Brad Fimrite and Wayne Wilson of Billings helped Yellowstone National Park solve a nagging waste disposal issue by developing a machine that recycles leftover fuel from propane cylinders that campers use in lanterns, heaters and stoves.
Since 2005, the award-winning Propane Bottle Recycler has been used successfully in national parks and recreation areas throughout the United States and Canada. But the machine’s inventors hope to bring their product to a larger market so that millions of single-use propane bottles can be recycled.
Not only does the machine reclaim leftover fuel, the empty propane canisters are crushed and recycled, freeing up landfill space and enabling tons of steel to be recycled.
Fimrite and Wilson have built and sold the propane recycling machines
as a sideline to their regular jobs. Fimrite is president of Mountain States Environmental Services, which helps businesses and government entities dispose of hazardous and industrial waste. Wilson works at Jim’s Electrical Service, which repairs and rebuilds electric motors and other equipment.
How they got into this specialized niche in recycling illustrates both their knack for innovation and an ability to deliver a product on time and under budget.
Fimrite’s business helps Yellowstone National Park dispose of its hazardous waste. Nearly a decade ago, park officials asked him to help solve its problem of getting rid of propane bottles. Previously, the cylinders, many still partially full, where sent to a hazardous waste facility where they were incinerated. But it cost somewhere between $600 and $900 to dispose of a 55-gallon barrel filled with used cylinders, he said.
Simply tossing a canister into the garbage can result in a fire or explosion if it’s crushed in a garbage truck, or the gas will eventually leak out if the canister makes it to the landfill intact.
Yellowstone was looking for ways to boost recycling and was searching for a better solution to dispose of the bottles and had received a grant to develop a disposal process.
Fimrite and Wilson, who are longtime friends, put their heads together and came up with an effective solution. Working nights and weekends, they took the concept from the drawing board to a working machine in about three months.
The trailer-mounted machine used in Yellowstone can remove propane from up to six bottles at a time. The reclaimed fuel turns from a liquid to a gas as it leaves the bottles. It’s stored temporarily as a gas but then is run through a compressor that converts it back into a liquid and is stored. Eventually the propane is used to power an electrical generator, which in turn runs the machine’s compressor, the pump and a hydraulic crushing device.
The Yellowstone Park Foundation, Grand Teton Lodge Co. Signal Mountain Lodge Co., Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Yellowstone General Stores, Worthing Cylinders, REI and Amerigas and the National Park Service all contributed to the project.
While developing the machine, Fimrite and Wilson consulted with local recyclers for advice on how best to recycle the bottles. Initially, they suggested cutting the empty bottles in half. But that plan drew concerns from recyclers who said that equipment operators in a scrap yard might not be able to tell if a bottle were indeed empty. Finally, they settled on a hydraulic press that both pierces the sides of the empty bottle and crushes it flat.
The National Park Service launched the recycling program by placing receptacles for recycling used propane bottles throughout Yellowstone. About 3,000 cylinders were drained and recycled during the machine’s first year. Since 2005, 127,500 propane cylinders have been recycled, producing 63.75 tons of steel, according to the Park Service. The system was awarded the Montana EcoStar award for reducing pollution in 2008 and 2010.
As part of an effort to expand their market, Fimrite and Wilson are entering their patented machine in the Recycling Innovators Forum, a competition whose aim is to expand the scope of recycling.
The patented machine sells for about $62,000 as presently configured, but Fimrite hopes to develop a smaller, less expensive machine that could be used in local communities hoping to expand their recycling programs.
They’re looking for capital to take the business to the next level. Fimrite said he even sent information to “Shark Tank,” the TV show in which entrepreneurs pitch their business proposals to Mark Cuban and other wealthy investors.
Fimrite estimates that upwards of 60 million single-use propane bottles are purchased in the United States each year. Each bottle uses about one pound of steel, and recycling the leftover gas would use thousands of pounds of propane that might otherwise go to waste.
“We believe bringing this to the next level is attainable,” Fimrite said. “If we can come up with a machine that’s a fraction of the size and cost, it can be used by a lot of small collectors, not just large generators like Yellowstone.”
Fimrite still chuckles about a sincere complement that he received a few years ago while displaying one of the bright red machines at a sustainability fair in Livingston.
“That sure is a nice fire engine,” the young boy said.