ALEXANDRIA, VA – Nothing lasts forever. Even the majesty of the American flag is no match for the relentless elements of American weather. After extreme temperatures, high winds, heavy precipitation, and unyielding ultraviolet light, an American flag shows its age. Colors fade, edges tatter, and eventually this particular piece of fabric needs replacement.
A flag that’s going out of regular service must not end up in the garbage can. An American flag lying among crumpled-up Kleenex, used cat litter, and last week’s leftover casserole is simply unconscionable. The United States Flag Code covers every detail, including some you may not have contemplated, of how to display and treat an American flag. This section of U.S. codified law outlines how to dispose of an American flag with dignity and compliance.
To Burn or Not To Burn?
The Flag Code specifies that a dignified burning is the ideal method to dispose of a flag that can no longer serve. However, this is problematic in two respects. Burning a well-worn flag as a proper retirement procedure is typically the province of American Legion posts, who conduct a ceremony for the colors before burning them with care. There’s a fine line between burning the flag as prescribed by the Flag Code and burning the flag as a willful act of desecration. It may be easy for a bystander to conflate the two and invite unwanted controversy.
Furthermore, many American flags on the market today—particularly those intended for winter or year-round use—are made not of natural cotton but of synthetic nylon or polyester blends. These petroleum-derived textiles can release harmful fumes and chemicals upon burning. To avoid exposing yourself to toxic chemicals, hold off on burning the flag yourself.
If burning isn’t an option, you can bury your worn-out flag in your yard as you would a time capsule or a late pet. Fold the flag into the proper triangle formation and bury the folded flag in a dignified vessel or container—don’t settle for a paper bag, in other words. A small wooden box should suffice. If this flag is made of a synthetic fabric, as mentioned above, don’t expect it to biodegrade in the ground.
American Legion Disposal
With the process of disposing the flag being fraught with complications and controversies, the best course of action is to entrust your retired flag with the experts. Your local American Legion post will usually offer a receptacle for depositing retired flags, where they will dispose of the flag while observing proper flag etiquette. Now that you know how to dispose of the American flag with care and respect, you can replace your flag with a fresh one whose red, white, and blue are just as vivid as they’re meant to be.