Oil Change: Can Vape Pens Go Green?

Disposable vapes and cartridges make smoking cannabis more convenient and discreet, but they also open up the industry to a host of new sustainability challenges.
Oil Change: Can Vape Pens Go Green?
Courtesy of Erba

Recreationally legal in 10 states and medically available in 33 (plus the District of Columbia), cannabis products are in demand more than ever. Policy changes have resulted in headaches for business owners and farmers, but the slow erosion of barriers preventing consumers from purchasing cannabis has allowed the industry to boom and new technologies to emerge.

One of the biggest changes has been the introduction and incredible success of disposable vaporizers and oil cartridges. These devices are convenient and relatively odorless, making them a hit with consumers. But they also create a host of sustainability issues akin to Keurig disposable pods, which revolutionized coffee drinking while injecting massive amounts of waste into landfills.

Flower may still be the first thing many nonsmokers picture when they think about cannabis, but the manager at BARC, a Los Angeles collective near Beverly Hills, estimates that 75-80 percent of the store’s sales comprise vape pens and cartridges. On the lower end of the spectrum, Jay Handal, a manager at the Erba Collective in West LA, told High Times that vaping-related products comprise 36 percent of his store’s sales.

Bloom is one of the numerous companies competing for market share in this growing sector of the cannabis industry. Founded in 2013, Bloom had a breakout year in 2016, according to chief revenue officer Casey Ly. At the beginning of that year, the company had roughly 25 retail accounts, but by year’s end its products were available in nearly 150 dispensaries across California, New Mexico and Washington.

The company manufactures ready-to-use disposable vapes, but Ly said that half- and full-gram cartridges pre-loaded with concentrates to use with a rechargeable battery are Bloom’s best sellers.

Bloom performs its extractions and loads the cartridges with concentrate at its warehouse in Northern California, but the company relies on Chinese manufacturers to develop and produce the various device components. Ly conceded that there are “very few…high-quality manufacturers.”

“There’s maybe one or two innovators and then a lot of replicators,” Ly said. “So there are a couple companies that make advancement in terms of the technology, but then a lot of other manufacturers basically take whatever advancement the other companies made and replicate it.”

There are factories throughout China, but 95 percent of the world’s e-cigarettes (which are refashioned into vapes for the cannabis industry) are produced in Shenzhen, a major metropolitan area that links Hong Kong to the rest of mainland China in Guangdong Province. Chief among them is Shenzhen Smoore Technology Limited, which claims on its website that it dedicates 15 percent of its annual revenue to research and development in order to “maintain the leadership position” it has in the market. Ly said Bloom and many other prominent vape brands rely on Smoore to manufacture their cartridges, batteries and disposable units.

The exterior casing of these vapes is typically made of easily recycled materials like plastic, glass or ceramic, but if there’s residual cannabis material inside they are legally prohibited from being included in traditional recycling facilities. Even if conscientious stoners place finished cartridges in their blue bins, they’re more likely to end up in a landfill than a recycling plant.

One potential solution is to place recycling boxes inside cannabis retail locations for consumers to dispose of their finished products. Vape companies like Dosist already offer these services, and Ly said that Bloom is preparing to launch its own program in the upcoming months.

Ever since Bloom switched to ethanol-based extraction processes, the company has a massive amount of alcohol it can use to properly clean used cartridges. The plan is to launch a collection program in which cartridges from various brands will be gathered and eventually transported to Bloom’s Northern California facility to be purged of residual cannabis material through an ethanol wash. After all that work (something recycling facilities won’t do), the cartridges are clean enough to go through state-run recycling programs.

But no matter how far companies are willing to go to ensure their products are recycled, it still falls on consumers to actually bring their used cartridges in, something that many of them seem hesitant to do.

The BARC manager voiced this sentiment, explaining that people rarely use the recycling boxes in the shop—provided to BARC by Dosist—and that they only get picked up once every few months despite how many cartridges the store sells.

To reward customers who do utilize the recycling boxes, the Erba Collective has a credit program with various vendors. If someone brings back cartridges from brands like Select or Pure Extracts, Handal said the store will credit the consumer with $1 off the purchase of their next cartridge from the same brand. (Returned Dosist cartridges score a $5 credit toward the consumer’s next purchase.)

Unfortunately, even if the cartridges are collected and cleaned so that cannabis waste cannot be detected, making it acceptable for recycling, there’s a chance the materials still won’t be properly disposed of. After China’s announcement last July that the state would no longer import materials like paper and plastic to recycle as the state tries to improve health and environmental conditions, the United States and other countries are scrambling to figure out what to do with their waste.

In 2016, China imported 7.35 million metric tons of plastic from the world market, and a recent Science Advances study estimates that “111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030” as a result of the change.

According to another Science Advances study published the same month China announced the changes, only 9 percent of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced over the last six decades has been recycled. In 2014 alone, only 3.17 million tons of the 33.25 million tons of plastic generated were recycled. Most plastic, which usually takes over 400 years to break down, sits in landfills or spills out into the environment, and that doesn’t even include the eight million tons that are added to the ocean every year. The study also found that half of all plastic becomes trash less than a year after being manufactured, meaning most disposable plastic items aren’t being recycled.

SinglePoint is hoping to make things a bit easier. A tech company that primarily develops mobile payment systems, SinglePoint started purchasing ancillary cannabis businesses in 2014. Wil Ralston, the company’s president, said they were “looking at doing some ‘Uberization’ of trash” when they realized just how much waste there was in the cannabis industry. Instead of being recycled, reusable components like aluminum and glass were being thrown away, and Ralston saw an opportunity to develop a solution.

To come up with a fix for the problem, SinglePoint turned to Circonomy Solutions, a consulting firm located in Phoenix, AZ, dedicated to establishing sustainable practices and circular markets. John Trujillo and David Hertzberg, co-founders of Circonomy, both have useful experience in waste management. Hertzberg is the founder of Sonora Waste, a company that focused on waste diversion away from landfills and which was bought out by Waste Management in 2017, while Trujillo was Phoenix’s public-works director, focusing on landfill diversion and “developing solutions other than waste disposal.”

In order to confront the challenge, Trujillo and Hertzberg had to become better acquainted with the scope of the issue. Medical marijuana has only been legal in Arizona since 2010, and a state law even restricted access to medical cannabis on college campuses until May 2018, when the state’s Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

Upon doing more research, Hertzberg realized just how multifaceted the problem is. Since most of these delivery devices have electrical components and lithium batteries, it’s also an e-waste issue because most of these pieces end up in landfills instead of facilities equipped to recycle electronics.

“One of the things that we don’t want to do is create an entire new process,” said Hertzberg. “The best way you can create an effective recycling program is to weave it into existing models and existing processes.”

Numerous parts of vapes can be recycled, but the trace amounts of scrap metals like stainless steel, copper and iron are likely the most valuable. Since each device only has miniscule amounts of each metal, it’s unfeasible and unsustainable for a facility to break them down by hand. Instead, Trujillo and Hertzberg think a system that incorporates either grinding or smelting is the best way to ensure that the metals are included in traditional recycling programs.

“We can’t continue down this path,” Trujillo insisted. “Resources are going to become scarce, so we’re trying to figure out ways to utilize these resources over and over again as much as possible so we don’t have to impact the natural resources that we haven’t utilized at this point.”

Even if Circonomy does figure out a way to reuse the scrap metal produced by vape devices, that still leaves out the plastic and glass with leftover cannabis residue on it.

“In the beginning, most likely that won’t be recycled,” Hertzberg said. “But if we can get the stainless [steel], the lithium battery, the coil, we’re going to do pretty good…and then we can start working on these minute amounts [of cannabis residue].”

The devices themselves are just one part of the problem—there’s also an excessive amount of packaging that accompanies each product. To comply with child-resistant-packaging laws, companies often have to include more materials, typically plastic of some kind, to ensure the product is not easily accessible.

For Matt Lee, co-founder and president of Jetty Extracts, a California-based company that was acquired for $30 million in April, the child-resistant-packaging laws are a “huge hit to sustainable packaging.” Even though the company uses biodegradable plastics in its packaging, Lee believes the regulations result in an increase of “unnecessary waste.”

Lee has a potential solution in mind. Instead of mandating restrictive, typically plastic-heavy packaging for each item, he would like to see a requirement for customers to secure their purchases inside reusable, child-resistant exit bags that keep cannabis away from children and decrease the overall amount of plastic required to sell these products.

George Meding, co-founder and current director of product development for Sun Grown Packaging, said it was in the company’s original mission statement not to include plastic or plastic laminate in its products. Instead, the company uses pulp-based materials like corrugated paperboard to ensure that its packaging is compostable and recyclable.

“It’s difficult to have a sustainability aspect to your packaging, but the best way to look at it is if the product’s going to last a month and the packaging is going to last 10 years, that’s not very good packaging for the planet,” Meding said.

Certain companies may be confronting the environmental challenges, but Katie Stone, a marijuana activist who started as a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, points to consumer awareness as a key component of the problem.

“What we really need to talk about is the bigger picture, which is our poor consumer habits and our need to have easy, convenient products because that’s more important for us in the moment than the planet in the long-term,” Stone said.

To better educate consumers, whom Stone refers to as “the biggest investor in any company,” she is launching the Kind Guide through her company Green B. Consulting. A play on goodguide.com, a web service that informs consumers about harmful ingredients in various products to help them make more conscious decisions, the Kind Guide will include information about cannabis businesses to make it easier for customers to support companies focused on reducing their environmental impact.

“If we can train and educate consumers to consistently go and purchase products from companies that are practicing sustainability or trying to practice sustainability, even if they’re economically disadvantaged, then they’ll be the guys who win out in the end,” Stone said.

Keurig may have spawned a sustainability crisis when the company first introduced its K-Cups, but it has since found a solution. Back in 2014, Keurig committed to having all of its North American pods be completely recyclable by 2020, and the company is on track to meet those goals. Perhaps a similar outcome is on the horizon for the cannabis industry.

This feature was published in the December 2018 issue ofHigh Times magazine, subscribe right here.

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