As autumn progresses, many people are raking up their fallen leaves to dispose of them, some might put them in the garbage disposal or compost them or sometimes burn them. Is burning leaves bad for the environment?
It’s best not to burn your fallen leaves, though, because it is more harmful to the environment than leaving them where they fall.
Table of Contents
- Why is burning yard waste bad for the environment?
- Carbon monoxide is a noxious chemical commonly present in leaf smoke.
- What are the health risks of burning leaves?
- How does burning leaves affect wildlife?
- What do burning leaves do to the soil?
- Can leaf burning affect our waterways?
- Are leaves compostable?
- What are good alternatives instead of burning leaves?
Why is burning yard waste bad for the environment?
Burning leaves, especially with gasoline-powered lawn equipment, sends particles of unburned material into the air because this kind of waste burns slowly.
This is bad for two reasons: firstly these fine particles can cause respiratory problems in humans. Leaf smoke is just like cigarette smoke, and secondly, they are usually acidic which will harm the environment.
Leaves are naturally nutrient-dense as they contain large amounts of plant fibers and burn slowly. However, when burned, most of the nutrients are lost.
This is bad for the environment because it increases the need for fertilizers to be added back into the soil. It can also lead to runoff of nutrients into waterways which causes algae blooms that harm ecosystems.
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Carbon monoxide is a noxious chemical commonly present in leaf smoke.
Carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in the lungs. This can impact an individual’s health if he or she is exposed to it often. Over time, breathing in high levels of carbon monoxide may cause problems like heart attacks and irregular heartbeats.
When leaves are burned, they may give off dioxins into the air. Dioxins are known to cause cancer and other serious health problems. This is not tolerable as it can impact anyone’s health negatively.
It is colorless, odorless, and can be fatal.
Smoke also contains Nitrogen oxide which harms the environment by producing air pollution in the ozone layer of the atmosphere. This destroys air quality and causes respiratory problems for humans.
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What are the health risks of burning leaves?
Burning leaves can lead to many health issues for humans, the two most common being respiratory problems and cancer.
Leaf smoke can cause breathing difficulties in both children and adults. This happens because the smoke irritates the lungs, causing coughing, chest discomfort, wheezing, shortness of breath etcetera.
Leaves also contain ammonia, which is very harmful to humans because it can irritate the eyes and cause breathing problems.
Leaving your leaves on the lawn or in trash cans where they will decompose rather than burning them will reduce the risk of getting respiratory problems.
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Just like cigarette smoke, leaf smoke contains carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) that can cause lung and other cancers. Burning leaves is strongly linked to an increased risk of cancer compared to people who don’t burn their leaves and those who compost them and leave the soil untouched.
Leaf smoke contains high amounts of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are found in coal tar and are known to cause cancer because they alter DNA molecules.
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How does burning leaves affect wildlife?
Burning leaves has a negative impact on wildlife because the smoke and chemicals released into the air can harm them.
Leaves are mainly made up of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, alkaline etcetera. When these materials are burnt, they release toxic elements that can kill or harm wildlife in different ways.
First off, burning absorbs oxygen which may cause suffocation. Secondly, it releases carbon dioxide which is not good for breathing, and thirdly, the smoke releases carbon monoxide which will lead to poisoning any wildlife that breathes it in.
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What do burning leaves do to the soil?
Burning leaves reduces the quality of soil because it depletes the nutrients present in the soil. This will ultimately reduce the amount of food that plants can grow. It can affect your garden and landscape plants.
This, in turn, means less oxygen production and less carbon storage. As mentioned earlier, burning also produces acids that destroy soil fertility.
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Can leaf burning affect our waterways?
Yes, leaf burning can affect water quality. It releases toxic elements into the water that cause harm to life in the rivers and lakes.
This increases algae growth which can lead to dead zones where fish cannot survive or breed. Algae is also bad for human health because it contains harmful chemicals that are released into the air when they die which may cause respiratory problems.
The toxic elements in the leaf smoke may destroy the life in the water bodies to the extent that they are made non-functional to support aquatic life. This can lead to loss of livelihood for fishermen and other people dependent on water resources, while also increasing pollution levels in our environment negatively.
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Are leaves compostable?
Yes, leaves and other green plant materials are biodegradable and compostable. This means you can make nutrients for your garden by leaving them where they fall or adding them to your compost pile.
The process of leaf decomposition takes place in the same manner as the decomposition of any other organic matter. First, it will decay through aerobic bacteria before breaking down into simpler forms such as CO2 and water.
Leaves will decompose faster in the presence of oxygen, which is what aerobic bacteria use to break down matter. So if you are planning on adding your leaves to the compost pile, there are two simple things you can do to speed up the process:
Keep your compost pile moist by adding more water when needed. Break up the leaves in your compost bin regularly, but be careful with this one because if you break them too much they will take longer to decompose.
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What are good alternatives instead of burning leaves?
Instead of burning your leaves, there are more sustainable ways to dispose of them.
- Mulching – You can cut up your leaves and spread them around the base of plants in your garden as a soil conditioner by mulching with leaves. This will make it easier for water and nutrients to get into the plant roots. It also helps prevent weed growth.
- Composting – You can also leave your leaves in a compost pile and let them decompose naturally over time. Adding high nitrogen materials like grass clippings and fresh vegetative material will help speed up the process. If you don’t have enough leaves to make a compost pile, you can combine fallen leaves with twigs and other garden waste to make your compost pile.
- If you have a lot of leaves, leaving them on the lawn is also a good alternative as they will slowly break down and become nutrients for the grass as it grows. This will reduce the need for fertilizers that often run into rivers and streams through storm drains, polluting the water.
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Burning fallen leaves will release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and cause many health problems, both to humans and wildlife. Burning fallen leaves release a lot of harmful air pollutants, including benzene and nitrogen oxide.
Leaves themselves are not usually a major source of air pollution. Generally, large fires that affect the environment the most tend to be in landfill sites, open dumpsites, or during deforestation activity.
The release of toxins from these types of events is often greater than burning leaves. While municipal leaf collection programs have helped reduce emissions by 50% in some areas, if someone burns their fallen leaves this could still affect the environment.
It can cause respiratory problems for people nearby, carbon emissions which contribute to greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere – not to mention it smells horrible! If you want to help protect our planet please don’t burn your leaves
Instead of burning your leaves and other yard waste, compost them, mulch them or call an environmental protection agency for leaf collection if possible.