What Happens To Butane Canisters

A few days ago, I got into some conversations about those butane canisters for camp stoves, and wrote a post about it. I’ve been phasing them out on my trips, and have been actively encouraging others to do the same. One question I couldn’t answer at the time was when properly handed over to a local waste management center, what happens to those canisters?

My worry was that because of the gas inside, the canisters would simply be labeled as hazardous waste and just be buried “somewhere”, meaning the metal wouldn’t be recycled. So I sent an email to my local waste management center asking about it. Instead of an email, I got a call from the Supervisor of Waste Management, as he felt it would be easier to discuss over the phone, and give me the ability to ask further questions. I was pleasantly surprised with the information he provided me.

The good news is that the metal of these canisters does get recycled. From the waste centers, they get transported to a processor, who hooks up the non-refillable fuel containers so that the gas can be removed, then the metal gets recycled as it normally would. The better/unexpected news is that the gas and fuel that is extracted is also used. Who knew? Since I had him on the phone, I figured I’d bring up a couple of other questions.

First, he made very clear that you shouldn’t just throw your fuel containers in your normal recycling  as you would with other metals. Because of the gas, they won’t take it, and in my area you get a little no-no sticker – the recycling opposite of getting a gold star. You should instead take your canisters to your local waste management center that takes household hazardous waste. I then asked about the canister recycling tools that they sell and whether or not the canisters would be accepted in regular recycling after being treated. (The tool basically vents then punctures the canister to allow the gas to escape.) I was told that while they may in BC, they do not in Ontario, and does not recommend the use of these tools. I can understand that. How would they know the gas hasn’t been removed properly. And besides, if the fuel is collected and reused, no sense just wasting it. (As a minor but valid point, he also mentioned that you should be careful where and how you release the gas for your own safety.)

Of course this is all information based on Hamilton (Ontario), so I can’t speak for all municipalities, but I’m happy to hear all this. And just as I said in my last post, I’d still rather use a refillable gas solution (“Reuse”) but it’s nice to know using butane canisters isn’t as harmful as I suspected it may have been (“Recycle”) – and I’m still going to look further into some less impactful options (“Reduce”).

5 Reasons Not To Use Butane Canisters

I really don’t like sounding like a grumpy old man, but every now and then a subject comes up where you have a list of complaints about and you just can’t help the way it sounds. Funny, but for a guy who thinks of himself as quite the opposite of grumpy, I do have a few of these subjects that get me grabbing my cane and waving it at the kids on my lawn. Today was one of those days, when I found myself discussion butane canisters on facebook with Christine from Camp Smarts. I was simply writing what I didn’t like about butane canisters, ran out of room with my comment, and figured I’d write it out a lot easier here (and introduce it by saying I’m not a grumpy old man).

UPDATE: I found out what happens to those gas canisters when you send them to your local waste management center.

First, I should probably mention I don’t hate butane canisters I regularly use them myself. They’re compact and easy to use. You just screw on your camp stove and you’re ready to go. No filling up, no priming, no fuel spills, and you can buy them at pretty much any outdoor store. For some stoves, the canister can even act as a stand to make it a little lighter and more compact. Oh, and I’ll keep using the term “butane”, but I also mean propane or any of the non-refillable fuel containers.

A sit on top stove. Dont tell, but I'm mixing stove and canister brands.

#1 Enabling the Jerks:

The first reason is actually not the fault of the canisters, rather an example of how jerky behaviour gives something a bad name. The problem is that too many people are disposing of the butane canisters by simply chucking them in the woods. The problem is that they don’t burn, so people can’t just toss them into a fire and forget them. They also don’t sink, so you can’t just dump them in the lake. They don’t crush up either, so stomping them into the ground behind some bushes doesn’t really work either. This is a litterer’s worst nightmare – there’s a lot of effort in casting off these things out of sight. So what do you do? Throw them into the outhouse of course. I’m a little saddened how many times I come across this. Less gross, but I’m sure just as annoying, I’ve also come across a couple of situations where there was a pile of canisters left at campsites, all different types and ages. People see the pile and figure that’s what you do with them. Somebody will just come by and take them. This is why Ontario Parks no longer sells non-refillable fuel canisters at the park stores, strongly discourages you from using them, and is regularly considering banning them entirely. You would too if you were the one you has to go in there and get them out, especially when considering from where you might have to get them.

Does this mean responsible people shouldn’t use them? No. If everyone carried them out with them this wouldn’t be an issue, and realistically, most people do. But enough people don’t, which is why I no longer recommend using them anymore, and hope my example might deter some from using them.

This is not a dump, for canisters

#2 Recycling

Ontario Parks wants you to bring your canisters home with you. Unfortunately, those canisters are not refillable or even recyclable, which means they need to be disposed of properly. And because they contain gas, they’re also not supposed to go into your regular garbage, but rather be deposited at your local dump’s hazardous waste center. I assume that everyone is more than happy to do all this, but it’s not that environmentally responsible. We’re supposed to – in order – Reduce, Resuse then Recycle. And I’m not certain the metal gets recycled at all once it gets processed at the dump.

#3 Content Management

You can’t see inside them, and you can’t open them up, so the only way to know how much juice is left is to pick it up and maybe shake it a little and guess. They have these stickers that you can put on them that will act as a fuel gauge, but they don’t always work. Admittedly, the more you use them the better you get at guessing. The real problem happens when you have 1/4 or less left in the canister. Your choice there is to waste the remainder and toss it (not literally), keep it hanging around for a trip that you don’t need as much (and know for sure it’ll be enough), or bring it with another and carry it around empty for most of the trip. My point is it’s an unnecessary juggling act, where if you used a refillable solution you could just top it off before each trip.

Do I have enough to make another pancake?

#4 The last bit of fuel is like the last bit of beer

Priming white gas stoves might be a pain, and have those eyebrow burning mishaps on occasion, but it’s the best way to maintain enough pressure to use even the last of your fuel efficiently. How many times were have you been using the last of your canister and it’s taking forever to boil some water, then finally run out, grab the new can and it seems like it’s suddenly 10 times better? It’s because they work on pressure, and the less fuel you have the worse it performs. In fact, using up the last of the can is useless, sputtering out dribbles.

#5 Trust

I’ve never personally punctured or broken a canister on a trip, but chalk that up to my over-paranoia than the craftmanship put into those cans. I have had a few puncture in my trunk (where you’re not supposed to keep them… I know). What’s easier to do is to pop the valve. You really have to be careful when jamming stuff into your backpack, and pay particular attention to making sure no pointy items are close to the canister – or can get shifted close to the canister. Alternatively, have you seen those refillable bottles made for white gas? Nice thick openings, made with tough metal and hard core lids that even have a child proof mechanism to prevent it from opening unexpectedly. Why’s that you ask? They’re made to be used often. The opposite is true for the butane canisters. They’re made as cheaply as the company can get away with – which to be fair is usually good enough – but I feel much more confident shoving stuff tightly into or not being so gentle with my pack.

Refillable white gas bottle and fuel. Most outdoor stores carry both.

A couple of additional thoughts that don’t quite make the list, but also worth considering – let’s call them “bonus points”:

  • Butane isn’t the optimal fuel for cold temperatures or high altitude, and in either situation you really want a device that you can control the pressure to get the proper amount of fuel coming out. Height shouldn’t be a problem in Ontario and you can get by in fall and spring cold, but if you’re planning on camping with snow on the ground or high enough for there to be snow on the ground in summer, the butane canisters are no good.
  • Stove manufacturers really encourage you to use their fuel, and their canisters. I’ve been told by many people how true this is, and many others have told me it’s completely false. Jetboil will tell you there’s a subtle difference in the thread of their valves making it damaging to use some other company’s canister, as does Primus and MSR. I’ve cheated and mixed and matched products, and while I’m sure I did some minute bit of damage to my stove that I’ve yet to notice, didn’t have the optimal cooking stove experience I could have, or made puppies cry somewhere, but I didn’t seem to have any problems.
  • They’re also awkwardly shaped. Is it just me? I find packing them inefficient, especially when I have to wrap them up with a towel or something to keep them from getting pierced by something. Those cylinder shaped reusable bottles are much easier to pack. Maybe this is a minor point.
  • There are also plenty of other options, including alcohol or twig burning stoves. Some can even be made at home out of discarded household items like pop or beer cans (seen below). They’re very light and require no priming at all.

There's lots of other alternatives to butane canisters and white gas.

Stay tuned for more stove updates. I’ve got quite a few of all different styles I want to test out this summer. Any suggestions on ones I should try, or want to share your favourite stove, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.