11/06/2019
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The secret life of a camping gas bottle!

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Have you ever wondered what happens to all those empty gas bottles when they’re finished with? Camping magazine editor Iain Duff went behind the scenes at the Campingaz factory in France to find out

When you fire up your camping stove and the sausages start to sizzle in the frying pan, you probably don’t spend too much time pondering the gas bottle’s journey to your campsite.

And why should you? It’s come straight from your local outdoor shop in perfect working order and in pristine condition – resplendent in its bright blue paintwork.

The only thing that matters is that it provides the fuel to let you cook your dinner, whether that’s heating up a tin of beans or creating the sort of posh nosh that the Guyrope Gourmet would be proud of.

But what you probably don’t realise is that “brand new” Campingaz cylinder may actually have been in circulation for more than 50 years, clocked up tens of thousands of miles and been used on countless campsites all over Europe.

As soon it runs out, you simply take the old cylinder back to your local retailer and exchange it for a new one. But its journey won’t stop there. Rather than ending up in a landfill site, polluting the environment for centuries to come, it will be restored, refilled and returned to the system for someone else to use. And so it continues, in theory, for ever (or at least until the condition has eventually deteriorated beyond repair).

The process means the manufacture of new cylinders is kept to a minimum, and at a time when we are more aware than ever about the devastating effects of single-use products on the natural world, that has to be good news for the environment.

At the heart of this operation is the headquarters of Campingaz on the outskirts of the French city of Lyon. For 70 years, most of them at this site, the company’s engineers have designed and manufactured the iconic gas stoves and bottles that have kept generations of campers fed, heated and illuminated.

A staggering 21 million canisters and cylinders come off the production line in Lyon every year and to mark Campingaz’s 70th birthday, Camping took a trip to the factory to find out more. From the outside it’s a fairly typical, unassuming industrial premises. You certainly wouldn’t guess that that it is classified with a hazard risk second only to a nuclear site.

Inside, though, it quickly becomes clear that this is a serious place. Security is tight and safety is paramount. Protective gear has to be worn in the factory and stark yellow signs painted onto the road remind workers and visitors that this is a “zone dangereuse”. The distinctive whiff of gas is noticeable throughout the site, as shiny pipes deliver the fuel mixture that goes into the bottles and cylinders. In the most risky areas, where the filling actually takes place, phones and cameras are banned in case they cause an explosion. Even light switches have to be fitted on the outside of the building to prevent a stray spark sending the whole place up in flames.

Laurent Danion is the Director of Operations for the company and is our guide for the factory tour. He explains that every day, hundreds of empty gas bottles, often battered and rusting, are delivered to the factory after being collected from retailers and waste facilities around Europe. On their arrival, the disused bottles are loaded onto the automated production line and the process for their renewal begins.

First the old containers are blasted clean and treated, then repainted in the famous Campingaz blue. After the paint dries, the bottles are stamped with the Campingaz logo, then trundle along the conveyor belt to the next stage, where they are refilled with gas. After emerging as good as new from the gas-filling zone, the bottles are loaded onto pallets by robots before being packed into trucks and sent to retailers across Europe.

Each bottle is stamped with the day and year that it was manufactured, and during our visit Laurent spots one marked 12-70. That means it first entered the system on the 12th day of 1970 – making it even older than me!

As well as recycling larger gas bottles, the Lyon plant also manufactures smaller canisters for Campingaz, sister brand Coleman, and, perhaps surprisingly, some of their market rivals, too. In the factory, the machinery whizzes and whirrs as the  flat sheets of metal are transformed into the canisters that are so familiar to campers. At the end of the process, robots pack the canisters into cardboard boxes which they place carefully onto pallets and send out for dispatch.

With all the robots and machines around the factory, you could be forgiven for thinking that automation has removed the need for human input. But there are still 200 people working here, although that’s a significant reduction from the 1,200 based here in the 1970s.

It’s not all about production. In the labs, white-coated boffins test prototype products to ensure they perform as well as intended. Here we see samples of stoves and barbecues that will eventually find themselves in the shops in 2020, or perhaps even later. Not until the tests are completed successfully will they get the go-ahead.

One thing that has always intrigued me was how they get the gas inside the fully sealed canisters that you have to pierce when you attach the appliance. And I’m delighted to say that Laurent had the answer. The gas is chilled until it liquefies then is poured into the container before the base is attached and sealed. Simple when you know how!

CAMPINGAZ TIMELINE

1949: Creation of the company DEOM by three engineers to design and manufacture gas stoves and bottles under the brand Camping Gaz.

1952: The factory at Saint Genis Laval opens and a range of lighting and two-burner stoves launched

1955: The C206 pierceable cartridge and the Bleuet Stove are invented

1970: The company is bought by the French bank Crédit Lyonnais

1975: Hard coolboxes are introduced to expand the range

1982: Butagaz (Shell) and Primagaz take over Campingaz

1994: Launch of the first Campingaz gas barbecues

1996: American outdoor giant Coleman buys Campingaz

1997: Campingaz Italia opens its factory doors, producing gas barbecues

2005: Jarden buys Coleman

2016: US-based Newell Brands acquires Jarden

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