Hey Mr. Green,
The boy scout troop for which I am an assistant scoutmaster is planning a “decommissioning” of old American flags by burning them respectfully in a barrel with a ceremony. As many flags are made of polyester I wonder if there is an approved “decommissioning” that is better for the environment? —Harry, in Mercer, Pennsylvania
There is no hard-and-fast rule for disposal of worn out U.S. flags. The U.S. Flag Code simply says, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” Even the American Legion doesn’t strictly demand that old flags be burned.
But at this point in history, burning may be the most undignified way to dispose of an old flag. The suggestion for respectful burning was formalized when we knew little about pollution and nothing about global warming, back in 1942 when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Flag Code. We now realize that burning just about anything can release toxic chemicals, dangerous "microparticulates," and global warming gases. So cremating your polyester flag turns it into a global-warming polluter, which is about as gross a form of disrespect as I can imagine. Granted, burning one flag has a minute impact, but it’s the principal of the thing—and principle is what the flag is all about.
Since the Boy Scouts have provided millions of kids, myself included, a splendid introduction to nature and conservation, I suggest using your disposal dilemma to launch a conversation with the troop about the reasons for not cremating the flag. You might suggest that reuse or recycling would be far more befitting than burning. True, the American Legion regards the flag almost as a person, and in line with the Code recommends “a proper service of tribute and memory and love” when “our Flag becomes faded and worn and must be honorably retired from life.” So some patriots would object to strips of the Stars and Stripes being recycled into a quilt, or tied to a tomato stake, or recruited as tourniquet material in the scouts’ first aid kit. Others, however, who are equally patriotic, might consider such practical applications comparable to organ donation, which seems like a generous, dignified, and humane way to honor one’s mortal remains.
The preferred day for disposal is Flag Day, June 14, so if the troop is camping out then, you could schedule whatever ceremony you deem appropriate.