The Scoop on Recycling Propane

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[Editor's Note: I have managed to strategically mislocate my camera.  No, that's not the same thing as losing it.  Sheesh!  When I unmislocate the camera, I will be sure to post a picture of our itty bitty grill.  Apologies for the inconvenience.]

We splurged this weekend and picked up a small propane travel grill.  Very small — the type meant for camping so that we can take it with us wherever we go.  It uses the little one pound propane tanks, little disposable, nonrefillable one pound tanks.

Ugh.

I hate things that are disposable.  You should have seen the deliberation process for this one after we found that out.  We talked to the salesperson, looked at a larger propane grill that uses a refillable tank, looked at this one again, went home, researched propane recycling options, called three different recycling places, hemmed and hawed, and finally purchased it two hours later.  Yeah, it was a process.

It’s all because of propane, that more-than-slightly harmless flammable liquid that is heavier than air  – the one that causes things to combust and explode.  Go propane!  It’s for this reason that propane tanks are categorized as household hazardous waste, and cannot be disposed of in the trash, although many places won’t take them in for recycling.

Thankfully, if you have a big enough grill, you can refill the tank and feel good about minimizing your environmental footprint.  There’s a catch, though: only propane tanks with a safety valve can be refilled.  This excludes small propane tanks like the ones we use for our new grill.  Depending on where you live, you can use the small tank until it’s empty and then chuck it in the trash.  And away it goes!

Only not really.  You and I both know these things don’t go “away” and disappear.  Someone has to deal with them after you’ve tossed them out.  In our case, I called our transfer station to see where they went.  The woman who answered the phone was surprised; apparently she doesn’t get this type of phone call very often.

“You can bring those small ones here and we’ll recycle them,” she said.

“Oh, really?” I asked, surprised.  This was good news.  “How?”

“A company comes and takes them away,” she said.  “I’m not sure what they do with them.”  A pause, then, “Do you want me to find out?”

I smiled.  “Yes, I do want you to find out, please. That would be great,” I said to her.

After a few minutes on hold, the woman came back.  “The company is the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, and they come by and pick up all the tanks we have here, bring them to their facility and drain them of propane.”  She was very helpful.

“Oh, that’s excellent,” I said, frantically jotting down the information.  “And what does this company do with the tanks after they’re empty?”

The woman paused again.  What can I say?  I’m persistent about these things.

“I mean, do they recycle the small tanks or is there some way to refill them and they do that?” I pressed.

The woman didn’t know.  However, she gave me their name again so I could find out for myself.  I called the Northeast Resource Recovery Association and repeated my query.  The woman who answered the phone was confused.

“Yes, we drain the cylinders,” she said.

“And what do you do with the empty tanks afterwards?” I asked.

“Um… why do you want to know?” the woman asked.

I laughed.  I hope she didn’t think I was laughing at her.  It just makes me a little punchy once I realize that not many people care about these things, so the questions come off as strange.  “I’m looking to buy a propane grill that uses the small one pound tanks, and I want to make sure they don’t end up in a landfill somewhere.  I’d like to know if you all refill the small tanks or if you break them down for recycling.”

“Oh, right!” the woman sounded relieved.

One transfer, a conversation about a coffee shop, and five minutes later, I found out that this particular company drains the propane from the tanks (presumably for refilling the larger tanks — I forgot to ask) and cuts down the small propane tanks to melt down the steel.  It’s high-quality stuff, this steel.  I’m glad to see they’re not letting it go to waste.

So these are your options when buying a propane gas grill: get a tank that can be refilled, because most hardware stores have a refilling station right there, OR get a small propane grill that uses small tanks and call around to your transfer station and every other place you know trying to see how this whole process works.  It’s not a perfect process (recycling the small steel tanks uses more resources than just refilling them), but it’s a better option than tossing them in the trash, or even better than buying a charcoal grill.

What’s your preferred method for summer grilling?

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©2010 at Simple Savvy, the simple living blog where our little barbecue was accompanied by a poetry reading in our very own backyard.  I love June.

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4 responses

  1. interesting. we just had our large propane tank refilled last weekend for our backyard grill, but i never gave any thought to the small tanks we use for our camping stove. i do think we have some small empties that we need to dispose of soon, so need to figure out the best way to do that here. thanks.

  2. Great article! I love that you care enough about the environment to make such conscientious choices. If only everyone did!

  3. Great post! Your decision-making process sounded a lot like my house. We have a full-size propane grill for the back yard, but for years camped using only the fire to cook our food because my husband didn’t like the disposable propane tanks on camp stoves. Well, I was the one doing all the meal planning and most of the cooking, so after years of cooking over the fire for our large family, I had had enough. Camping wasn’t a vacation…it was WORK! Last summer we bought a propane camp stove much to my husband’s chagrin, but it sure did make my trip much more enjoyable! We haven’t actually emptied a tank yet, so haven’t had to dispose of it. I will look into local places that recycle them.

  4. there is a conversion hose that you can use with a small grill to make it so you can hook up the larger, refillable propane tanks to it. It costs around $20, and they sell them at big box retailers and home improvement stores (without naming names!).