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Hearth & Home January 2017

Off The Grid

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Sustainable grilling and outdoor living products offer a niche profit center, as well as a positive impact on the planet.

Every year, North Americans use an estimated 40 million one-lb. disposable propane cylinders to fuel portable grills, camp stoves, lanterns, and patio heaters. While the cylinders are a convenient and inexpensive way to fuel outdoor living gear, they create disposal and environmental challenges for municipalities and park systems.

With extremely limited recycling options available, consumers have little choice but to discard the cylinders after a single use. Complicating the issue is the fact that the cylinders are considered hazardous waste, because any remaining gas in them could explode or catch fire during waste processing, posing a risk to sanitation workers.

However, some sanitation departments and local hazardous waste collection facilities refuse to accept them, so the cylinders are often improperly discarded in regular household trash, dumpsters, and standard recycling bins, or left behind at stadiums, parks and campsites.

It’s estimated these discarded cylinders take up approximately 3.3 million cu. ft. of landfill space every year. Those captured from the waste stream cost parks and municipalities between $2 and $4 per cylinder to dispose of as hazardous waste. Given that an estimated four million one-lb. propane cylinders are discarded annually in the state of California; 23,000 in Yosemite National Park; 4,000 in Yellowstone National Park; and 50,000 in Ontario Provincial Parks, it adds up to a significant expense for taxpayers and a squandering of park fees that could be spent on programs to benefit visitors and wildlife.

Consider this: A filled one-lb. propane cylinder holds about 30 cents worth of fuel, is used only once, and costs more to dispose of than it does to make. Some argue it’s the epitome of inefficiency and wastefulness.

Communities and companies are getting behind alternatives, and the barbecue industry should do likewise. A few national parks and recreation areas in the U.S. and Canada have been working with a propane bottle recycler that uses patented equipment to extract leftover propane from cylinders and crush and recycle the steel.

While this program recycled an estimated 127,500 cylinders and more than 63 tons of steel between 2005 and 2014, the equipment is expensive and it takes years for the effort to be self-sustaining, according to the National Park Service.

“As an industry, we should and can do better,” says Sam Newman, CEO of California-based Flame King. The propane cylinder manufacturer recently introduced a line of refillable one-lb. propane cylinders that can be continually refilled or exchanged for up to 12 years. They can be used just as a disposable cylinder would be used, and fit all openings on existing portable grills, heaters, lanterns and other products.

The Flame King 1 lb. refillable cylinder.

Flame King’s refillable one-lb. propane cylinders are sold through specialty retailers, independent hardware stores and propane retailers. According to Newman, most retailers sell the filled cylinders for between $12 and $15, with subsequent refills priced between $2 and $4.

This past June, Flame King also partnered with U-Haul on a one-lb. refillable cylinder program in California, with plans to roll it out nationally. U-Haul retails the initial filled one-pound cylinder for $11.95, with refills at $1.95.

Flame King and U-Haul collaborated with the California Product Stewardship Council (CPSC), an agency that encourages manufacturers to improve the sustainability of their products to reduce the disposal burden and environmental impact on government- and taxpayer-financed waste management systems. The joint refillable propane cylinder program just earned the Industrial Environmental Association’s 2016 Environmental Excellence Award.

“It’s a great recognition of our partners’ efforts,” says Heidi Sanborn, executive director, CPSC. “We are changing the paradigm from disposables to refillables.”

“One-lb. disposable cylinders have been a disaster for the national parks,” says Newman. “(Discarded cylinders) are littering our natural resources and it’s expensive for the parks to dispose of dumpster loads of them every year. Why would you throw out something you could reuse for 10 or 12 years? We wanted to offer a more environmentally responsible alternative, but we knew it had to make economic sense for consumers, too. We think we’ve done that and now we must educate people about the concept.”

According to CalRecycle, consumers start saving money after just five uses, versus buying disposables that typically retail for between $4 and $7. Newman says refillable one-lb. propane cylinders are an untapped profit center for retailers of barbecues, outdoor living products and propane fuel, too. Flame King offers retailers a refilling system to help establish their own one-lb. cylinder refill or exchange service. According to Newman, the $120 set-up works off a forklift tank and pays for itself quickly, thanks to high margins.

Representatives of Flame King, California Product Stewardship Council, and U-Haul accepting the 2016 Environmental Excellence Award from the Industrial Environmental Association.

The company also offers a home refill kit that enables DIY consumers to refill Flame King’s reusable one-lb. cylinders from their own 20-lb. propane tank. The kit comes with a gravity-feed stand, incorporates numerous safety features, and is supported by an instructional video, all designed to ensure safe and proper at-home refilling. The kit retails for between $39.99 and $44.99, and has been popular with outdoor enthusiasts and tradespeople such as plumbers who frequently go through multiple one-lb. gas canisters, according to Newman.

Manchester Tank and a few smaller, regional propane companies also offer refillable one-lb. cylinders. Municipalities are also getting on board. California has recently implemented a “ReFuel Your Fun” campaign, designed to educate consumers about the issue and promote the use of reusable, refillable one-lb. cylinders. The program also targets retailers in the state, encouraging them to carry refillable one-lb. propane cylinders, and offer refill and exchange services.

Going Off the Grid

Some companies bypass fossil fuels altogether and introduce off-the-grid grills and outdoor living products. GoSun Stove offers solar-powered cookers that utilize energy from the sun to bake, boil, fry and steam. Aluminum reflectors direct sunlight onto a glass vacuum tube, converting 80 percent of the sunray energy into heat. Food is placed within this insulated vacuum-tube oven, where it cooks quickly at temperatures up to 550 degrees while remaining moist and juicy.

GoSun Sport solar stove grill.

The portable ovens work no matter the outdoor temperature or wind conditions. For cooking at night, the company has developed a hybrid version of the grill that incorporates a photovoltaic panel that stores solar energy for later use to fuel a small electric heating element.

Originally launched on Kickstarter in 2013, the company now has several products, including the GoSun Grill, large enough to cook for eight, and the smaller GoSun Sport. The products are available online and through specialty retailers.

GoSun president Patrick Sherwin says he initially expected target audiences would include boaters, hunters, campers, tailgaters, RVers, “Tiny House” dwellers, conservationists, and “doomsday preppers.” “But we did a pivot after discovering that many of our customers were 40- to 50-year-olds using it in their backyards,” he says. “These are people who are into experimenting with food and cooking, and who might also have energy literacy and environmental interests. These are the people who are buying Teslas.”

Another off-the-grid company, BioLite, has developed outdoor products that convert fire from burning sticks, twigs, pinecones and other biomass into energy for cooking, charging cell phones and powering lights. The BioLite CampStove is an eight-in. high, clean-burning wood stove that has an attachable thermoelectric generator that converts heat into usable electricity.

PizzaDome from BioLite.

The unit has two USB ports for charging smartphones, tablets, headlamps, LED lights and other products. The BaseCamp is a slightly larger model that comes with a power-generator, an LED “dashboard” to monitor power output, and an attachable, gooseneck USB light.

The company offers bundled packages complete with accessories such as a grilling grid surface, a pot for boiling water or cooking, and a pizza dome, or these options are available separately. BioLite also makes string lights that can be fueled by the stove, and offers a portable mini solar panel that can be used to generate more energy to charge devices.

“Outdoor recreationists, campers, and tailgaters are a huge audience for us,” says Hayley Samuelson, Content and Community manager for BioLite. “Many of our customers are Millennials who are discovering the enjoyment of camping, but they want to stay connected while doing so. Millennial customers also demand that the products they buy do good for the world and make a social impact. Our products offer that.”

Doing Good

Besides environmental sustainability, both BioLite and GoSun Stove practice social responsibility by providing solutions to the significant worldwide lack of clean, safe energy and cooking methods.

The Global Alliance of Clean Cookstoves estimates three billion people around the world cook indoors over smoky, solid-fuel-burning, open fires. More than four million people – mostly women – die, and many others are sickened annually from illnesses and accidents caused by the toxic smoke and fire.

In addition, cooking fires are a significant source of air pollution. By some estimates, they are responsible for releasing more smoke into the atmosphere than all the world’s cars and trucks combined. There is further environmental impact caused by cutting down trees for firewood, and because women and girls can spend over 10 hours a week collecting cooking fuel, this time-intensive chore prevents them from engaging in education or doing work to earn money for themselves and their families.

A social as well as commercial enterprise, GoSun has donated a free solar-powered cooker in rural Guatemala for every five sold in first-world countries, distributing more than 500 free units in its initial pilot program. But the program has been more difficult to administer than expected, according to Sherwin.

“The problem is complex,” he says. “To get the cookers into the hands of people who need them, you must first enlist a respected village member to help build trust within the community before we can demonstrate the product and train people how to use it. We do not have enough financial resources or boots on the ground in local communities to do this ourselves.”

In the future, Sherwin says the company instead will switch to donating a portion of profits to an already established organization that shares their mission, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

BioLite, too, went through trial-and-error testing of multiple distribution models before arriving at their successful method of reaching people in developing markets through Tupperware-style home demonstrations. The company employs 40 community- embedded, trained sales specialists, called “BioLite Burners,” who travel by motorbike throughout rural villages in India and sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrating and selling clean-burning, energy-generating BioLite HomeStoves to local audiences.

BaseLantern charging from BioLantern.

BioLite reinvests a portion of all U.S. sales to help fund its mission, but has found that selling stoves at locally affordable prices is the best way to have the greatest impact. It partners with local microfinance institutions to help customers finance the purchase of a stove, the cost of which is typically recouped within six to eight months due to fuel cost savings.

“The concept of donating a stove in an emerging market for every stove purchased in the U.S. does not work,” says Samuelson. “The scope and size of the problem in these areas is so large, it takes a different model to make a significant impact in developing markets. We are empowering people to empower themselves.”

Brad Barrett, owner of GrillGrate, recently featured BioLite on his company’s social media platforms and gave away a BioLite stove in a customer promotion.

“Our industry is full of innovation and BioLite is a shining – pun intended – example,” Barrett says. “What is also amazing is that their humanitarian mission drives product innovation. BioLite’s quest to improve indoor wood cooking in underdeveloped countries has resulted in a product that transforms lives, reduces emissions, and improves health and wellbeing. And, the product is a world-class tool for camping and outdoor adventures, as well. That’s more than a win-win!”

BaseCamp grill from BioLantern.

Sustainable Outdoor Rooms

Beyond carrying sustainable grilling products, retailers might consider developing a niche in sustainable Outdoor Room design. Outdoor Room retailers can partner with landscape architects, architects and designers who emphasize water-conserving plant materials and incorporate sustainable products, such as permeable pavers, in Outdoor Room designs.

There are a growing number of sustainable countertop surfaces now available, such as Silestone Eco, Vetrazzo, Eco by Cosentino, and Curava, made from a high percentage of recycled glass.

Solar panels can be incorporated on outdoor pavilions and pergolas to generate electrical power. Solar pergola kits are available – one is the Power Pergola manufactured by New Jersey-based WattLots, but a quick Internet search will yield other companies, and a host of DIY examples with instructions.

A variety of off-the-grid solar lighting is also available for outdoor living spaces. Like BioLite and GoSun Stove, some solar light companies also incorporate social action in their business models, striving to bring lighting to the estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide with limited or no access to the electrical grid. Relying on toxic and expensive kerosene lamps for light creates health and safety issues in emerging communities, and limits income and education opportunities because work and studying can only be done during daylight hours.

The Little Sun company makes sun-shaped solar lights and charging devices. For every one of its products purchased by first-world customers, Little Sun funds efforts to provide local jobs and locally affordable solar lights to those without electricity in Africa.

Another company, MPowered, creates Luci lights, solar-powered, portable lights that are lightweight, waterproof, collapsible to one-in. high, and are great for camping, hiking, kayaking, and outdoor living. The company brings these clean and safe solar lights to developing countries around the world at affordable prices; they last up to 18 hours on a charge and have four light settings.

The hearth, patio and barbecue industry has a long history of embracing environmental and social causes. Offering waste-reducing, off-the-grid, and socially responsible grills and outdoor living products appeals to the growing number of sustainability-minded consumers, and makes smart business sense. Additionally, it’s the right thing to do.

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