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Bonfires may sometimes be used to dispose of rubbish but they can be a cause of air pollution and local nuisance, and as such are not an environmentally-friendly or recommended method of rubbish disposal.

Bonfires can be very irritating to neighbours if the smoke prevents the enjoyment of their gardens, ability to have windows open or hang out washing. It is therefore strongly recommended that household waste is not burnt on a bonfire but is recycled through your council’s recycled waste collection schemes.

Burning garden waste can produce a dense smoke, offensive odour and ash deposits. Smoke from garden bonfires will contain toxic chemicals including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and particulate matter. Burning materials including plastic and painted wood will release these and other toxic compounds such as dioxins and furans, which are cancer-forming agents. These emissions will be released into the air at a low level, there by causing maximum disturbance and potentially adverse health effects to neighbours.

Local weather conditions will affect the impact of the smoke, odour and ash and the effect it has on your neighbours. Still conditions will prevent the smoke from dispersing, while windy conditions will blow smoke into neighbouring properties and across roads causing annoyance and possibly danger.

In addition, bonfires can be a fire hazard; fire can spread to fences or buildings and scorch trees and plants. Sealed cans or bottles in a fire may explode.

What's the legal position?

There are no UK statutes that specifically prohibit bonfires. Some councils have local bye-laws that prohibit bonfires; contact the Environmental Health service.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990

Section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 states that a statutory nuisance includes 'smoke, fumes or gasses emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance'. In practice, to be considered a nuisance, a bonfire would have to be a problem that interferes materially with your well-being, comfort or enjoyment of your property.

If the smoke from a bonfire amounts to a statutory nuisance, the council can serve an Abatement Notice under section 80 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to cease the nuisance or prohibit its recurrence. Failure to comply with an Abatement Notice is an offence, which can result in a fine upon conviction in a court, with a further daily fine for each day the offence continues.

If you believe that a bonfire is causing a statutory nuisance you should contact the Environmental Health service.

Health impacts

Bonfire smoke will be harmful to all vulnerable people, including asthmatics, bronchitis sufferers, those with heart conditions, older people and young children.

Alternative disposal methods for waste materials

Composting and recycling

Most garden and vegetable kitchen waste can be composted. Compost will produce a useful soil conditioner. Do not compost meat or other products of animal origin. Woody garden waste can be shredded before composting but please ensure if you are shredding that you do not cause a noise disturbance to your neighbours. Advice on composting is available from the following organisations:

Domestic composting

Royal Horticultural Society - the RHS is the leading garden organisation in the UK.

Garden Organic - Garden Organic is the working title of the Henry Doubleday Research Association.

Commercial composting

Association for Organics Recycling (AFOR) is the trade body governing the commercial composting of organic waste and distributes industry best practice guidance. Contact details are available on their website.

Disposing of garden waste

If you are unable to compost garden waste you can put it in your brown wheelie bin but please do not include soil. You can also take your garden waste to the local recycling centre or request a bulky waste collection but there will be a charge for this service.

Furniture should not be burned as it is likely to emit significant dark smoke and toxic pollutants. It should be taken to the local recycling or contact us for bulky waste collection. Local charities may also arrange to collect such items if they are donated. This also applies to household appliances (fridges, cookers and washing machines) if collection for re-use is not available.

If you are planning a bonfire

If, despite all of the above advice, you are still planning a bonfire, you should follow the guidelines below, inform your neighbours and do not light it if conditions are unfavourable, for example, if smoke is likely to blow onto your neighbours’ home or garden.

Bonfire guidelines

  • Burn dry material only.
  • Never burn household rubbish, rubber tyres, or anything containing plastic, foam or paint
  • Never use old engine oil, methylated spirits, petrol or any other accelerant to light a fire or to keep it burning
  • Avoid lighting a fire in unsuitable weather conditions – smoke lingers on still days and if it is windy, smoke maybe blown into neighbouring properties or across road
  • Avoid burning during evenings, at weekends, on bank holidays or any other time when people are likely to be enjoying their homes and garden
  • Avoid burning when the air quality in your area is 'poor' or 'very poor'. (You can check this by telephoning 0800 556677 or by checking on the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) website.
  • Never leave a fire unattended or leave it to smoulder; allow it to completely burn out or smother it with soil before you leave the scene. Beware: dousing it with water will cause a large and visible emission of steam and smoke.

If you have a bonfire problem

If you are affected by a problem of bonfire smoke, odour or ash fall out you may consider one of the following options:

  • It is best to approach your neighbour first and explain the problem. You might find this awkward, but they may not be aware of the problem and it may make them more considerate when planning and lighting a bonfire.
  • If you cannot talk to your neighbour without assistance you could approach a local mediation service.
  • If this approach fails, contact the Environmental Health Service. The council is legally obliged to investigate all complaints of nuisance in their area, which includes bonfires.
  • Section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 allows you to take private action through the Magistrates’ Court but you should seek legal advice before doing so. Environmental Health Services should be able to advise you about private remedies for resolving your complaint to help you decide the best way forward.
  • Under the Highways Act 1980, anyone lighting a fire and allowing smoke to drift across a road faces a fine if it endangers traffic. If this is the case you should contact the police who enforce the provisions of this statute.

Environmental Health

Stevenage Borough Council
Daneshill House

01438 242908 / 242916