How to Retire an American Flag
The 4th of July is right around the corner, and as we look forward to barbecues and fireworks, we will no doubt be producing more trash and recycling.
But when we think of items that we regularly throw away or recycle, the American Flag doesn’t often come to mind. That’s because we hang them proudly and the thought of throwing them in the garbage bin (or even the recycling bin) would feel unpatriotic. But many of us know it is far worse to hang a tattered or damaged flag then to dispose of it, properly.
But what if you find yourself and your flag in that situation? What IS the proper and respectful way to dispose of an American Flag?
First, let’s define what an official American flag is:
The U.S. Flag consists of a blue rectangle bearing 50 white stars (representing each state) and 13 alternating red and white stripes (representing the 13 original colonies).
This is common knowledge to most of us, but we just wanted to assure you that the following disposal methods are only required for official American Flags. (Flag patterned bandanas and board shorts need not apply, even in July).
Read on for some important (and surprising) facts about how to retire Old Glory when it is faded, tattered or torn.
There are many ways to properly dispose of an American flag, including:
Ceremonial Flag Burning
Before you gasp at the thought (as I did before I read on in my research on this topic) According to Wikipedia, this method of burning is in no way haphazard or unpatriotic, rather it requires a specific ceremony, where the flag is folded (correctly,) laid on a bonfire and burned patriotically; while being saluted, or having someone at the burning ceremony recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the National Anthem.
This process is used mainly for individuals retiring their personal flags, at home. But what if you don’t feel comfortable burning your flag on your own? What if you don’t know how to properly fold a flag? (You can find that out
here by the way) Or more logically…what if you simply can’t build a fire on your property? Another option is…
To bury the flag, begin by finding a dignified wooden box - it should be of good quality and construction, as this box will serve as the flag's vessel as it is interred in the ground.
Fold the flag correctly and respectfully, place it in the box and then bury it in the ground.
You may even consider giving a your flag short "funeral". Give a speech on the importance of the flag then stand at attention as the flag is lowered into the ground. Observe a moment of silence as the flag is buried. You may even choose to mark the burial location with a small, patriotic marker.
You may also shred your flag. Shredding an American flag may seem violent but the US Army's Heraldry institute assures that shredding is an acceptable disposal method, provided it is done with reverence.
Use a sharp scissors to slowly and accurately separate the thirteen stripes, leaving the blue star-spangled field intact.
After the flag is cut into pieces, place it in a respectful receptacle and bury it following the above procedures or ceremoniously burn the pieces one by one, starting with the stripes and ending with the blue field.
When the code for American Flag disposal was written, almost all flags were made of cloth or other natural fabrics. But today many flags are made from nylon, polyester, or artificial materials.
When burned, these modern materials produce toxic fumes that are harmful to the environment and your health. Be sure to check the material of your flag before you make the choice between burning or recycling.
Many Non Profit and Private organizations have been formed to recycle flags. Contact a group like
American Flag Recycling or contact your local landfill or recycling processor for more information.
Give Your Flag to A Qualified Orginization
Specific United States government organizations offer services to conduct the ceremony to properly dispose of flags for no charge, upon request.
The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Boy and Girl Scouts of America and the US Military all provide this service. If you don't have access to any of these organizations, contact your city hall or local government.
A Local Option
Here in Prince William County, we have a convenient and respectful option for disposing of (or recycling) our flags.
On Flag Day, 2014, the American Flag Collection Center officially opened at the Prince William County Landfill, allowing residents to dispose of their retired American Flags the right way.
The center is a combined effort of the Boy Scouts of America Occoquan and Bull Run Districts, the Prince William County Solid Waste Division and Keep Prince William Beautiful.
Flags that are dropped off at the center will be picked up by Boy Scout troops and given to organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, for disposal. These organizations are experienced in flag disposal and flag retirement ceremonies.
Boy Scouts will be at the collection center every second and fourth Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. They will instruct visitors who want to drop off their flags in person on the proper way to fold their flags for retirement (and disposal) as well as answer questions about the history and care of American Flags.
Recyclable, nylon flags will be sent to groups that specialize in recycling American flags where they will be ceremonially decommissioned then recycled through a process that converts the flag back into virgin grade nylon material to be used to make a new, recycled American flag!
The collection center will be open during normal landfill hours and flags can be dropped off at no cost, but donations are being accepted to fund this program.
If you are interested in funding this important program by making a donation, visit the Keep Prince William Beautiful website, (
www.kpwb.org) and note that the donation is for the Flag Collection Center.
For more information, contact Boy Scout leader and overseer of the center, David Byrne at
I hope you all have a safe and happy July 4th, and as always...
Thanks for Reading!