Fear of the black market is hampering cannabis waste recycling efforts in California

As American cannabis has grown from a cottage industry to a $25 billion annual commercial enterprise employing 428,059 people nationwide, the product that weed has become today often bears little resemblance to the product that used to be sold raw became. Flowers that once came in sandwich bags now arrive packaged in child-resistant, plastic-lined Mylar bags; Each gram of hash apparently needs its own glass jar, plastic lid, and cardboard box; and half-gram vape pens often have to be tossed out of three times their own weight in display and security packaging before use. And while most outer packaging can be easily recycled, vaporizer cartridges themselves can be much more problematic to dispose of.

Cannabis is more popular than ever in the US – 44 percent of adults have access to it, either medicinally or recreationally, more than 90 percent of adults support its full legalization, and a 2021 Weedmaps poll shows usage has fallen since then has increased by 50 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. Additionally, edibles and concentrates are gaining popularity among all age groups, from boomers to doomers. This increased demand for vape cartridges—both the near-ubiquitous 510 thread like Rove’s, or more specialized carts like the Pax Era pods—has led to their increased production and therefore their inevitable arrival in American landfills. In California, the country’s largest legal cannabis market, 510 cartridges are quite popular but difficult to dispose of responsibly due to the state’s strict regulations on hazardous waste disposal.

On the production side, virtually every ingredient, component, growing medium, nutrient, waste, trimmings and scrap is carefully destroyed, typically either disassembled or rendered unusable on-site, before being shipped to a certified waste disposal facility. At the grow level, Taylor Vozniak, sales and marketing manager at California cannabis disposal company Gaiaca, told Engadget, “It would be plants, after they’ve been trimmed, growing medium — which will be either soil or rockwool or cacao shell — any type of aquatic nutrients or pesticides.”

During the manufacturing phase, the company processes post-production green waste (e.g., crushed stems and leaves), as well as hazardous waste such as solvent concentrates and failed batches of edible products such as misshapen canna gummies or burned cannabis brownies – the latter must be destroyed on-site to be within to remain within the limits of the California Cannabis Track and Trace (CCTT) system operated by the state Department of Cannabis Control. The CCTT extends to the point of sale, meaning local pharmacies are responsible for properly destroying returned product and faulty goods.

“Disposable batteries have been a big sticking point for a while,” Vozniak said. “We’re proud that we can recycle these vape batteries either with or without cannabis.” As it turns out, much of the underlying motivation for creating the CCTT system, Vozniak says, is to prevent these Waste is illegally harvested and resold. “The overarching way these regulations were written the way they were is to prevent any type of product from entering the black market,” he noted, which is why cannabis by-products are what all of the above is , so must be processed into inert “waste” before it enters the soil. That’s also why your local pharmacy doesn’t have a disposal container for used cartridges.

Products are handled slightly differently depending on whether they are THC or CBD based. “CBD is legal federally,” Vozniak said — allowing it to be shipped across state lines for disposal, “while THC is regulated state to state. You will often see CBD destroyed on-site, particularly in California, but I have a client in Dallas where I was able to just take their product to a disposal facility as is.”

The materials that can be directly recycled or composted are. The six-month composting process is enough for any leftover THC to leach out and fully decompose before the material is repackaged and sold as a garden supplement. Less sustainable materials such as used nitrile gloves, non-recyclable packaging, or packaging contaminated with food are instead sent to local landfills and incinerators. But no vape cartridges. These, 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 clear before one can be thrown away.

“What happens in the end is that you can take it [used carts and batteries] to one recycling supplier for a while,” Vozniak said, until “they realize it’s a difficult product, so we have to find new suppliers.”

Ted Chase points to the amount remaining in his medical marijuana vape cartridge.  Photo by Lauren A. Little (Photo by Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images via Getty Images

The difficulty with recycling cartridges lies in their complex construction and mix of materials – woven fabric wicks and aluminum atomizers sealed by plastic walls with rubber O-rings that hold the viscous liquid in place. You can’t clean, sort, and disassemble these items by hand very well; As e-waste, they are sorted, cleaned and then repeatedly mechanically shredded and sorted into smaller and smaller pieces until they are shredded and separated into their component parts. Vape pen batteries, both rechargeable and disposable all-in-one varieties, go through a similar process, Vizniak explains. They are first statically separated by density, then immersed in liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze and deactivate the lithium-ion cells before being pulverized with mechanical hammers and further sorted for merchandise sale.

If that seems like a lot of work for such tiny devices, you’re not wrong. Although the legal cannabis industry has only existed in California for less than a decade, much of Prop 54’s vocabulary is already losing relevance. “When things were first written, there was a lack of understanding of how the cannabis industry would end up working,” Vozniak said. As one such example, he points to the disposal of all-in-one (AIO) pen batteries.

“We still have to destroy these products on site – and I understand the concerns there, they [state regulators] I don’t want anything to go on the black market – but for these all-in-one pens, there’s really no way to destroy them without endangering operators,” he continued. “Often operators try to destroy these products themselves because Gaica can be more expensive due to the nature of our business. It’s very labor intensive.”

Vozniak has seen cannabis dealers encase old AIOs in blocks of resin to deactivate them — entire kegs of resin-embedded lithium batteries that no recycler would ever take — to comply with government “destroy on site” orders. Vozniak argues that a fundamental exception to this rule specifically for cannabis e-waste “could really help the industry, because that’s really what I see the most — even outside of the state.”

In addition to reaching out to their county and state officials to lobby for regulatory changes, vape pen users looking to reduce their consumption footprint have a number of options. Refillable 510 cartridges are one thing – they work just like the disposable jerry cans you get at the pharmacy, but have a screw cap for injecting fresh oil – like 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 be easily refilled with a swab-syringe from your local pharmacy or a friendly neighborhood drug dealer if you prefer a more home-brewed product.

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