In short, yes – as we will discuss, leaf burning can be detrimental to the environment in many ways.
As a practice, it contributes to air pollution, health risks, and fire hazards and can have a negative impact on the air and water.
The byproducts of burning leaves can also harm human health and that of wildlife.
In this article, we’ll discuss these issues in more detail, as well as what you can do instead.
1. Is Burning Leaves Eco-Friendly?
Burning leaves does lead to air pollution, health risks, and fire hazards.
Every fall, many people rake up and burn thousands of leaves.
While open burning leaves, other items may be raked unknowingly along with leaves and burned, i.e., candy wrapping papers, pieces of plastic, etc.
According to the Michigan Department of Environment, open burning is a common practice that releases pollutants into the air, including chemicals and toxins emitted from burning leaves, such as carbon fractions, which are the organic matter particles that contain certain ratios of carbon.
For instance, the smoke produced by burning leaves can contain carbon monoxide and various particulate matters, which can have negative health effects such as respiratory infections and impaired lung function.
The pollutants can also spread to different areas carried by the breeze, affecting even more people.
It also poses a high risk of forest fires, which causes devastation to wildlife and plant life and a risk to human lives.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, any fire, including burning leaves, will create ash waste that can disrupt delicate ecosystems in water bodies.
Ash contains phosphorus, potassium, and trace amounts of micronutrients that can stimulate algae growth in water bodies.
While some algae are important for the natural food chain, excessive growth can result in scum formation, foul odors, low oxygen in the water, and offensive views.
2. Does Burning Leaves Cause Pollution?
Yes, burning releases chemicals into the air and emits many toxins.
Apart from the negative effects on people’s health, burning leaves contributes to air pollution, which can have a long-lasting effect on the environment.
Researchers have graphed the quantities of pollutants released from leaf burning, highlighting the presence of PAHs by open leaf burning.
PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of organic materials such as coal, oil, gas, wood, and, evidently, leaf burning.
According to scientific review, PAHs are considered bad for the environment because they are persistent and can remain in the environment for long periods of time.
They can be toxic to both humans and animals, contributing to air pollution and smog, and can harm aquatic ecosystems when they enter waterways.
In addition, they have been found to have negative impacts on soil quality and plant growth.
For instance, scientists have found that PAHs can reduce the growth and development of plants, especially at higher concentrations, by altering their metabolism.
This is most likely due to the toxic effects of PAHs on plant cells, inhibiting their ability to uptake nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun.
3. Does Burning Leaves Contribute to Climate Change?
Yes, burning leaves does contribute to climate change.
Through the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses, it sends pollutants into the atmosphere and water.
Specifically, a recent study published in the journal Environmental Pollution found that open burning of agricultural residues, such as leaves, could contribute to air pollution, namely through greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide.
The study suggests that open burning can release significant amounts of these gasses into the atmosphere.
This likely happens because, as the Center for Climate Change Solutions notes, whilst plants (and their leaves) are generally great at carbon storage, burning, on the other hand, releases said carbon in the form of smoke and gas before it can be processed into oxygen (in the case of leaves, they would have been broken down by microorganism in the soil).
These gasses act like a blanket, preventing heat from escaping into space and thus causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.
4. Is Burning Leaves Toxic?
Yes, burning leaves is toxic. When leaves are burned, they produce smoke, which contains vapors and particulate matter (solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air).
This smoke also emits irritants and carcinogenic compounds, which can be harmful to people’s health.
For instance, carbon monoxide gas is a common byproduct caused by incomplete burning, such as with smoldering leaf piles.
It is poisonous and when absorbed into the bloodstream, reduces the amount of oxygen that the red blood cells can carry.
This is because moist leaves burn slower and smolder for longer periods increasing the exposure and effects.
The particular matter is composed of tiny particles that contain a number of pollutants when inhaled.
These can reach deep into the lungs and remain there for months or even years, which in turn can lead to respiratory infections and impair the capability of the lungs to inhale the correct volume of air needed.
People with asthma or respiratory issues, pregnant women, and people with heart disease are particularly vulnerable to these pollutants.
In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health even suggests that such air pollutants may also increase the risks of developing dementia.
5. Is Burning Leaves Illegal?
Open burning is not illegal in all states, but it is in some.
It can also have limits and restrictions depending on the state, and burning leaves is banned from landfills in some states.
It is important to check your local government website to see if it is allowed in your area.
Even if it is not illegal in your area, burning leaves is not eco-friendly, and it is best to avoid it if possible.
All open burning must be conducted in accordance with federal and state regulations, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Some towns have banned outdoor burning altogether, and others have enacted local ordinances that limit outdoor burning.
If you live within city limits, always check with your local government before burning anything outdoors.
6. Is Burning Leaves Good for the Soil?
While there is evidence that wood ash may be good for your soil, there is limited research pointing to the efficacy of burnt leaf ash.
But more importantly, even if burning leaves did have some effect, it is unlikely it would benefit the soil more than it does harm to the environment.
For instance, in some earlier research, we see that burning, in general, was thought to be beneficial for soil as it increased the level of nutrients such as nitrogen and calcium.
But more recent findings indicate that, overall, the effects are mostly negative.
Burning can change the physical properties of the soil, such as reducing moisture retention and impeding root growth – with minimal advantages for nutrient uptake.
For instance, we see that burning debris near a waterway shoreline can kill vegetation and change soil structure, leading to more soil erosion into the lake.
Furthermore, most nutritional benefits can be achieved by other means without burning leaves in the first place.
Rather than burning leaves, the charity Soil Association recommends composting them to improve soil quality, as well as mulching and spreading leaves around plants to act as a natural fertilizer and help retain moisture.
Composting leaves can be done using a compost heap or bin, where they can decompose and create nutrient-rich soil.
Directly applying the leaves to a garden or unused area of soil is another option.
By mowing the leaves to make them smaller, they can be distributed around the garden as a natural fertilizer.
7. How to Dispose of Leaves in an Eco-Friendly Way
The University of Purdue suggests several eco-friendly ways to dispose of leaves.
If your municipality has a composting program, you can rake or bag the leaves and place them on the curb for collection.
Alternatively, you can compost the leaves yourself by mixing them with green plant materials, adding nitrogen sources, and turning the pile occasionally.
Use a composting heap or bin, you can add to the rest of your household scraps or try mulching.
Mulching is where you directly apply the leaves to a garden or unused area of soil by spreading them out and tilling them under.
This can provide many benefits; shredded leaves can be used as mulch around garden and landscape plants, helping with weed suppression, moisture conservation, and soil temperature moderation.
Lastly, you can shred the leaves with a lawn mower and leave them on the lawn to decompose.
By choosing one of these options, you can avoid burning leaves and releasing harmful pollutants into the air.