While single-use plastics find themselves in the crosshairs of policies designed to cut waste heading to landfill, the cannabis industry has stomped in with some of the most absurdly wasteful packaging on the planet.
That list includes plastic-rich jars to hold a couple of grams weed, cardboard boxes containing plastic packaging, and colourful boxes that are as hard to recycle as they are to open. For a community filled with eco-conscious users, it’s a sustainability disaster.
And no product appears more wasteful than the ultra-popular disposable vape pen. They might be better for your lungs, but they are undeniably bad for the planet.
They’re destined to eventually be garbage from the moment they leave the factory. Greentank Tech, a vape pen manufacturer in Canada, cites the fact their pens are disposable as a benefit. “There’s no need for maintenance or cleaning since they are simply thrown out when empty,” they write on their website.
Some of the components in disposable pens may be recyclable. But most users aren’t going to pry their devices open, clean them thoroughly, and separate them into their various origin materials. Most people don’t know what to do with the nickels, chromiums, or lithiums that make up the heating elements anyway. Besides, those materials can be environmentally hazardous if disposed of improperly.
Disposable vape pens may not be considered single-use. Technically they can be used several times before they have to be thrown away. But they’re filled with glass and heavy metals that are in most cases un-recyclable for all but the most informed and motivated puffer.
A disposable vape pen is the weed version of a straw, if you think about it. They’re not only designed to be discarded, they’re filled with materials that could take millennia to break down in landfills.
Recycling them often means finding a producer-specific program. Or, taking your vape pen to a specialty recycling company. All of which means you’re paying a premium for someone else to take your junk.
TerraCycle, for instance, only recycles Canopy Growth products. They say they’re going to change that in the future. Dosist, a line of vape pens being made by Aphria in Canada, has a buyback program. Users can bring back their disposable vapes for a discount on their next vape. But the program is only available in California.
Shelley Fuller, manager of Boulder County’s hazardous material recycling program, told Colorado Public Radio recently that vape devices (whether they contain cannabis or nicotine) should be considered dangerous household waste.
Their lack of recyclability is part of the reason why researchers looking at e-cigarettes – the devices are the same, it’s the contents that differ – described vape devices as “a looming environmental threat.”
“It does not appear as if any cradle-to-grave industrial ecology has been undertaken to minimize the amount of ecological impact of e-cigarette manufacture and disposal,” write the researchers. Another way of saying this: the people making the vapes aren’t really concerned with where they go when they’re all used up.
In Canada, few jurisdictions have laid out clear guidelines on how, or where, to recycle vape products. Many vaping devices themselves are considered e-waste (like old cell phones or computers) because of their circuitry.
And unless you can open it up to completely clean out the cannabis extract, most recycling plants won’t be able to handle the plastics they’re made with. If the vape pen uses black plastic, it often renders it impossible to recycle. That’s because automated optical sorting machines can’t always detect black items.
So what to do?
It’s not clear that anyone in the cannabis industry has put much thought into that question.