A Dignified Retirement for the American Flag

“What should I do with my old, worn-out United States flag?” is one of the most frequently asked questions at our flag store.  Those who are familiar with All The King’s Flags know that they can bring us their faded Old Glory and we will see that it gets a proper retirement, a tradition we have carried on for over 40 years. Typically we donate the flags to various local Scout troops for a formal “Flag Retirement Ceremony”, an American Scouting tradition.  We have accumulated many boxes of worn-out flags in the last few years, though, as the demand from Scout troops seems to have dwindled. Perhaps there are fewer scout troops than there used to be, or maybe they simply aren’t performing the retirement ceremony as frequently as in previous years.

The answer to the question of United States flag disposal has always been, and should still be, based on the United States Flag Code, Section 176 which simply states: “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.”  The idea of burning flags was endorsed by the National Convention of The American Legion meeting in New York on September 20-23, 1937 when they approved, “The Ceremony for Disposal of Unserviceable Flags”.  Over the years, various groups including the Scouts, have evolved many similar flag retirement ceremonies and traditions. The quality they all share is the treatment of the United States flag with dignity and respect.

When the American Legion set forth its flag disposal ceremony in 1937, virtually all flags were made of cotton or wool. Today’s American flags last much longer and are typically made of nylon or other petroleum-based materials. Burning American flags made of petroleum products creates hazardous gases.  According to DuPont’s “Material Safety Data Sheet” burning nylon produces “hazardous gases/vapors such as formaldehydes, ammonia, carbon monoxide, cyclopentanone, oxides of nitrogen, traces of hydrogen cyanide and incompletely burned hydrocarbons.

Astute Scout leaders have learned about these health hazards associated with the flag burning ceremony and have been seeking alternatives.  One possibility is to find (Google) flag recycling organizations.  The material can be recycled into new flags, eventually.  These organizations typically ask for a small donation.  Other recycling is possible, much like we recycle plastics or paper. Nylon recycling centers are listed at this site: http://www.recyclingplasticwaste.com/recyclers/usa/nylon/

Another solution is to conduct the retirement ceremony, leaving the flag burning for a later time and place.  One group reported taking the flags to a local mortuary, after the retirement ceremony, where the flags were safely incinerated in a crematorium.  Another troop does the formal flag retirement during a campfire in the springtime, burning only the cloth (cotton) flags.  The synthetic flags are burned after all the scouts have left, with the adults mindful of being upwind from the fumes.

Ultimately, the U.S. Flag Code allows just about any type of flag retirement ceremony, as long as the flag is treated in a dignified way.  Burning may be “preferred”, but other methods, such as burying, or recycling, are allowable when burning is not feasible.  As one Scout leader puts it, “The key is respect – – respect for our flag, respect for our country and respect for each other.”

Posted by at February 26, 2013
Filed in category: Uncategorized,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *