Bonfires and smoke
Bonfires and smoke
On this page
- The problem with bonfires
- Alternatives to bonfires
- Burning domestic waste
- Burning business waste
- Cultural, ceremonial bonfires and campfires
- The law and bonfires
- Dark smoke
- Cable burning
- Burning stubble of crop residues
- How do I complain about smoke nuisance?
We discourage the burning of any waste. Each year we receive numerous complaints about bonfires and smoke. Bonfires are a significant source of air pollution and the poisonous compounds in smoke, such as carbon monoxide, can have a harmful effect on human health.
It is a criminal offence to burn household waste which will cause pollution or possible harm to health, any waste generated as a result of commercial activity, any waste from building or demolition works, or any waste that will cause dark or black smoke.
Burning of dry garden waste or other vegetation may not break the law, but if you are a business you need to inform the Environment Agency first.
If the smoke from your fire causes a nuisance to someone, they can make a complaint to the Council (or directly to a court). Think of your neighbours before lighting a bonfire. Advise your nearest neighbours so that they can be prepared for any inconveniences that may arise. Be careful what you burn.
On this page we have provided some advice on bonfires and on the law.
They cause air pollution
Burning garden waste produces smoke, especially if the waste is damp and smoulders
Burning plastic, rubber or painted materials not only creates an unpleasant smell and fumes, but also generates a range of poisonous compounds
Bonfire smoke may cause problems for asthmatics, bronchitis sufferers, people with heart conditions and children
Bonfires can cause annoyance to neighbours and the smoke, soot and smell from bonfires are the subject of many complaints
Bonfire smoke may prevent your neighbours from enjoying their gardens, opening windows or hanging washing out, and reduces visibility in the neighbourhood and on roads
Allotments near homes can cause problems if plot holders persistently burn green waste, and leave fires smouldering
Bonfires may spread, especially in dry months
Piles of garden waste are often used as a refuge by animals, so look out for hibernating wildlife and sleeping pets
Before having a bonfire, consider alternative methods of waste disposal, such as:
Home composting - see our home composting page for further information
Signing up for garden waste collection (brown wheeled bin)
Taking your waste to a Household Waste & Recycling Centre for recycling or safe disposal
Using a skip hire or recycling contractor (anyone you employ must be authorised by the Environment Agency - check the public register)
There are no byelaws regarding domestic bonfires and it is a common misconception that there are specific times of day when bonfires are prohibited.
However, it is a criminal offence under national legislation, the Environmental Protection Act 1990, to get rid of household waste if it will cause pollution or harm people's health. This includes burning it if it is likely to create excessive smoke or harmful gases and fumes.
You also cannot burn waste from construction or demolition works. The legislation defines "construction” as including "improvement, repair or alteration". All disposal of such waste requires a permit from the Environment Agency and one cannot be issued for a dwelling or for open burning. This means you cannot burn waste that results from your DIY work. You cannot burn wood waste left by a builder.
Never burn plastics, furniture, treated or painted wood, tyres, electrical items, oil, paint or other chemicals. Burning furniture is particularly dangerous, as some materials can release toxic chemicals, which can kill in a confined space, when burnt.
The offence applies to both outdoor bonfires and the burning of waste on a fire or in a stove inside the house (although you may be able to burn waste plant material or untreated wood as fuel in a small appliance to produce heat or power providing you comply with clean air rules).
If you intend to have a bonfire, you must only burn dry garden waste from your own property.
The smoke from any domestic bonfire may also cause a statutory nuisance (see below) requiring the City Council to take formal action.
If you decide a bonfire is the best practicable option for disposing of garden waste, follow these guidelines from Environmental Protection UK to avoid causing serious nuisance:
Only burn dry material
Never burn household rubbish, rubber tyres or anything containing plastic, foam or paint
Avoid lighting a fire in unsuitable weather conditions – smoke hangs in the air on damp, still days. If it is too windy, smoke blows into neighbours’ gardens and windows and across roads
Avoid burning when air pollution levels in your area are high or very high. You can check air quality on 0800 556677 or see the UK air pollution forecast
Keep your fire away from trees, fences and buildings
Never use oil, petrol or methylated spirits to light a fire – you could damage yourself as well as the environment
Never leave a fire unattended or leave it to smoulder – put it out completely
If you only burn dry garden waste, an occasional bonfire should not cause a problem. Burning of other materials can result in your prosecution.
It is illegal to use a bonfire to dispose of waste from a commercial activity or to burn construction or demolition waste. The burning of waste from a business is a serious matter and the Council would normally prosecute offenders. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 creates a number of criminal offences that would apply.
There is an exemption for the open burning of plant material. This activity must be registered in advance with the Environment Agency. The exemption only applies if the burning takes place on the land where the waste was produced.
If using this exemption, you should take steps to avoid causing a nuisance to neighbours through excessive smoke or odour. Position the bonfire carefully and ensure the plant material is dry. Make sure the bonfire does not spread or get out of control.
Waste incinerators require a permit from the relevant regulator. Conditional exemptions may apply for small incineration units burning clean, untreated wood or boilers burning untreated waste wood as a fuel. The exemptions must be registered with the Environment Agency and the you should ensure you comply with clean air rules. An incinerator does not include a bin, barrel or a brazier. These simply provide physical containment for what would otherwise be an open bonfire, and they lack any technical sophistication or pollution control technology.
Businesses have a legal duty to ensure their waste is disposed of lawfully and without causing any harm or pollution. HM Government publish advice on managing wastes and a statutory code of practice you must follow.
Do not take waste home to burn. This would be an offence and would be likely to result in your prosecution.
For these bonfires and for campfires, the expectation is that people should follow the national regulatory position statement. Do not use fires such as those on 5 November as an excuse to burn rubbish. This would be an offence and would result in your prosecution.
Barbecues can also cause smoke and odour problems – especially if you use lighter fuel. Be considerate. Warn your neighbours in advance, and don’t light up if they have washing out.
Under Part 3 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, smoke or fumes from a barbecue may be classed as a statutory nuisance. More details on smoke nuisance can be found in the section on The law and bonfires.
Chimneas are designed to not be particularly smoky. Only dry, seasoned, untreated wood or special chimnea/heat logs, made from recycled and compressed sawdust, may be burnt on a chimnea. The design of the chimnea ensures it will produce little smoke if used properly.
If your chiminea is exposed to the wind, there’s more chance of it smoking. The wind can blow the smoke into your neighbours’ garden, even into the house. Site your chimnea so the hole is facing away from the wind. Damp wood will give off smoke. Never burn any waste on a chimnea.
Avoid burning cedar, chestnut, elder, Douglas fir, horse chestnut, sweet chestnut, poplar, acacia or spruce as these tend to produce more smoke. Do not burn laburnum wood as it is poisonous. Do not burn treated or painted wood. These may have poisons, such as arsenic on them, or metals such as lead.
Under Part 3 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, smoke from a chimnea may be classed as a statutory nuisance. More details on smoke nuisance can be found in the next section on The law and bonfires.
Under Part 2 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it will be illegal to burn most types of waste. Some wastes can be burnt in certain circumstances such as a domestic bonfire burning only dry plant waste.
In The Crown Court the maximum penalty for this offence is 5 years jail and/or an unlimited fine. In the magistrates’ court, persons convicted can be fined an unlimited amount, jailed for 12 months, or sent to the Crown Court for more severe penalties. (If household waste is burnt at the house it was produced at, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine in either court.)
If trade waste is being burnt, please contact:
City Council on 0191 278 7878 and ask for 'environmental health' or email email@example.com
Environment Agency on their emergency number 0800 80 70 60 (24 hours).
If a bonfire on trade or industrial premises gives rise to dark smoke, a further offence may be committed under section 2 of the Clean Air Act 1993. The occupier of the land and/or the person who has caused or permitted the smoke can be prosecuted and on conviction can be fined an unlimited amount.
Under Part 3 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, smoke, fumes or gases from a bonfire may be classed as a statutory nuisance.
A statutory nuisance occurs if smoke interferes unreasonably with the ordinary use or enjoyment of another person's property. In practice a fire would have to be a recurrent or persistent problem, interfering substantially with neighbours’ well-being, comfort or enjoyment of their property, to be a nuisance in law.
A local authority must issue an ‘abatement notice’ if smoke is causing a statutory nuisance. If the situation continues this could lead to a prosecution, with an unlimited fine on conviction in a magistrates’ court. The person subject to an abatement notice can appeal to a magistrates’ court. The Council may prosecute for any direct offence already committed without a notice being in place (for example, the burning of waste).
The Environmental Protection Act 1990 also makes provision for a complainant (individual or company) to make an application directly to a magistrates’ court to make an order for abatement or prevention (nuisance orders). Private action can be used where a local authority has not investigated or has decided that there is no nuisance. It may also be used where the authority itself is the subject of the complaint. A nuisance may also be actionable by the person suffering from it under common law and outside of the statutory nuisance regime.
If bothered by smoke from a garden bonfire (barbeque or chimnea), first approach your neighbour and explain the problem. You may feel awkward, but your neighbour may not be aware of the distress they are causing and it will hopefully make them more considerate in the future. If this fails, contact the Environmental Protection service using the contact details below.
If a fire is a one-off it may be difficult to prove a nuisance. Similarly, if you are troubled by garden bonfires from different neighbours, each only burning occasionally, a nuisance action will be difficult to bring.
Anyone lighting a bonfire and allowing smoke to drift across a road could also be prosecuted. There is an offence under the Highways Act 1980 if users of the highway are interrupted or endangered. If there is a danger to road users, please contact the police for further information.
Please note that this information is not an authoritative interpretation of the law, which is a matter for the courts. The information is not a substitute for the legislation. Where appropriate, you should seek your own independent legal advice.
The darker the smoke, the more polluting it tends to be. The Ringelmann Chart is used to define dark smoke. The chart has 5 shades of grey with 0 being clear and 5 being black. Smoke is considered ‘dark’ if it is shade 2 or darker.
Under sections 1 and 2 of the Clean Air Act 1993, is an offence to:
emit dark smoke from a chimney of any building or a chimney serving a boiler or industrial plant (subject to some limited exemptions)
cause or permit the emission for dark smoke from any trade or industrial premises (e.g. from open fires)
cause or permit the emission of dark smoke on other premises on which matter is burnt in the open connection with any industrial or trade process (e.g. if you burn waste at home originating from your work)
The occupier of the premises (or in the case of a boiler or plant, its owner) is guilty of an offence. This is in addition to any other person who causes or permits the emission of dark smoke from an open fire on trade or industrial premises.
Unless proved otherwise, an emission of dark smoke is deemed to have taken place if materials that have been burnt on the premises are likely to give rise to dark smoke, for example, tyres, paint or plastics.
The offences carry an unlimited fine in the magistrates' court (or a fine of up to £1,000 if it involves the chimney of a dwelling).
If you see this offence telephone (0191) 278 7878 and ask for 'environmental health'.
It is a criminal offence under the Clean Air Act 1993 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to burn cable to recover the metal core. This is a dangerous and polluting activity that results in the release of dioxins and other toxic pollutants.
If you see this offence telephone (0191) 278 7878 and ask for 'environmental health'. If you witness any person burning cable outside normal working hours or at weekends, please contact the police on 101. Often cables that are being burnt in the open have been stolen.
It is against the law to burn cereal stubble or crop residues unless allowed by The Crop Residues (Burning) Regulations 1993.
Instead of burning stubble and crop residues, you should bale and cart straw from the fields, or chop the remaining vegetation and plough it into the soil before sowing the next crop.
If the issue cannot be resolved through discussion with your neighbours, you can contact us on 0191 278 7878 and ask for 'environmental health' or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please provide as much detail as possible, such as what is being burnt, if that is known, and who is doing the burning.
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