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Four options for retiring worn-out American flags

Burn it, recycle it, donate it — Scouts and Scouters have a number of options for retiring worn-out American flags.

And as the youth-serving organization most closely associated with patriotism, we have a duty to do so responsibly.

Burning is the preferred method in the U.S. Flag Code (Section 176), but it’s potentially hazardous to the environment — the very environment Scouts pledge to protect.

But recycling a flag, which often involves shipping it to a flag-recycling service, typically has an associated cost.

In short, there’s no perfect method. So check out these four options and decide (perhaps with your Scouts or Venturers) which one’s best for you.

Option 1: Get help in your community

Many units start the flag retirement process by contacting a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, Elks Lodge, American Legion post or similar group. Your pack, troop or crew could conduct a small service project in exchange for the group’s helping to retire your flag.

PRO: This option ensures the ceremony will be held in a respectful manner by people who know what they’re doing. Your Scouts/Venturers are sure to learn something.

CON: Your Scouts/Venturers learn better by doing, and this option reduces them to being bystanders.

Option 2: Burn the flag to retire it

A popular way to retire a worn-out American Flag is by burning it. Page 76 of the BSA Handbook says, “A national flag that is worn beyond repair may be burned in a fire. The ceremony should be conducted with dignity and respect and the flag burned completely to ashes.”

PRO: Method preferred by U.S. Flag Code and BSA Handbook. Usually the most ceremonial and solemn method.

CON: Worst option for the environment and your Scouts’ health. Unlike the cotton and wool flags made in the early 20th century, today’s flags are made out of petroleum-based materials like nylon. Burning nylon is different from burning cotton or wool and can create hazardous gas.

Option 3: Recycle the flag yourself

At the retirement ceremony, you can cut up your flag using an approved technique that doesn’t cut through the blue star field. When a flag has been cut up, it is no longer officially a flag.

Here is one method:

  1. Stretch out the corners of the flag.
  2. Cut the flag in half, vertically — do not cut into the blue star field.
  3. Place the two halves together and cut in half, horizontally.
  4. You will have four pieces of flag, one being the blue star field and the other three red and white stripes.
  5. Put the flag in a container and dispose of it properly.

Here’s another similar approach.

PRO: Doesn’t introduce hazardous gases into the environment. Is safe enough for anyone who can use scissors, even Cub Scouts, to participate.

CON: Some might consider it less ceremonial. You still have to throw the flag away (though after it’s cut up it’s no longer a flag).

Option 4: Pay a company to recycle the flag

Do a Google search to find flag recycling groups, such as this one. Some offer the service for free, while others request a small donation for time spent and resources used. The materials from your unit’s worn-out flag will be used to make a new flag for future generations of Americans to enjoy.

You could still hold a flag-retirement ceremony in which you fold up the flag to prepare to ship it to the recycler.

PRO: Least waste and environmental harm of any of the options.

CON: Might cost money.

Flag retirement ceremony ideas

If you’re looking for a simple, meaningful flag retirement ceremony script, click here. The ceremony can be adapted for use with any method of retirement.

What the BSA says

The BSA recently updated its guidelines on retiring worn-out American flags, but we still don’t require one method over another.

The updated guidelines read: “We simply need to ask ourselves if the manner in which we are retiring (destroying) the flag is dignified. If the answer is yes, then that method is perfectly acceptable.”


H/T: Thanks to Peter Self, Team Leader for Member Experience Innovation. Photo: Some rights reserved by Philocrites

38 Comments on Four options for retiring worn-out American flags

  1. Good article. I have often run into folks who believe that a flag has to be disposed of in a very specific way, such as by first cutting it up (so it is no longer a flag), and doing so by cutting off each stripe and the field of stars, then burning each piece one at a time. It makes a nice ceremony, but as this article makes clear, it is not required. What matters is that the retirement be done in a dignified manner.

    A nice tradition I have seen is recovering the grommets from the ashes, cleaning them up, and adding lace and beads to turn them into a nice little token that can be used on a keychain or as part of a neckerchief slide or a unit award.

    • Everyone knows the way to dispose of a flag is knock down the flagpole so it lies due North, then removes the truck from the flagpole, containing a match, razor blade, pencil, and paper printed with the Star Spangles banner. Use the razor blade stored in the truck on the flagpole to cut the flag up, then dig up the M-16 rifle, .45 caliber pistol, and penny buried at the base of the flagpole, take out the ammo, empty the powder from the cartridges onto the flag (but don’t let the flag touch the ground, or else you have to burn it). Then take out the paper, lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner” stored on a paper tape in the truck, use it for kindling, and using the match, start a fire and burn the flag. Record what happened using the pencil and paper, fold it up and eat it, give the penny to the Cubmaster to the local Cub Scout Pack to start their popcorn sales, then take the M-16 (if enlisted) or pistol (for officers) and shoot yourself.

      But that’s only if the Scouts have their shirts tucked in, they have their Firemn’ Chit, and the flag on their shirt is flying with the blue field to the rear.

      Or we could dispense with the nonsense and treat it with the respect it deserves and dispose of it in a dignified manner while not trashing the environment.

      • That’s the funniest collection of nonsensical flag lore I’ve seen collected into one paragraph. Careful, though, that you don’t post it on facebook. We’ll need a snopes article just to debunk it in a month.

        • Too late!
          http://www.snopes.com/military/flagball.asp

  2. Option 3 probably should not say “Recycle.” Since you are throwing away the cut up pieces, nothing is actually being recycled, unless you send the pieces to one of the companies mentioned in Option 4.

    To add to Dan’s suggestion about the grommets, giving them to the scouts who perform the retirement, or to dignitaries present at the retirement can be considered. It’s a great way to honor veterans who may be present. Giving one to each scout who participate is like receiving a patch to keep as a record of his involvement and participation.

    Other options for retirement: It’s one thing if your unit simply needs to retire its old flag. It’s another thing if your unit runs a program whereby it collects flags from the community to retire. You can easily wind up with a couple of hundred flags per year in that case. In the past, some organizations would work with an undertaker or cemetery to have the flags cremated. That takes care of the pollution from burning. Some states or areas may no longer allow this, requiring the cremation equipment be used only for it’s originally intended purpose, or controlling the type of material which may be cremated. Some cemeteries have also been known to bury flags (the ones they remove from graves after a holiday). I guess you need to decide if that method meets the flag code concept of being “destroyed in a dignified way.”

    One last thought: Reduce-reuse-recycle. Cemeteries need to dispose of the flags they remove from graves. Some, but not all of these, will be in good enough shape to reuse. A Scout unit could arrange to pick these up from the cemetery, sort out the good from the bad, and hand out the good ones at a parade or some other appropriate function.

  3. Steve Eckers // September 8, 2014 at 9:20 am // Reply

    Let’s expand on Option 1, having a VFW or similar organization ‘retire’ the flag. Have scouts attend this ceremony, and then participate in their next ceremony. So, watch and see, then do. Have representatives from the VFW instruct and watch as the scouts learn and participate in this important ritual/ceremony. It could also be an important part of the evening fire at a larger scout gathering, showing more scouts the proper etiquette of flag disposal.
    Scout Steve… Pack, Troop and Post 54, Queens Council, NY

    • Our local VFW asked us to do a retirement ceremony for them. Our troop has rather gotten a reputation for flag ceremonies and word got to them. They had a military appreciation day and asked if we would do a flag retirement at the end of the day. We had flags of all sizes, including some that had flown in our town square. (We change that for the city when it is required.) I estimate at least 50 of all conditions and sizes, made of various materials. We burn them and usually remove the grommets later. We always use a large open fire in an open space. The kids know not to stand very close to the fire and back away once the flag has been put in.

      Our troop and crew have gotten so they have an appreciation for the flag and I’ve heard them discuss how people could possibly let their flags get in such condition. It began when we were given some flags to retire, simply because we were Boy Scouts, and it grew from there. Sometimes we have Cub Scouts join us in changing flags or retiring them. When we get them, if they are not properly folded either the Troop, Crew, or Pack folds them and they are stored until the next time.

  4. Camp Wilderness, Park Rapids, MN (Northern Lights Council, Fargo ND), gathers flags and has periodic retirement ceremonies throughout the summer camp season. We also incorporate flag retirement into camporees and Council wide camps.

    • Well good for them!

      So how do I retire our worn flags?

  5. I used to be a “street supervisor” for our transit system. As such, I drove around a lot. Everywhere I saw a flag, I would leave my card and ask they call me when they replaced their flags. US, state, county, all need replacement. Come camporees, IOLS, WebWeekends, we had no dearth of flags for ceremony. AND… if the flag wasn’t all that bad, we’ve got flags for CSDC Flag Etiquette practice folding. All sizes. I picked up a 16’x24′ flag with a torn fly edge. The dry cleaners repaired it for free, and now I have a flag big enough for a Patrol or Den to work as a team folding it up! Try it in silence! Timed competition?
    All those nascent vexiloligists!
    Don’t forget that not all old flags should be “retired”. When word got around, I picked up a few 48 stars and even one 46 (!) That one went to our local museum.

    • Our troop got a 49 star for retirement that was really in good shape for it’s age. Needless to say it is still at our house.

  6. Hint: if you are burning nylon flags, ensure that they get plenty of air. If you just try to pile them onto a fire, you can end up putting the fire out or ending up with a molten mess. There’s also less nasty smoke with a clean high-temperature burn. We burn in a metal trash can with the flags draped one at a time over a metal rod across the top.

    • You’re going to stop burning nylon flags, right? The whole point of the article is that Scouts shouldn’t be burning nylon flags.

  7. It has already been mentioned but I was taught that burying a flag (with a respectful ceremony) is a perfectly acceptable way to retire a flag.

  8. The crematorium option is a great one for nylon and polyester flags. However, the great state of California has decided to regulate such. Now flags can only be disposed of at crematoria in California on Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Fourth of July or 3 days within 6 weeks of each other. In addition our legislature has regulated that crematoria must:

    A crematory that cremates an American flag or flags, pursuant to Section 8344.5 shall maintain on its premises an accurate record of all cremations of American flags performed as specified in Section 8344.5, including all of the following information:
    (1) Name of the organization, or person requesting cremation of the flags
    (2) Date of cremation of the American flags.
    (3) Name of cremation chamber operator.
    (4) Time and date that the flags were inserted in the cremation chamber.
    (5) Time and date that flags were removed from the cremation chamber.
    (6) The weight of the ashes of the flags after being removed from the cremation chamber
    (7) The disposition of the ashes of the cremated flags.
    This information shall be maintained for at least 10 years after the American flags are cremated and shall be subject to inspection by the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.

    This is very different from the simple and dignified final honors ceremony conducted at ordinary campouts by our scouts in full uniform over an open fire, usually at night, formally presenting the colors, burning the flag and saluting until the flag is completely ashed, accompanied by the bugler when he attends, and preceded with a prayer from the Chaplain Aide when he attends. Final honors usually follows cooking and skits and also represents the transition into quite hours. No regulations, just dignified respect.

    We have not saved the ashes as we usually retire flags over established fire rings. Any further comments or advice on this would be welcome.

    We generally cherry pick the cotton flags to burn at campouts but sometimes a cotton / polyester blend sneaks in or even a loose weave 100% polyester or 100% nylon flag. As both a Textiles and Chemistry MBC I have used the final honors flag ceremony to enhance teaching both MB’s. I have not seen a 100% wool flag perhaps ever.

    • The list of what seems like excessive regulations made me look up the law in question and do some research. It turns out that prior to passage of SB1197 in ~2012, crematoriums were prohibited from burning flags. They were regulated to only burning human remains with associated personal effects and any necessary plastic barriers for disease control.

      Crematoriums are subject to intense auditing in their normal operations, and are already required to keep extensive 10-year logs of activities. The information required in this bill parallels the information a crematorium would already be tracking every time it conducts a burn, so although the list seems excessive, it is in line with their normal processes. Apparently burning of medical waste at crematoriums was a hot controversy prompting prior legislation, so this is in line with tracking all activity at a crematorium and making sure there aren’t any burns occurring off the record. The log-entry requirements were not originally part of the proposed legislation, but were recommended for insertion by committee staff.

      The dates specified include the week prior and the week following the named holidays. Those holidays are the typical dates where cemeteries are inundated with flags, and concurrent pending legislation coming from the Assembly was attempting to regulate or prohibit transfer of “veterans’ commemorative property” which could be construed to include flags left at veteran gravesites. The originally proposed legislation only provided for this to be once a year for the week prior and the week following Independence Day. Staff recommended inserting the other patriotic holidays.

      The California Funeral Directors Association “strongly” supported the legislation, presumably speaking on behalf of crematorium operators. A number of veterans’ organizations, including American Legion, VFW, and Vietnam Veterans of America provided official support to the legislation. No organizational opposition was voiced in time for the bill analysis for either the Senate or Assembly committee hearings.

      A pretty good synopsis of the thought process leading to this legislation is at leginfo.ca.gov covering the Senate committee hearing on the bill, and there is a shorter analysis for the Assembly committee hearing.

      http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/sen/sb_1151-1200/sb_1197_cfa_20120629_133601_sen_comm.html

      Thanks for prompting me to wade through some legislative history. It’s sometimes fun to see how laws take shape over time.

      • That was a great reply. Our Troop participated in a flag retirement at a crematorium in 2011 so I am wondering if they used separate facilities than the ones for human remains or if they found some other way to obey the law at that time. Since then we have accumulated over 100 synthetic flags. We pursued a crematorium retirement again this summer but found out that we had just missed the legal window hence leading to my awareness of the new laws. Our Troop will now plan to dispose of these flags around Memorial Day. If the law were to be emended, then I would suggest adding a few days in the other 46 weeks of the year, Patriots Day, Veterans Day, and maybe Presidents Day.

  9. When in a fire ban, we have also buried flags in a nice box and placed a marker over it.

  10. Carey Snyder // September 8, 2014 at 2:22 pm // Reply

    Just like with a camp fire, you should avoid the smoke. ehrtr the flag is cotton, nylon, or polyester.

    I believe in having the scouts do it, and by burning. The amount of noxious fumes released into the environment is miniscule compared to just about anything else. Just stay upwing of the fire.

    A burn barrel is ideal, as it collects the ashes in the barrel so they can be disposed of in an orderly fashion.

    Of all of the methods, burning will make the most impression on a boy. Four scouts from our troop attended a pack meeting, and helped to set up a burn barrel in the parking lot. We described to the cubs what was going on, and why, and sang a few patriotic songs. Each cub was given a part of the flag to bring and put in the barrel, where a fire was already going. Many stepped back and saluted. After the songs, and a few words were spoken, the ceremony continued in silence. It is a mark, I think, of the scouting program, that the cubs maintained the silence, as a mark of respect.

    It was moving for both scouts and adults.

  11. Carey Snyder // September 8, 2014 at 2:27 pm // Reply

    On a slightly different subject (burn ban) – we have found something named “Campfire in a Can” – it can be used on campouts when burn bans are in effect that will allow propane to be used – the look and feel of a campfire, with no sparks. And when you turn the propane off, the fire is off.

  12. Kelly Horton // September 8, 2014 at 5:05 pm // Reply

    To all,

    Stop using the word “burn” with flag handling. The flags are “Cremated” as a sign of respect and dignity. “Burning” a flag is construed with demonstration against the United States and the people who have served it. We don’t want the BSA to be known as flag burners.

    • While the term “flag burning” has been co-opted by negative demonstrations against the United States, the term “preferrably by burning” is straight out of the US Flag Code and in the proper context is a term of respect. The verb retire is a good one but there can be confusion between lowering of the flag for the evening and the final honors. Cremating is a specific term used, by our unit anyway, to describe a specific process in conjunction with a creamtorium when disposing of synthetic flags. Thank you Kelly for caring enough to post your thoughts. Perhaps Congress, the American Legion, or BSA can get involved with specific vocabulary to negate any confusion.

  13. Dear Bryan,

    You have neglected another possibility: repair. At the council I served as chaplain this summer, I was called to repair a flag on 3 July for display on the next day. That flag will ultimately need to be retired, but I mended it to last for the next few seasons.

  14. In the vein of LNT, “Plan Ahead and Prepare”: Next time you purchase a flag, buy a cotton one (yes, they are still made despite the implication of the Option 2 Con). When it comes time to retire it, whether by burning or burying it, it’s better for the environment.

  15. Why not just hang it in the Scouts HQ? In many English churches they hang the old flags of local Regiments/soldiers etc as a form of memorial to all those who served under that flag.

  16. One way to make option #3 a better option is to hold on to the grommets as keep sakes. A memorial if you will.

  17. I’ always preferred the Scout ceremonial, dismemberment, and burning. It is very moving and respectful.

  18. We held a marathon (12 hour) flag retirement in 2011 for over 300 flags and involving several packs and troops working together. Fire ceremonies ran about every 30 minutes with different scout patrols leading them. We had patriotic music, food, and fellowship.
    Here is a good resources we put together to support the event:
    http://delmar.ocbsa.org/resources_flag_retirement_ceremonies

  19. I was taught that after burning the flag, the grommets were recovered, then buried.

  20. Very nice, useful article, thank you… I like it… Will recommend reading to some of my friends…

  21. What about those small plastic flags that realtors and other groups put throughout neighborhoods in July? I have a dozen in my garage. Can these be carefully cut and recycled with plastic?

  22. Ppaul Trent // June 14, 2015 at 12:32 pm // Reply

    Here in the Blackhawk Area council we have a flag retirement every year. We retire anywhere from 3000 to 7700 flags per yer. We have drop off locations all over the area and get stupendous help from the community.

  23. John Hennessy // November 25, 2015 at 12:12 pm // Reply

    I took the flag to the Union County facility on North Ave. in Westfield and they will dispose of it properly.

  24. Our Troop has held several Flag Retirement ceremonies in the last 2-3 years. The first one was at a camp out at the the end of the day, after dark, in a fire pit that we only used for this. We retired about 140 flags. We unfolded all of them.This allowed us to save a number of flags that were in good condition but needed only minor repair.We began by pointing out to the boys the leaders in our troop that were either currently serving or were veterans of the military.. We continued by explaining why we retire flags and the proper way to do it , emphasizing the solemness and dignity that should be observed. We paired two scouts together who would each take an end and lay the flag across the fire (in a fire pit). An adult leader would signal the next pair with the next flag to advance to the fire for final retirement of the flag. At the end Taps was played and the Troop was quietly dismissed back to camp. The boys were great and really seemed to get a lot from it.
    The 2nd one we did was in town.We made a temporary pit and invited the public to it. The local paper came and took pictures. All the Scouts and Scouters were in uniform. We again unfolded them (so we could keep those only needing minor repair) then refolded them. It was good practice for the boys, with several new scouts learning how to fold a flag. We then Then called everyone to attention, explained what the flag stood for, when and how a flag should be retired. We then had the boys each take a flag and in a single file advance to the fire pit and place the folded flag on the fire. The older scouts monitored the line for the next scout to advance with his flag for final retirement. After a scout retired a flag he would get back in line for his next turn . We retired over 100 flags this time in this manner. After all the flags were retired we again played Taps and dismissed.. On both occasions we gathered up the grommets and saved them to use for ceremonial tokens at future events. We did bury the ashes of the 2nd ceremony as we could separate them from prior fires.

    We have have a scout working on building a permanent dedicated flag retirement pit as his Eagle project.

  25. You may want to check out Retire the Stripes, they offer a flag retirement kit you can order and then just ship off in the mail, this predominately for people where it’s tough to get a burn permit or something.

  26. Here is a project that 15 Scouts have received the guidelines and procured their Eagle Scout badge. It is important for those that wish to recycle, and uses the embroidered Stars from flags ready for retirement that are 4′ x 6′ or smaller. It is also being done by USA Scout troops in Europe and by Boy and Girl Scouts across the USA.

    Stars for our Troops uses the embroidered Stars to create Thank You’s that are given or mailed to our currently serving military, our veterans and our first responders.
    With each Star is a message
    “I am part of our American flag that has flown over the U.S.A. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that You are not forgotten.”

    It is a multi-use project as you use a portion of the flag ready for recycleing, you learn how to organize a flag collection, get supplies and have a Star Party, encourage others to participate, ask veterans to participate with you while creating the Stars, organize visits to police and fire departments to share the Stars with them, organize visits to nursing homes to share the Stars with veterans and/or get them to participate in creating the Stars.

    Some troops incorporate the Stars project for family fun times, at scout camp, holiday events at local towns and villages, etc. More information can be found at http://www.StarsForOurTroops.org

    Recycling Flags is important to our world, and sharing Stars is important to learning of the real Heroes of our World – the USA Soldier, Policeman, Fireman and EMT.

  27. LORRI ROBBINS // June 7, 2016 at 9:21 pm // Reply

    What is the etiquette/law/regulation say about cutting the stars off of tattered US flags and giving the cut out stars to others with a poem, etc. as a reminder of the veterans, etc. who have served our country?

  28. LORRI ROBBINS // June 7, 2016 at 9:26 pm // Reply

    Apparently, I think I found my answer – It shouldn’t be done.

    United States Code Title 4 Chapter 1 — The Flag

    §8. Respect for flag

    No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.
    The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
    The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
    The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
    The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
    The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
    The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
    The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
    The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
    The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.
    No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
    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
    NO Cutting.
    NO Slicing.
    NO Dicing.
    NO Ripping.
    NO Tearing.
    NO Separating.
    NO Dismembering.
    NO Remaindering.
    NO Rendering.
    NO Scissors.
    NO Knives.
    NO Razors.
    NO Chainsaws.

    NO CEREMONIES.

    NO DISRESPECTING.

    JUST : “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”

    Thank you!

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