Can You Burn Paper in a Fire Pit? Reasons, Factors, & Alternatives
A lot of people save paper to burn inside their fire pits and fireplaces, especially during the winter. Junk mail is hoarded. Old newspaper is balled up and saved in a box. Even wrapping paper is saved for the purpose of being burned at a later date. Few people stop and ask whether they should burn paper at all. Everyone assumes that since the paper is so flammable, it must be good to burn. But that is not necessarily the case. Is it safe to burn paper in a fire pit? The answer is actually no, not really.
Is It Safe?
Burning paper in a fire pit is a lot more dangerous than people realize. Experts all say that burning paper is not safe. Old paper routinely makes the list of things that you should never burn. Paper is easy to burn. Paper can even be fun to burn. Paper has been used as an accelerant and a firestarter. But it is not safe to burn.
Why You Shouldn’t Burn Paper
There are numerous reasons that you should never burn paper in a fire pit or a fireplace. The danger is not one-dimensional. Paper poses multifaceted risks when it burns that should not be ignored.
Dangerous Gasses and Chemicals
The first and most concerning danger that arises from burning paper is the number of chemicals and gasses that paper produces. It might not look like it at first glance, but paper is filled to the brim with modern chemicals that make them hazardous to people’s health when they are incinerated.
Most types of paper contain ink, and modern ink can produce toxic gases when they are burned. You can tell that something funky is happening when you suddenly see your fire turn blue, green, or red when burning paper. That is betraying the presence of chemicals being consumed by the fire that could, in turn, produce gasses that are toxic to people when they are breathed in.
Modern paper also contains binding agents, glosses, varnishes, and finishes that contain plastics and other chemicals such as formaldehyde. Any type of junk mail, magazines, or pictures often contain a plethora of chemicals that make them shiny. Those chemicals can quickly become toxic when they are burned. That means that the plume of smoke coming off the paper you are burning can actually pose a health hazard to anyone in the vicinity.
While most of the health effects are mild at first, prolonged exposure to burned paper can lead to lasting side effects down the road. These chemicals can also quickly irritate people’s eyes and exasperate existing conditions such as asthma, COPD, and bronchitis.
Chemicals and gasses are not the only dangerous thing produced in a paper fire. Paper also produces a ton of ash. Paper ash travels quickly and is often pushed upward by the force of the hot air coming from the fire. This hot ash can quickly fill the air making it hard to see and hard to breathe. Hot ash can also quickly blow away, dropping embers and starting small fires as they travel. This is an especially dangerous risk in particularly dry environments prone to wildfires.
Ash is also an atmospheric pollutant. Ash contributes to smog and poor air quality. Large paper fires can produce a lot of ash. The ash is also accompanied by other atmospheric pollutants such as CO2 gas and pure carbon. These byproducts can settle into the atmosphere and are considered to be greenhouse gasses. That means that burning paper can even add to the effects of climate change and atmospheric change around the globe.
Unpredictable Fire Surges
Another danger that arises from burning paper is fire surges. Paper is extremely flammable, and depending on the heat of the fire, the size of the fire, and the chemicals on the paper, adding old paper to a fire can cause it to explode in size. Paper fires burn very hot and very tall. If you are unprepared, a small fire can quickly turn into a big fire.
Large fires have the potential to spread, especially when you include the ash production factor. Large fires can also accidentally burn people that are sitting too close. Paper fires are responsible for damaging home fireplaces every year after people burn paper and “over-fire” their fireplaces. The paper fires get too big and too hot and overwhelm the fireplace causing damage. In some cases, the damage can be serious.
The best way to get rid of old paper is to recycle it. Paper recycling helps reuse old paper in both small and big ways. Old paper can be refurbished into tissue and boxes for dry goods. It can be turned into packing paper. Recycled paper creates things like napkins, coffee cozies, drink caddies, and paper straws. The old newspaper becomes a new newspaper. The cycle goes on. But that only happens if people actually recycle their paper.
Instead of burning paper and adding harmful gas, chemicals, pollutants, and ash into the air, you should turn your paper in to be reused and recycled as a new product.
Burning paper can be extremely dangerous. Paper fires produce harmful toxins, poisonous gas, atmospheric pollutants, hot ash, and a lot of heat. All of this together can harm nearby people, add pollution to the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Paper should not be burned at all. It should be recycled instead. Even though paper is often used as a firestarter, it is unwise to continue to burn paper, given all of the information pointing to the dangers and negative effects of doing so.
Featured Image Credit: TheOtherKev, Pixabay