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Propane camping canisters are a nightmare to recycle. This gear store found a workaround

The image shows two green Flame King refillable propane cylinders with black caps, standing close together on a wooden surface in a blurred indoor setting.
Sports Basement’s free propane refill program has been in place for five years. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Propane is an essential for camping trips, but once the gas runs out, the pressurized canisters it comes in often become junk. The cylinders sold by major outdoor supply brands, like Coleman, are one-and-done, so they can’t be refilled or easily recycled

To reduce campers’ propane guilt, local sporting goods chain Sports Basement has long sold reusable propane canisters to its members, filling them back up for free. They’ve done this so often in fact, that the company expects to refill its 100,000th canister any day now. 

Although the company toyed with a goofy contest—“We thought about giving the winner a lifetime supply of baked beans (since that’s also a form of free gas),” a newsletter stated—the customer who nabs the 100,000th refilled canister will instead will receive a $100 gift card.

“We’re just a few hundred away,” said Aaron Schweifler, Sports Basement’s chief operating officer. “Our busiest camping stores are in Berkeley and San Francisco, but it could be anywhere.”

The free-refill program, Schweifler said, has been around for at least five years. It’s a win-win for everyone, stopping an estimated 140,000 spent canisters from entering landfills and saving Sports Basement’s members— or ”Basementeers”—more than $850,000. 

Propane vaporizes at very low temperatures, which makes it a better alternative to butane and other fuels when making cowboy coffee in the mountains on a chilly morning. It burns cleaner, too. But the canisters, which contain a number of components, pose a challenge for recycling.

“The unusual steel reinforcement used to make these things safe” is what complicates disposal, Schweifler said. “And the fact that there’s pressured gas inside, and they can explode.”

“Unless they are completely empty, propane canisters can cause fires in collection trucks and recycling facilities when compacted or baled,” said Recology spokesperson Robert Reed, adding that the waste-disposal company asks its customers to bring such items to its facility instead of throwing them in the blue recycling bins.

A pending state bill will ban the sale of most non-refillable propane canisters by 2028, anyway. So Sports Basement is just getting there ahead of schedule.

“That made us feel like we’re on the cutting edge of doing the right thing for the planet,” Schweifler said. 

Astrid Kane can be reached at