The Unique Challenges to Recycling Vapes in the Cannabis Industry

When cannabis vapes first came onto the market now several years ago, some budtenders thought they would be just a fleeting trend. But they endured, then caught on in a big way. Today, the vape market is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the legal cannabis economy, accounting for 22 percent of all dispensary sales in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona in 2018.

And why not? Hitting a vape is much easier and faster than rolling a joint or packing a bowl. Extracts work more quickly than edibles do, and the effects don’t last nearly as long. Plus, vaping is a huge advantage when you want to medicate or relax without the conspicuous weed smell. And though the science is not particularly well-developed on the safety of vaping, it hasn’t stopped millions of users from migrating over to extracts, or at least vaping on occasions that require more discretion. But with the recent vape pen illness epidemic, you may want to consider how to stop vaping.

But, though vapes may feel cleaner to the user, they're not particularly sustainable. Mitchell Colbert, a cannabis researcher and activist, said that back when vapes were first introduced to the market, a budtender friend of his named them the “McDonald’s of our industry,” referring to the disposable and single-use models of consumption, as well as the products’ over-packaging. While these two problems are in no way unique to the cannabis industry (think plastic water bottles, single-use shopping bags, Keurig coffee pods, among countless other examples) they do pose big obstacles to environmentally friendliness.

Among the biggest of those obstacles is how to dispose of used vape pens. “These are small devices,” Colbert told Civilized, “but they have a disproportionate environmental impact.”

Challenges to Recycling

What’s most evident in the vape recycling space is a lack of clarity on what can be recycled, and by whom. That’s further complicated by the fact that the regulatory situation varies state by state, and regulations are changing quickly. In California, for instance, some vape recycling programs that were underway in the medical market had to be discontinued in 2018 due to the new regulations.

Dosist's all-in-one (disposable) vape pens are some of the only devices currently that can be collected in a number of California dispensaries and recycled via cannabis waste management firm Gaiaca. Consumers receive $5 off their next purchase for recycling a Dosist pen, a nice little incentive for doing the green thing. It’s a model based on the glass bottle deposit that many consumers are used to, but with higher dollar values.

But as of now, most other types of vapes are not collected for recycling in California dispensaries — in no small part because cannabis waste products (including used vape cartridges) must now be handled in very particular, legally-compliant ways. Regulators don’t want used cannabis products that may have THC remnants sitting around in dispensaries, or disposed of willy-nilly.

However, regulators in California have resisted mandating a statewide, streamlined recycling program for vapes. To justify this, they’ve cited the idea that, theoretically, consumers can recycle vapes on their own. “Unfortunately, the final state regs took a lot of wind out of our sails," Ryan Miller of OMG Farms, who lobbied hard on the issue last year, told Civilized. "In essence, they say the end user themselves can take the item to a hazardous waste disposer that both takes cannabis and will accept their device, and then pay them a premium to dispose of it.” With the task being so inconvenient and difficult, even for environmentally conscious vapers, he adds, “that’s just not going to happen.”

For the eco-friendly consumer trying to go it alone, recycling vapes is extraordinarily difficult to do. One challenge has to do with the sheer number of component parts that comprise vape devices — up to 25 or 30, in some models — many of which need to be channeled toward different recycling streams. Because of this diversity of parts (think glass, ceramic, batteries, coils, and cartridges, among others), tossing used vape pens and cartridges into the recycling bin and hoping for the best will almost certainly mean that the used vape in question ends up in a landfill.

If consumers are willing or physically able to pry apart their vape devices, they may find a few easily recyclable components like glass or aluminum (provided, of course, that those parts haven’t been “contaminated” by contact with cannabis extract like THC). Heating elements, on the other hand, may contain heavy metals such as nickel and chromium (or alloys like nichrome) that are known to contaminate soil and water if not disposed of properly, and should be taken to a hazardous materials recycling center.

Batteries should be disposed of at an e-waste or battery recycling center, however some of those centers are equipped to take only car batteries and regular household batteries — not the tiny, lithium-ion batteries found in vapes. “These devices are so new, everyone’s still figuring out how to deal with them," said Colbert.

And as for used cartridges, there doesn’t seem to be a clear place a consumer can recycle them, since they fall under the new California regulations mentioned above.

This overabundance of practical challenges inevitably will not yield many eager DIY vape recyclers.

The Ideal

Beyond offering easy vape recycling, a consumer cannabis experience that's genuinely environmentally-friendly would have a number of features.

Let’s take an imaginary stroll with Colbert and Miller through the greenest dispensary ever: In this fantasy future shop, there is far less packaging for everything from vape pens to cartridges to pre-rolls to flower. Hemp-based “plastics” (which OMG Farms is working on for their next pen design) and reusable containers make up the difference, along with biodegradable inks. Dosage and warning labeling is accomplished via inserts and peel-offs, similar to pharmaceutical medicines, negating the need for a large container for each small amount of product. A better solution is found to plastic-heavy child-resistant packaging.

This super green dispensary gives customers incentives and discounts for recycling vape products, and makes it easy to do so with a drop-off that accepts all vape materials from batteries to heating coils to used cartridges, and everything in between. “Both dispensaries and users could be incentivized to recycle in a number of ways, although many will do it for purely altruistic reasons,” Miller told Civilized.

What’s more, this green dispensary cooperates with manufacturers and other dispensaries so that consumers don’t have to return to the original store to recycle. “You bring everything back to whichever dispensary is convenient to recycle or reuse,” said Colbert. “Ideally, close the loop.”

Federal cannabis legalization (this is a fantasy after all, though possibly not too far off the future mark) would mean that cannabis waste disposal companies can scale up their operations and make the jobs of recycling the electronic parts involved in vaping much more efficient.

To make all this happen, said Colbert, the burden shouldn’t rest solely on cannabis entrepreneurs. New regulations helped create the problem of over-packaging as well as the barriers to recycling. So Colbert suggested: “It’s partially up to regulators, then, to make this easier.”

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