however, represents only a small part of the problem: more than 90 of the dioxins produced in a structural fire are found in the gaseous phase and escape into the atmosphere. For these reasons, PVC should never be burned. Please make sure anything to be burned is PVC-free.

What items are safe to burn?

In reality, there are no materials that are safe to burn. Everything emits a wide range of toxins, some more directly lethal than others. Even plain, untreated wood contains over 100 different chemicals or compounds when burned. Some of these compounds are extremely poisonous and carcinogenic. Cancer of the skin in chimney sweeps was linked to soot as early as 1775.If you do intend on burning an item, there are some materials that should definitely be avoided. Some of these are:

  • PVC
  • tires
  • glues
  • treated lumber
  • plastics
  • railway ties
  • drywall
  • rubber
  • asphalt
  • paint, especially lead based and oil based paints — use water based whenever possible
  • fuel and petroleum lubricants
  • tar paper

What can I burn then?

If you are going to burn an item, hopefully it was constructed with that purpose (and the list above) in mind. Don’t burn anything that is toxic. It is dangerous to you, your neighbor and the environment. Strip out any carpeting, plastic, large pieces of furniture and decorative items before burning to minimize the amount of toxins released.If you plan on burning, use our burn pyres. Bring a shovel and adequate containers to haul your ash and debris out with you.

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