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Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

What to do with expired bear spray, and other conundrums. 

We outdoorsy folks love a good adventure in the wild, but it hurts us deeply to think about causing any damage to the environment along the way. So not only do we try to “pack it in, pack it out,” and carry all our trash back with us, there’s still a major problem: that trash ends up in a landfill somewhere.

And as much as we try to avoid using single-use packaging or creating trash, there are some items, like fuel canisters, bear spray canisters, batteries, and dehydrated meal pouches that are impossible or hard to recycle. Most of them end up in the trash. And not only is this a huge bummer for the environment, but it’s dangerous to just toss old fuel canisters and bear spray.

We’ve done a little research to learn what we can—and can’t—recycle or reuse on this front.

Bear spray

When you’re traveling in bear country, bear spray is a must for safety. But have you ever noticed your canister has an expiration date on it? We looked into this, and unfortunately, the expiration dates are real. After a set amount of time in the canister, the spray’s pressurization can diminish. And you wouldn’t want to find yourself with a spray can that won’t spray amid a face-off with an angry grizzly, so it is wise to stop using a spray can after its expiration date.

What do you do with the canister then? Most of them have instructions on the canister telling you to dispose of it at a product recycling facility that has special bins for explosive aerosol containers. A quick Google search can determine if such a facility exists near you. In the meantime, use electrical tape or a zip-tie to secure the safety lock on the spray trigger and make sure it doesn’t accidentally spray on anyone.

Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks have both recently introduced bear spray canister recycling facilities on-premises. (Cool fact: this is a revolutionary result of a Montana State University student science project.) If that’s where you’re headed, or you can save up your expired cans till you head that way, you can recycle them there.

Also, outdoor equipment gear and rental shops increasingly offer bear spray for rent rather than purchase. This makes a world of sense and adds up to fewer wasteful purchases of brand-new canisters. If you can rent a canister near your destination, or share a few cans of bear spray among your friend group, you can minimize the waste you create.

Fuel canisters 

If you’ve ever camped or backpacked, chances are that you’ve used a fuel canister for your cookstove. And you also know that these canisters only last for a few trips at best, and then you’ve got an empty metal container with explosive remnants on your hands.

Fortunately, these can be dealt with! And the answer isn’t to toss them in the trash, or even your regular recycling bin. MSR Gear has a great detailed writeup about the correct process here.

Essentially, you empty the can by burning the stove till every drop of fuel is gone, then puncture the can, then take it to your local mixed-metal recycling center. (Go ahead and save up a few before making the trip.) This is a safe way to make sure that metal gets used again … and nothing explodes at the regular landfill, oy!


We researched this one, too. Unfortunately, sunscreen expiration dates are real. The ingredients separate, destabilize, or simply go bad. So make sure you store your sunscreen in a cool, dark place to maximize its usability all the way till that expiration date (or until you run out). And when you purchase sunscreen, look for a recyclable icon on the tube. An increasing number of plastic tubes are being made recyclable these days, so you should be able to find a brand that is.

And while we’re on the subject of sunscreen, it’s worth mentioning that most lip balm tubes are not recyclable, which is a total downer because you can’t really do without lip balm on outdoor trips. Some brands offer lip balm in recyclable metal pots, and Burt’s Bees now offers a recycling program that lets you send your used tubes in for reuse!

Dehydrated food pouches 

This is another one that drives us nuts! Many of the backpacking dehydrated-meal companies put their meals in plastic-lined metal pouches that can’t be recycled and have to go to a landfill. Not a cool way to celebrate the beauty of nature, eh?

You can save a bunch of money by making your own dehydrated meal kits, soup kits, and snacks. There are millions of fun recipes and ideas out there, and you can simply put the food in a reusable container like a silicone pouch or tupperware to carry in your pack.

As another excellent option, if you do want to go the pre-made meal route, we’re delighted to see that the brand Mountain House has introduced a pouch recycling program. You save up your used pouches, order a pre-paid shipping label from TerraCycle, and send the pouches in. You even earn points redeemable as donations to your nonprofit of choice, so everybody wins.


If you have any other burning questions (or ideas!) about reducing, reusing, and recycling tricky outdoor gear items, don’t hesitate to share with us. We love tracking these kinds of answers down—and challenging outdoor brands to do better!

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.

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