The rules are different for commercial and domestic bonfires. The rules on burning commercial or trade waste are simple – it’s illegal. That said, there are exceptions in the case of waste vegetation and certain untreated woods, which require permission from the Environment Agency. Further details of this exemption can be found here. Otherwise, businesses have a legal obligation to dispose of waste in a proper manner and may be prosecuted for failing to do so.
If you own or operate a business you must ensure you are fulfilling your ‘Duty of Care’ that you are disposing of your waste in the correct manner – this is a legal requirement. Under Sections 33 and 34 of The Environmental Protection Act 1990 all businesses have a duty of care to ensure that their waste is disposed of correctly and must be collected by registered waste carriers. The maximum fine for failing to comply with this duty of care is £5,000. It is also an offence to store or dispose of (including burning) trade waste without a waste management licence or in a manner likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health. This type of offence is dealt with by the Environment Agency.
For domestic bonfires, in your own garden, there actually is no law governing them. However, there are laws governing the nuisance they can cause. You can’t get rid of household waste if it will cause pollution or harm people’s health. This includes burning it. Such waste should be taken to a household waste recycling centre instead. For the waste you can safely burn, you should be thoughtful and considerate towards your neighbours, not least because if your bonfires cause a nuisance, you could be reported to the local authority. A one-off bonfire is unlikely to be classed a statutory nuisance but even a neighbourly annoyance is worth avoiding.
The other legislation to bear in mind, if the smoke from your bonfire drifts across a road causing a danger to traffic, this is an offence in England and Wales under the Highways Act 1980 and you might get a visit from the police.
So, follow these guidelines from the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection (NCSA) to avoid causing serious nuisance and for a safe and successful bonfire:
- Only burn dry material
- Never burn household rubbish, rubber tyres, or anything containing plastic, foam or paint
- Never use old engine oil, methylated spirits, petrol or any other volatile, flammable substance to light the fire or encourage it
- Avoid lighting a fire in unsuitable weather conditions – smoke hangs in the air on damp, still days and in the evening
- Be considerate to your neighbours – if it is windy, smoke may be blown into neighbours’ gardens and across roads
- Avoid burning when air pollution in your area is high or very high – check the weather forecast or the air quality website
One final thought – never be tempted to have a bonfire in a skip. They’re not designed for it and the intense heat can cause damage to the skip and the road surface beneath. You could face a hefty bill for repair or replacement – an average skip costs around £500!