Yosemite stops promoting single-use camping-stove propane cans

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During Yosemite National Park’s peak summer season, when campgrounds are full, the spent gas canisters that people use to fuel their camp stoves and lanterns pile up on the ground near dumpsters, as if no one is quite sure what happened to them is to do.

Though there are dedicated recycling bins for empty propane canisters, the stray canisters — forest-green 1-pound cylinders sold by brands like Coleman and Bernzomatic — present a constant chore for Rangers.

“We will have hundreds if not thousands of them in the park,” said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.

To reduce buildup and overall waste, Yosemite removed single-use canisters from park store shelves two years ago. Now the park only sells refillable tanks and runs an exchange program — similar to the arrangement where people trade their backyard grill propane tanks at local hardware stores for discounted fresh ones.

This type of system could soon become the norm for campers across California.

A first-ever federal bill, which went to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk this week, would ban the sale of one-pound propane bottles in California by 2028. The state assembly and senate both approved the legislation, SB 1256, last week, and supporters are hopeful Newsom will enact it before the August 31 legislature ends.

Justin Rodriguez lights a propane grill at Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park.

Tracy Barbutes/Special on The Chronicle

“These 1-pound propane bottles are often among the litter found in our parks and beaches that are very expensive for local governments to manage properly and dangerous for workers in our hazardous waste programs,” said Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, who introduced the bill, said in a statement.

According to an estimate by the California Product Stewardship Council, the non-profit local government coalition that sponsors SB 1256, between 4.5 million and 7 million of the non-refillable propane cylinders are sold in California each year. The council estimates that only about a quarter of them are recycled through the state’s household hazardous waste program, the system designed to keep batteries, televisions, chemicals and other problematic items out of landfills.

According to Doug Kobold, the council’s executive director, this can mean millions of pounds of camping stove canisters end up piling up in landfills every year.

“These should never have come to market because of the sheer waste,” he said.

California legislators have launched all kinds of “zero waste” initiatives to discourage people from buying disposable items. If SB 1256 becomes law, it would trigger a five-year deadline for retailers and manufacturers to phase out single-use bottles from January 2023.

The ban would not affect backpackers’ favorite isobutane canisters or butane aerosol cans, which are often used with single-burner stoves. It would also exempt “Tall Boy” propane canisters used by plumbers and handymen and allow government agencies to distribute single-use propane bottles in emergencies.

Two years ago, Yosemite stopped selling disposable propane canisters and began exclusively selling refillable canisters made by Manteca company Little Kamper.

Tracy Barbutes/Special on The Chronicle

Most of the 1 lb propane canisters sold in the US, including those made by Coleman and Bernzomatic, are made by Cleveland manufacturer Worthington Industries. In a phone call to The Chronicle, a Worthington spokesman called SB 1256 “a very narrow math” that wouldn’t improve the “end-of-life” outcome for camp stove canisters: Whether they’re refillable or single-use, they ultimately need to be recycled properly the same way, she said.

“Our concern is that it doesn’t address the environmental issues (at the core) of the bill,” said Sonya Higginbotham, Worthington’s vice president of corporate communications. “We believe there is a place for both non-refillable and refillable bottles.”

A ban on the sale of disposable jerry cans in California “could be very disruptive” to campers, Higginbotham said. Worthington could start making refillable canisters, but they would cost more than their single-use counterparts — “probably about three times as much,” she said.

The average Coleman 1-pound propane can is around $5 online, while a refillable bottle from leading manufacturer Flame King is around $15.

“Because of this unfair price for single use, it has been difficult for 1-pounders to break into the reusable market,” said Kobold.

The refillable items Yosemite sells are from Manteca company Little Kamper, which operates an exchange program that includes dozens of hardware stores throughout Northern California. A Little Kamper first cylinder costs $21.99; a first refill costs $11.99.

The lifespan of refillable 1-pound canisters isn’t exactly clear, Kobold said, partly because they’re relatively new. Reusable items on the market are certified for 10 years. Reusables can be filled with a special valve attachment that siphons gas out of a 20-pound BBQ propane tank, but it’s potentially dangerous to do so at home.

“Because of the dangers, we’re not fans of it,” said Josh Simpson, Little Kamper’s vice president of marketing.

In Yosemite, used propane canisters are picked up by park employees, counted and categorized by volunteers, and then shredded in a special machine the park purchased specifically to dispose of them. Around 24,000 of them were counted last year – and there were none that might have ended up in garbage cans, where they do not belong due to their classification as hazardous waste.

Spent propane canisters await the crusher in Yosemite National Park.

Spent propane canisters await the crusher in Yosemite National Park.

Provided by Josh Simpson

Simpson has volunteered at several canister checks at the park, at times searching through dozens of garbage cans containing spent gas canisters. Of the roughly 1,500 cylinders the company sold in Yosemite last year, fewer than 20 turned up in the count, he said.

From what the canister counters have seen in Yosemite, switching to refillable bottles could significantly reduce the volume of waste.

Yosemite’s move away from selling disposable canisters “was a big step in the right direction nationally,” Kobold said. “We need to get people to understand the true cost of disposable cylinders.”

Gregory Thomas is Editor of Lifestyle & Outdoors at The Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas