road flares

Ah the emergency flare, a product you probably don’t think about until you definitely need one to flag down help. But since they expire after just three years, what do you do with flares that need to be replaced?

First, it is important to understand the different types of flares available.

Road Flares

On the road, flares are typically only used by police and emergency responders to signal an accident. While you may want to consider a roadside emergency kit in case your car breaks down at night, many of the flares in these kits are light-emitting diode (LED) lights instead of incendiary flares (meaning they light up instead of burn).

While LED flares will last longer and you can recycle them via mail-in programs when they burn out, they may be less effective in bad weather. This is something to consider depending on where you live.

Marine Flares

You’re more likely to have flares if you own a boat, as they are used as a visual distress signal out on the water. The Coast Guard requires all boats of 16 feet or larger to carry three hand-held flares and/or an orange flag for daytime and electric distress light for nights. Smaller boats only need flares if operating at night.

While some flares produce smoke instead of light, these flares are ineffective at night because smoke doesn’t produce light. If you’re looking for a non-expiring LED marine flare, the Coast Guard has approved the Weems & Plath SOS Distress Light to meet Flare Carry requirements.

Hand-held incendiary flares will fire a signal 500 feet in the air. Or, you can purchase a flare gun to minimize the risks of lighting a hand-held flare close to your face. In either case, flares are designed for one-time use. Once used, they can be safely placed in the trash.

The trick is what to do with unused flares.

Proper Disposal of Unused Flares

If you have unused flares, beware that it’s against the law to set them off in a non-emergency situation, even on Independence Day. Some communities (especially ones located on coasts where you are more likely to have a boat) will accept unused flares as household hazardous waste (HHW).

If HHW disposal isn’t an option in your community, your local police department may be able to help. Most police departments will accept unwanted firearms, ammunition, and fireworks; they may also accept flares. You can also ask your local Coast Guard station if they have a flare disposal program.

A few other things to consider with unused flares:

  1. You might want to keep your expired flares in the boat as a backup option. It’s not against the law to use expired flares, but they are less likely to produce the light you need. So you could try shooting these first in an emergency.
  2. If you are selling a boat, include the flare gun and flares with the purchase. You shouldn’t need to dispose of a flare gun.
  3. Never dispose of flares by soaking them in water overnight and placing them in the trash. Their shells are waterproof, so the dangerous chemicals will still be active. 

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.