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Can You Recycle That Vape Pen?

Currently no, but some vape and oil manufacturers hope to make the sector significantly greener.

The dirty little secret of cannabis vaping is that cartridges and vape pens generally cannot be recycled, so they pile up in landfills. Even though most components are made of recycled materials, their condition after use leaves them ineligible to be handled by standard curbside services.

You see, vape pens and cartridges fall into that weird category like batteries, incandescent light bulbs, and printer cartridges that waste collection services classify as “unacceptable recycling materials.” You can dispose of these items with a special trip to a hazardous waste facility, but most consumers are not going to do that with their tiny collection of discarded vape contraptions.

Industry recycling advocates have been trying to create easy, vaper-friendly recycling programs for years. But they’ve been stymied by the very regulations that were intended to keep cannabis safe and sustainable.

Bay Area flower and pen purveyor Bloom Farms used to offer vape pen recycling drop-off boxes at various dispensaries. They no longer can, because state laws now categorize used vape oil containers as “contaminated” products that recycling services are forbidden from handling.

“Unfortunately, our e-waste disposal program has been on hold since the California adult-use cannabis regulations took effect in January,” Bloom Farms spokesperson Ryan Scherer tells SF Evergreen. “Since we are no longer allowed to directly process returns on empty cartridges due to residual traces of cannabis, we are looking into other ways we may continue to properly dispose of these products.”

These “other ways” are not yet approved by the state, which means a lot of vape units are being dumped in landfills.

When you finish off a vape pen cartridge, a tiny amount of unconsumed oil remains and cannot be smoked no matter how hard you hit the pen. Even though these are negligible amounts, the cartridge still falls under California cannabis waste regulations which dictate that only specific, marijuana waste management companies can process it.

The problem is even worse for vape pens, thanks to their unrecyclable electronic batteries. You can throw your vape in the recycling bin, but it is electronic waste that will not ultimately be recycled.

“For whole pens and batteries, [recycling] is a no-go,” says Ryan Miller, director of operations at vape pen manufacturer OMG Farms. “The lithium-ion battery requires these items be taken directly to a hazardous waste collection point that is capable of processing these types of batteries.”

OMG Farms makes a disposable, all-in-one vape device called The Rooster that is both a pen and a cartridge combined. Disposable vape pens are super-popular for their convenience. But they also have the obvious Keurig coffee-pod problem of not being recyclable, and their batteries and coils are pure electronic waste.

Miller has been on the vape pen recycling soapbox since The Rooster arrived on dispensary shelves last year. Like Bloom Farms, OMG Farms used to offer collection boxes at participating pot shops, and would then refurbish discarded pens.

But that process was rendered illegal when new regulations kicked in at the start of the year, preventing dispensaries from accepting their used empty containers.

“When the rules came out, they effectively prevented recycling,” Miller tells us.

Manufacturers are still lobbying the California Bureau of Cannabis Control to re-legalize the collection box programs. The drop boxes are only a start, and vape pen companies know that they will have to offer incentives to get consumers and dispensaries to use them.

Under OMG Farms’ current proposal to the state, the pen maker would take 25 cents off a dispensary’s next order for every one of their pens recycled, and 10 cents off for competitors’ recycled pens. Recycling customers would get “one square meter of rainforest” saved in their name through an OMG Farms nonprofit donation.

These incentives may sound quirky, but the cannabis industry is no longer allowed to offer “freebies” to entice consumer behavior. And if these recycling programs ever came to fruition, they would come with loads more red tape detailing obscure requirements for lockboxes, record-keeping, and “chain of custody” issues.

But the genie is out of the bottle, and cannabis vaping is here to stay. Some industry forces are trying to be responsible about recycling practices, even as state regulators shoot down their ideas. Brighter minds will probably eventually prevail, but the first year of legal cannabis vaping has been a solid waste.