When it comes to cooking in the backcountry, canister stoves—those that run on a compressed propane-butane blend—have been my go-to backpacking option for years. For me, their convenience and ease-of-use—attach stove, ignite, boil, simmer, done—more than outweighs the minor drawbacks of the canisters’ small additional weight and expense. These stoves do create one significant hassle, however. Spent canisters can be challenging to recycle. It’s definitely possible, but it’s not as simple as dropping a used canister into your curbside recycling bin. Here are the essential three steps to make it happen.
Step 1: Completely Empty the Canister
No recycler will touch a canister that still contains pressurized and potentially explosive fuel. To fully drain any residual fuel, take your stove outdoors, attach the canister, and burn off any remaining gas. Be aware that the final fraction of fuel burns at a very slow rate due to low canister pressure, and that it can take a surprising amount of time to completely empty a canister. Even after the burner flame sputters out, keep the valve open a while longer to ensure any final residual vapors escape.
Step 2: Puncture the Canister
Next you must puncture the empty canister to ensure that it can be safely crushed at a recycling center. This can be done in a variety of ways. In rough order of convenience, these include tools specifically designed for this purpose (such as the JetBoilCrunchIt, $6); a simple “church key” can opener (the type with a sharp triangular point on one end), which can be levered against the canister’s bottom rim; or a hammer and nail (place a rag or cloth over the canister to help reduce the likelihood of generating a spark with this method).
After the canister has been punctured, label it prominently with a permanent marker as “EMPTY” and “PUNCTURED” and make an effort to demonstrably dent or crush it, which indicates to wary recyclers that the canister is safe to handle.
Step 3: Research and Recycle
Now comes the tricky part. Recycling programs and capabilities vary dramatically depending on where you live, which has significant implications for where and how you can recycle spent fuel canisters, or whether it’s even possible in your area. (In particular, most backpacking stove canisters are made of steel, which some curbside recycling programs won’t accept.)
Contact your town or local recycling company to determine if they accept canisters in curbside bins, offer any special collection days that might accommodate canisters, or can provide information on any nearby metal recycling centers that accept them. Then recycle those drained and punctured canisters in the easiest way available to you.
A Note on Propane Canisters
This article refers to the lightweight butane-propane fuel canisters used for backpacking stoves. When it comes to those ubiquitous heavy propane cylinders used for camp stoves and lanterns, the recycling story is much more grim. Simply put, it is almost impossible to recycle them and the overwhelming majority of them end up in landfills. If you do cook or illuminate with propane, invest instead in a refillable tank to help reduce environmental impact.