shows a fire in a fireplace
Source: US Department of Energy

By Kai Davis

As a child, I remember being in the fields playing, when somebody — usually one of the men in my family — would start a fire in a pit on our property that was about two- or three-feet deep and 30 feet long. 

All the doors on our family’s property would open and folks would set their trash outside on their porches. My family members would come and pick them up and haul it in a wheelbarrow down to the pit.

While the fire was lit, the ashes would start rising in the air. I would twirl around in the middle of the field with my arms outstretched, pretending that the ashes were snowflakes that were falling on me.

I’ve always had asthma. Then, when I became a teenager, I started to get migraines. I noticed that the burning fumes would make both of those problems worse. 

I know this isn’t good for us. We know it isn’t good for us. But I want people to sympathize. I want people to understand that it’s the only option we have. I would like that to change.

Burning trash isn’t just bad for human health, it pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which causes climate change according to Scientific American. But we burn trash because we don’t have access to waste collection.

When you do burn trash and it decomposes, carbon dioxide and methane gas are created. These elements are both greenhouse gases which play a big part in global warming. These gases are harming the environment and our bodies, too.

This could be called out as an environmental justice issue

 For instance, the gated communities a couple of miles down the road from us have access to waste management, but we don’t.

If we didn’t burn our trash, we’d have to spend hours each week hauling it to the local landfill. 

This raises a question in my mind, why don’t we have trash pickup services?

Is it because we haven’t sold our family land to a big developer?

Is it because our neighborhood is Black?

Is it because the town we live near wants us to pay extra fees, beyond the property taxes that we already pay? 
I’m really not sure, but I’d really like to know.

My family owns a large piece of land with two houses on it. There are at least five people living in each home, so you can imagine how much trash we make in a week. We try to be as safe as we can be when we’re burning it by making a designated trash pit in an open area, a couple hundred feet from the nearest house.

Burning prohibited materials, such as garbage, plastic and painted or treated wood, is harmful to the environment because these materials release toxic chemicals that pollute our air. Polluted air can be inhaled by humans and animals and deposited in the soil and surface water and on plants, says the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

My family burns trash much like many of our neighbors. This past week I tried to ask various neighbors if I could interview them about air pollution due to us constantly burning trash causing dangerous toxins to float up into the air. I was caught off guard by their bluntness when asking for permission to record our voices as they answered with a solid no.

Turns out that in North Carolina, what we’re doing is illegal when we burn our household trash, according to documents from DEQ.

While I sat wondering why my neighbors didn’t accept my invitation considering I was a kid and I could’ve used it as a learning experience, I couldn’t help but to respect their decision as they’ve come accustomed to this way of living.

But as much as we and many others take these precautions, it doesn’t help us from the deadly fumes, medical concerns and environmental issues that burning creates.

Youth reporter Kai Davis, of Sneads Ferry, used to play in the ashes as her family burned trash on a sequestered piece of their family land.