Even the most rugged, well-made flags will wear out over time, especially if they are flown outdoors on a regular basis. Over time, battling the elements may leave a flag torn or, at the very least, worn and faded. In such instances, it is acceptable to retire your American flag before flying a new one.
You may be aware there is a certain degree of formality expected when one retires an American flag. As the revered standard of our nation, the American flag should be treated with the utmost respect, and given a proper retirement from service. One of the more common retirement practices for flags that are no longer serviceable is to respectfully burn the flag. According to the United States Flag Code, “The Flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem of display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” Burning is recommended for flags made of cloth or other natural fabrics. Burning flags made of synthetic materials such as nylon may produce toxic fumes that are harmful to both the environment and bystanders. Recycling is often recommended when disposing of an American flag constructed of synthetic materials (see below for more information on recycling).
Flag Burning Steps
1. Build a medium-sized fire away from trees and buildings in a safe location. (Using an existing fire pit with an ember screen is most recommended. Clear away leaves trash and debris. Also ensure that your municipality has no outdoor burn bans and avoid building fires on especially windy days.) The fire will need to reach a steady burn in order to fully incinerate the flag.
2. Lower and fold the flag into the traditional triangle fold (http://www.usflag.org/foldflag.html). Do not place the flag on the ground. Fold it and carry directly to the fire.
3. Place the folded flag on top of the fire. Do so carefully so as not to burn yourself. Wait for the fire to die down somewhat if it is too hot for you to safely place the flag on the fire. (Do not place an unfolded flag on a fire. It is both disrespectful and dangerous.)
4. Pay your respects to the flag as it burns. You may choose to salute the flag and observe a moment of silence.
5. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a final, fitting tribute to the service of the flag. The words of the Pledge are: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
6. Ensure that the fire is completely out once no flag material remains to be burned. Be safe – completely douse the coals with water if you have built a campfire. Do not leave the fire unattended until it is fully extinguished.
If you do not wish to burn the flag or believe a more elaborate retirement ceremony is appropriate, you may consider contacting a local Color Guard, American Legion, VFW, Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop, all of whom may be able to conduct a formal flag retirement ceremony. This is also a good option if you have a a significant number of flags to retire.
Alternate Flag Disposal Methods
1. If you are unable to burn the flag as a means of disposal, burying the flag is also acceptable. To do so in a respectful manner, it is required that you begin by folding the traditional triangle fold (see link above) and place it in a sturdy wooden box before burial. After burying the flag, you may wish to indicate the burial location with a small marker of some sort, preferably of wood or stone to give it some degree of permanence.
2. As noted above, recycling is recommended disposal method for flags made of synthetic materials as it’s better for the environment. There are now a variety of organizations and nonprofits that offer flag recycling services. Many provide the decommissioning service at no cost. Your local Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts are a good starting point for locating flag recycling services in your area.\
Whatever method of flag disposal you choose, please ensure that the retirement of your flag is done with the respect and gratitude for service that is befitting this great symbol of our Republic.