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 and the safety of your Scouts.
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, especially for cotton or wool flags. 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 and polyester. Burning synthetic materials produce hazardous gases and vapors that are highly combustible.
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:
- Stretch out the corners of the flag.
- Cut the flag in half, vertically — do not cut into the blue star field.
- Place the two halves together and cut in half, horizontally.
- You will have four pieces of flag, one being the blue star field and the other three red and white stripes.
- Put the flag in a container and dispose of it properly.
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 — if you can find one
Flag recycling groups used to be very popular. But changes to worldwide recycling rules have forced many of these companies to stop accepting flags.
PRO: Least waste and environmental harm of any of the options.
CON: Most of these companies have stopped accepting flags.
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 does not require one method over another. However, for retiring synthetic flags, the BSA strongly advocates alternative methods to burning. All Scouts and Scouters should evaluate risks associated with a chosen method.
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.”