The commodity that pot has become now frequently has little similarity to the stuff that was previously sold raw as American cannabis has developed from a cottage economy to a $25 billion-a-year commercial enterprise that employs 428,059 people nationally. Every gram of hash appears to need its glass jar, plastic lid, and cardboard box; flowers, once delivered in sandwich bags, now come wrapped in child-safety locked, plastic-lined mylar pouches; and half-gram vape pens frequently need to be retrieved from three times their weight in display and security packaging before use. The disposal of vaporizer cartridges itself might be far more difficult than the majority of the outside packaging.
More people than ever in the US have access to marijuana, whether for medical or recreational purposes, and more than 90% of adults support its full legalization. According to a 2021 Weedmaps study, usage has climbed by 50% since the epidemic began. Additionally, edibles and concentrates are becoming more and more popular across the board, from baby boomers to doomers. This rising desire for vape cartridges—whether the nearly universal 510-threads from Rove or the more specialized Pax Era Pods—has resulted in a growth in their manufacturing and, thus, their unavoidable entry into American landfills. 510 cartridges are highly popular in California, the country’s largest legal cannabis market, however, due to the state’s rigorous hazardous materials regulations,
Almost all ingredients, parts, growth media, nutrients, castoffs, trimmings, and scraps used in production are thoroughly destroyed; they are normally either disassembled on-site or rendered useless before being transported to a licensed waste facility. “It would be planted after they’ve been cut, grow medium — which is either going to be soil, rock wool, or cocoa husk — any form of water nutrients, or pesticides,” Taylor Vozniak, Sales and Marketing Manager for California-based cannabis waste management company Gaia.
The company handles failed edible product batches like misshapen canna gummies or burned weed brownies at the manufacturing stage, as well as hazardous waste like concentrate solvents and post-production green waste (think of mashed-up stems and leaves). The latter must be destroyed on-site to comply with the California Cannabis Track and Trace (CCTT) system run by the state’s Department of Cannabis Control. The CCTT extends to the point of sale, so nearby dispensaries are in charge of making sure that returned goods and flawed merchandise are properly destroyed.
“Single-use batteries have been a big sticking point for a while now,” Vozniak said. “We’re proud that we can recycle those vape batteries either with or without cannabis.” As it turns out, much of the underlying impetus for the creation of the CCTT system, Vozniak notes, is to prevent this waste from being illicitly harvested and resold. “The overarching way these regulations were written the way they were is to prevent any sort of product going into the black market,” he noted, which is why cannabis by-products, which is what all the stuff above is considered, have to be rendered into inert “waste” before it gets put in the ground. It’s also why your local dispensary doesn’t have a drop-off bin for used cartridges.
Products are handled slightly differently depending on whether they’re THC or CBD-based. “CBD is federally legal,” Vozniak said — so that it can be transported across state lines for disposal, “while THC is state-by-state regulated. A lot of the time you’ll see, especially in California, CBD destroyed on site, but I have a client in Dallas who I’ve been able to just take their product as-is off-site to a disposal facility.”
The materials that can be directly recycled or composted, will be. The six-month composting process is sufficient to reach out and fully decay any leftover THC before the material is repackaged and sold as a gardening amendment. Less sustainable materials like used nitrile gloves and non-recyclable or food-contaminated packaging will instead be routed to local landfills and incinerators. But not vape cartridges. Those, along with the Li-ion batteries that power them, are considered e-waste in California so there’s a litany of additional regulatory hurdles to jump through before throwing one away.
“What ends up happening is you’ll be able to take [used carts and batteries] to a recycling vendor for a while,” Vozniak said, until “they realize it’s a difficult product to deal with, so we’ll have to find new vendors.”
The difficulty with recycling cartridges lies in their complex construction and mix of materials — woven cloth wicks and aluminum atomizers sealed by plastic walls with rubber o-rings keeping the viscous liquid in place. You can’t very well clean, sort, and disassemble these items by hand; as e-waste, they’re sorted, cleaned, and then repeatedly mechanically shredded and resorted into progressively smaller chunks until they’re reduced and separated into their constituent materials. Vape pen batteries, both rechargeable and single-use all-in-one varieties, go through a similar process, Vizniak explains. They’re first statically separated by density, then dipped into liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze and deactivate the lithium-ion cells before they’re pulverized with mechanical hammers and further sorted for commodity sale.
If that seems like a whole lot of work for such tiny devices, you’re not wrong. Despite the legal cannabis industry in California existing for less than a decade, much of the verbiage of Prop 54 is already falling out of relevance. “When things were first written, there was a lack of understanding of how the cannabis industry would end up operating,” Vozniak said. He points to an all-in-one (AIO) pen battery disposal as one such example.
“We still have to destroy these products on site — and I understand the concern there, they [state regulators] don’t want anything going to the black market — but for these all-in-one-pens, there is no way to destroy them without putting the operators at risk,” he continued. “A lot of times, operators are going to try to destroy these products themselves because Gaica can be on the more expensive side just because of the nature of what we do. It’s very labor intensive.”
Vozniak has seen cannabis retailers encase old AIOs in blocks of resin to deactivate them — whole drums of resin-ensconced lithium batteries that no recycler would ever take — to comply with the state’s “destroy on-site” order. Vozniak argues that a basic exemption to that rule specifically for cannabis e-waste could, “really help the industry out because that’s really what I’m seeing most — out of state as well.”
In addition to contacting their district and state representatives to advocate for regulatory amendments, vape pen users looking to reduce their consumption footprints have several options. Refillable 510 cartridges are a thing — they operate just as the single-use canisters from the dispensary do but have a screw-on lid for injecting fresh oil — such as the Flacko Jodye from KandyPens, the SPRK ceramic from PCKT, an all-in-one kit from Kiara Naturals, or the Puffco Plus. Maintaining and cleaning refillable tanks is straightforward and they can easily be topped off using a dab syringe from either your local dispensary or a friendly neighborhood drug dealer if you prefer a more homebrewed product.
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