It’s Spring cleaning season again, and some people need to know how to properly dispose of an American flag.
But you can do so without a visit from the local fire department.
For a couple of months, I carried a tote of tattered flags in my trunk, intending to scrap them appropriately.
But I thought my only option was to burn them, and living in a condo within city limits doesn’t do me any favors, and I never made it to a bonfire.
So I did some research, and sure enough, I found easier ways to respectfully discard your American flags.
I’ll show you how I did it.
Also, I’ll share a couple of bonus tips.
Just to be thorough, let’s cover all methods.
You can hold a flag-burning ceremony if you want to go all out, or you can respectfully burn them with friends.
Military units or Scout Troops typically hold such ceremonies, but anyone can do it.
Check out this site for reference, but here’s a quick breakdown:
- Each participant stands in formation 20 feet apart and face to face
- While held flat and parallel to the ground, the Sergeant at Arms reads the ceremonial passage
- During the reading, those holding the flag cut the blue to separate it from the red and white as the blue is the most important piece to be burned last
- The Stripes are then folded and placed in the fire
- The “Soul of America,” or the blue portion, is folded and placed in the fire
- As the blue starts to burn, all participants render a salute as a bugler plays “Taps”
- After the bugle stops, the participants about-face and march away
Most people won’t do that, or can’t due to various reasons.
For example, it wasn’t a problem to burn flags in the past as they were traditionally cotton, wool, or even silk.
But in the 21st century, many flags are synthetic, so we can’t light them up.
At least we shouldn’t.
More on that later.
Although not mentioned in the US Flag Code, burial is another way to properly dispose of an American flag.
Fold the flag ceremoniously and place it in a dignified wooden box.
What’s “dignified” is subjective, but it should work as long as the package is in good repair.
Whatever you have, it’s customary to bury the box at least two feet deep.
Again, we’re dealing with synthetic flags that won’t easily break down, so repurposing might be best.
See below for more.
To my surprise, flag shredding is a proper disposal method.
Again, it’s not in the US Flag Code, but they say once a flag is shredded, it’s no longer a flag.
Yet they say we must separate the Union, the blue section with stars, to make it official.
Drop Off Flag Disposal
The easiest way to discard flags is to drop them off and let someone else take care of them.
Resources may vary between cities, but here’s what I found.
And I don’t live in a major city, by the way.
Chances are, your area has at least one of the following options.
I stopped by my local fire department to ask for help.
But they didn’t collect flags for disposal, nor did the police department next door.
Still, many others do.
Whether or not your city services will take the flags may depend on city resources.
For example, n 2016 the Anaheim, CA fire department used the opportunity to combine a flag burning ceremony with hands-on training for their Explorer program.
The full-time firefighters teamed up with the local VFW to start the ceremony, then let the future firefighters practice their fire extinguishing skills.
Many municipal buildings accept flags, such as the Manchester, MO police department that installed a flag receptacle after local Boy Scout Michael Ludwig built it as part of his Eagle Scout achievement.
Local Scout Troop
Scout troops often hold flag disposal ceremonies during camp or for the community.
I called my local Boy Scout office and asked if they could help me properly dispose of an American flag.
Although I don’t recall my troop burning flags when I was a kid, the local office told me they collect them year-round. During summer camp, they coordinate with other troops for Flag Day services.
In Florida, A Jacksonville troop worked with the local news station and offered the community a deal:
“Bring us your old or tattered flags, and we’ll give you a new one.”
With their collection of retired stripes, they held a mass disposal.
And if you thought the Girl Scouts only sold cookies, guess again.
Not only do Girl Scout troops hold flag retirement ceremonies, but they also place flags in cemeteries on occasions such as Memorial Day.
The Girl Scouts even helped nurses care for wounded service members in World War 1.
I didn’t have any luck with my local libraries, but larger communities may have options.
For example, the Palm Beach County Library System’s Gardens Branch installed a flag drop-off box for citizens.
Then in 2019, the San Diego Board of Supervisors approved funding to purchase 100 flag drop-off boxes to promote proper flag etiquette.
Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion
For me, the Veterans of Foreign Wars saved the day.
With a repurposed mailbox similar to the one above, citizens of my town can discard their American flags 24/7.
You likely also have one locally.
Even if they don’t, the VFW or Legion will probably take your flags and coordinate disposal with other posts.
Repurposing Discarded Flags
At least one of those locations should work for you.
Yet maybe your flag can continue to serve in other ways.
With many flags made of nylon or polyester, reusing might be best.
For example, organizations like Stars for Troops find creative ways to repurpose synthetic flags.
With donations, Stars for Troops cuts the stars out of retired flags and sends them to deployed service members worldwide, along with a touching note.
The only requirement for Stars for Troops is the flags must be embroidered.
Non-embroidered stars are flat, cheap, and not a great message to send to troops.
You can find many ideas online to create outdoor and indoor decorations if you’re into DIY design.
Where Do All The Nylons Go?
According to Americanflagdisposal.com, a new nylon recycling method allowed for old flags to be broken down and reused to make new flags.
However, they no longer accept flags as I write this.
From what I can tell, funding issues prevent the process from continuing.
I called to find out more, but they didn’t get back to me before publishing.
Nylon recycling, in general, is more expensive than creating new products, and therefore there isn’t a high demand for it.
How to Choose The Best Flag Replacement
Nylon or polyester makes the most sense for outdoor use since it’s weatherproof and won’t mold from mildew if left outside at all times.
According to the US Flag Code, flags must be left outside 24/7 or retired at night and raised in the morning.
But you can leave it out all night if illuminated.
As most civilians opt to leave their flags out, nylon might be best.
However, quality is still a factor.
Some printed flags are oversized versions of the cheap handheld flags found at parades.
Sewn flags are made with multiple layers of fabric and include embroidered stars, so they’re tougher and look better.
But if you’re concerned about the environmental impact of nylon vs. polyester flags, you should pick up a nylon flag.
Nylon is better for the environment than polyester, according to my research.
Nylon flags decompose in about 30–40 years, whereas polyester takes over 500 years.
Nylon and polyester flags work indoors, but handcrafted wooden flags are far more impressive and last longer.
Not only are wooden flags classier, but they’re fully customizable.
The veteran-owned company Flags of Valor handcrafts wooden flags to represent military or first responder service, but anyone can give their home a patriotic touch with FOV’s intricate design methods.
They also make custom engravements to personalize your flag however you want.
I hope that sheds some light on your flag issue.
We don’t always have time for ceremonies in today’s busy world, but there are easy ways to properly dispose of an American flag respectfully.