The Brief, Wasteful Life of Vape Cartridges

Firefly CEO Steve Berg leads the charge to make single-use oil pods recyclable.

As vaporizers and oil products become increasingly popular, more and more cartridges have flooded the market. Bay Area dispensaries dedicate entire walls to pods filled with Sour Diesel and Sunset Sherbet. Although oil cartridges may be flying out the door, Firefly’s Steve Berg is working on a way to encourage customers to bring them back.

The first thing you should know about Firefly is that their products don’t currently use disposable oil pods. As they’re known for their eponymous reusable vaporizer, you might wonder why Firefly is so invested in finding sustainable cartridges. While Berg emphasizes the company’s environmentalism, he also confirms that Firefly has plans.

“In terms of the folks that work at Firefly, we do feel strongly about the sustainability principle,” Berg says. “That said, we do plan to introduce oil vape cartridge-type devices as well.”

California regulations do not currently allow for materials containing THC to be returned to a dispensary for reuse later. Pointing to the state’s track-and-trace program — a meticulous and demanding system that tracks each stage of a cannabis plant from seed to sale — Berg suggests that the process should allow for an additional step, whereby a customer could return spent vaporizer cartridges to a designated recycling receptacle.

The problem is that even if such a recycling program were to be implemented, it would presently still run afoul of stipulations that dispensaries cannot accept any THC products from outside of the track-and-trace system. Such questions leave current recycling programs — like the one that popular disposable vape pen company Dosist already offers — in a legal gray area. For now, it’s up to each dispensary to interpret whether or not taking back a used Dosist pen breaks the rules. By extension, any shop that supports the eco-conscious cause is in danger of a citation or getting shut down by regulators (unlikely, but not impossible).

“Dispensaries risk running afoul of regulations if they take cartridges back across the counter the ‘wrong way,’ ” Berg says. “From Firefly’s perspective, state regulations need to accommodate the kind of scenario whereby a vape cart could be returned to a dispensary and recycled.”

Single-use vaporizer cartridges are but one of several sustainability issues the cannabis industry faces. Another is the inability to recycle all the various types of child-proof packaging that come with every cannabis product you purchase in California. It’s a conflict of values, pitting safety against ecological awareness.

Proposed solutions vary. One idea would be an incentive program that allows for some kind of credit or reward to be issued each time a customer returns a spent cartridge or a product’s child-proof packaging. Dispensaries could plausibly be reimbursed through a fund derived from taxes collected on cannabis purchases. Another option would be to use the same source of funds to subsidize companies that make biodegradable packaging, in an effort to ensure the industry doesn’t build its foundation on cheap, imported plastic.

Tired of waiting for results, Berg and Firefly hired a lobbyist. So far, they’ve worked to secure regulatory changes in Colorado and California. While it’s not yet possible to recycle vaporizer products here in the Golden State, they have had success with our neighbor to the east.

“In Colorado, we went as far as to propose new language for the Sunset Bill this year,” Berg says. “It was received and accepted and actually put into the bill that Governor Polis recently signed off on. Our expectation is that come January 2020, dispensaries in Colorado will indeed be able to take spent vaporization carts back for recycling.”

Fresh off their success, Firefly now hopes to make similar changes to California’s regulations. Berg is optimistic, noting that if something works in Colorado, you can bet other states are taking note.

“When you look at cannabis laws and regulations,” Berg explains, “states learn from the successes and failures of those who have gone before them. Given so much of the regulatory framework of many states borrows from Colorado, particularly, as the most mature of the recreational states, you do see things that work well there getting emulated in other jurisdictions. By being successful in Colorado with this initiative, we’re hoping to see that emulated in California. We hope this will become the exemplar that others will follow.”

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