With so many variations of disposable vape pens flooding the market, environmentalists and concerned consumers are cringing about the inevitable flood of post-consumer waste these products will cause. The cannabis industry is growing, and its garbage problems are growing right along with it. Circonomy Solutions has been tasked by SinglePoint, a company that invests in ancillary cannabusinesses and constantly looks for innovative, green initiatives, to create a sustainable solution for disposable vapes.
The recycling industry itself is still in its infancy. In previous generations, products were built and made to last. The reality of rampant consumerism is that products are being created specifically to be disposed of; people throw things in the trash without knowing or caring about the detrimental impact on the environment.
Some altruistic vapers have discreetly discarded their metal vapes with their aluminum soda cans and hoped for the best. However, given the current way cities recycle, these vapes are ending up in the trash.
Recycling plants use a system similar to the Tinder approach. Myriads of potentially recyclable items scroll along on system’s conveyor belt, which filters out the large waste items from the smaller ones. The belt swipes left on large, appealing items, such as clean, empty glass jars, and swipes right on small items—non-recyclable items—such as jars with food remnants and disposable vape pens.
Because vape pens are small—or, more pertinently, because they have too many various components to be disposed of, they go directly to a landfill. Component-wise, the wick can either be steel, cotton or polyester. Many contain battery-operated LED lighting, which, like other electronics, are considered “e-waste.”
The recycling system cannot break down multi-faceted components. An eddy current is capable of separating glass from aluminum; however, in a tiny vape pen, the glass cartridge will break first.
Additionally, vape oil residue causes the same problem as glass and plastic jars with peanut butter or jam remnants. These items cannot be recycled unless they are spotless; the residue creates problems within the chemical process of recycling.
Unfortunately, discarded containers with food remnants cannot be cleaned at the recycling plants, as the item-sorting conveyor belts move too quickly (like in I Love Lucy‘s famous chocolate factory scene).
While it may seem counter-intuitive to wash garbage, it is admirable to take the extra step to clean and rinse bottles, jars and cans. Putting them in the dishwasher along with dinner plates is the most efficient way to make them recycle-ready.
John Trujillo, principal of eco firm Circonomy Solutions, has a long history of studying garbology technology. Before his current assignment as lead recycling researcher for SinglePoint, Mr. Trujillo was the city of Phoenix, Arizona’s public works director. Waste and recycling were part of the programs under his supervision.
“We are researching the specific challenges related to vape pens, e.g., ‘How are they manufactured?’ ‘Can they be dismantled?’” explains Mr. Trujillo. “We are currently working through the process, through a circular economy, to turn waste into a resource, to minimize the environmental impact.”
Anything can be recycled, theoretically—but can it be done economically?
“Aluminum and steel are the valuable components in these vape pens, but there are also batteries, which are considered e-waste, and glass,” Trujillo notes. “Glass is not a valuable commodity. It will not pay for itself.”
“Circonomy is trying to figure out for SinglePoint how vape pens can be dismantled for recycling,” he continues. “We are still doing lots of research into this. Once we complete the research and development stage, we might launch a call for innovators to come forward with feasible ideas for pilot programs.”
Circonomy is taking an incremental approach: they’ll research for a few more months, then, based on their findings, narrow down and focus on solutions. They’ll run some pilot programs, measure their impact, and scale up that solution. They hope to get a university involved to add value, expertise and a control group to the equation. Finally, they’ll see how the project can realistically extend to community implementation.
“Once we get through that research and development process,” Trujillo outlines, “we’ll reach out to waste management companies to see if they want to partner with us in this endeavor.”
“We’d like to get to the point where we’re offering a mail-in or drop off e-waste return program for the industry,” shares Greg Lambert, CEO of SingleSeed payments, a division of SinglePoint.
In time, SinglePoint hopes to create further sustainable solutions for all aspects of the burgeoning cannabis industry.