Vape Cartridges Are The New Cigarette Butt

Jessica McKeil July 24, 2019 0 comments

Thousands of vape cartridges are clogging up landfill sites because they simply can’t be recycled. We can do better.

The rise of the cannabis industry has often been called the “Green Rush.” But underneath the glowing green exterior, the industry is far from true green. Cannabis has a notorious problem with its environmental impact, from its excessive water consumption to its energy needs. Now, with the rise in vape culture, we’re faced with a recycling problem. As you may already know, vape cartridges are nearly impossible to recycle.

Some of us have a growing collection of disposable vape cartridges growing in our junk drawer. Others continue to toss the used up cartridges into the trash – headed to the landfill alongside other non-recyclables. Some industry experts estimate tens of thousands of vape cartridges head to the landfill every year. Very few people can claim they routinely recycle their vape cartridges, but that isn’t due to lack of interest.

With more people than ever before choosing to vape their medicine instead of smoke it, the industry needs to address the growing concerns around single-use cartridges. Why are these packages still so frustrating to recycle? More importantly, are there solutions?

The Booming Vape Industry

Experts expect the concentrate industry to hit $8.4 billion by 2022, quickly catching up to flower sales. In only a few short years, concentrates have gone from 10 percent of all cannabis product sold to 27 percent, according to a report by BDSanalytics. This increase is a massive 70 percent compound annual growth rate.

Much of that concentrate goes into vape pens and vape cartridges. These are the pre-filled components that are attached to a battery pack, and sold widely in both recreational and medicinal markets. A few vape cartridges contain flower, but the majority contain concentrates. 

A few vape cartridges advertise themselves as recyclable, but this isn’t necessarily the norm. Most pens, or at least their cartridges, are entirely disposable. Meaning once used up, it’s time for a whole new one. 

Vape pens are convenient, portable, and popular. However, as a Leafly article succinctly argued, “they’re quickly becoming the cannabis industry equivalent of Keurig cups.”

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A Serious Recycling Problem in the Vape Industry

So even if the vape brand claims its product is recyclable, why are possibly tens of thousands of vape cartridges ending up in the landfill? It largely comes down to the design and a lack of regulatory will.

A vape cartridge is unique to the vape device it serves. There is no cookie-cutter design. However, most contain a composite of materials, including glass, plastic, cannabis concentrate, and metal. It’s this multi-material composite that is the immediate barrier to recycling. 

As Salinas Valley Recycles General Manager Patrick Mathews stated to The Californian on the issue, “When ever you have an item that is a composite of materials it is very difficult to recycle.” He went on to say, “You could crush it and use magnets to pull out the metal but you’re not going to recover the glass and plastic, for example. When things are separate, they’re easy to recycle. When they’re fused together they’re almost impossible.”

As an additional downside, your disposable vape pens may also be exposing you to heavy metal contamination.

Moreover, vape cartridges contain a strictly regulated substance: THC. Logically speaking, should we throw THC into our landfills? Commercial cannabis waste is heavily regulated to ensure it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands and to prevent environmental contamination. 

Strangely, the industry doesn’t similarly regulate your individual vape cartridges. Technically, nothing is stopping you from tossing these into the trash next to your chip bag and plastic wrap.

Few laws in legalized states have focused on keeping the industry environmentally friendly. From seed to sale, the industry is chock full of unnecessary waste. As one of the most notable examples, the Canadian market has an excessive packaging issue, which are a challenge to incorporate into municipal recycling programs. 

Are There Suitable Alternatives to Disposable Vape Cartridges?

Slowly, people within the industry are calling for change. Last year, SinglePoint announced it had hired Circonomy Solutions to tackle the disposable waste problem. 

In another example, Firefly CEO Steve Berg has begun to pressure legislators towards regulating the disposable vape industry. He is doing so alongside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Bureau of Cannabis Control. Berg, along with these two government departments, began lobbying legislators in the Rocky Mountain and Golden states to add language that allows for and encourages recycling.

These solutions are notably a long way from producing results. There haven’t been any updates from SinglePoint since their 2018 announcement, and politicians move notoriously slowly on new regulations.

So, what can you do, as an individual, to reduce the environmental impact of vape cartridges?

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Here are a few solutions:

  • Do not purchase single-use vape pens. This buying guide will get you started.
  • Invest in a vaporizer with no disposable components. The Pax is a great example of a long-lasting device that is suitable for concentrate and flower. As the consumer, you have total control over whatever product you wish to vape. As a bonus, this means you can choose whatever strain you like, rather than just what the company chooses for pre-filled cartridges. Although portable vaporizers are a more significant investment, these will ultimately save you money over time.
  • Petition your favorite brands over social media to seek green solutions.
  • Try alternative products, like tinctures or edibles, to treat your medical condition.
  • If you must purchase disposable products, look for those with a recycling program. Dosist is one example. They state on their website, “The dose pen was designed so that as many of the components as possible can be fully recycled, reused or repurposed.”

With the increasing demand for single-use vape cartridges and the expectations that concentrate sales may soon outpace flower sales, we have an uphill battle to prevent these from all heading to the landfill. 

If you want to reduce the impact your vape cartridges have on the world, petition the brands responsible for the design, switch methods of consumption, or purchase a non-disposable vape option. Ultimately, medical or not, we are all consumers and can push for change with our purchasing power.

Author avatar

Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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