The Environmental Problem With Disposable Vapes, and Why Few Are Doing Anything About It
Their popularity continues to grow - so does the waste.
Annual cannabis vape sales continue to grow across many major markets–fueling demand and a growing eco-footprint.
Rising consumer demand comes despite environmental concerns lobbed at various market aspects, from cultivation to packaging. Worries are exceptionally high on single-use disposable vaporizers, a surging sector with high waste potential.
While most of the industry claims to be against creating extra waste, numerous suggest that vapes will continue to be produced unless market demands shift.
Vape market continues to grow
Vape product sales surged in 2021. As first reported by Marijuana Business Daily, data firm Headset's analysis of California, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state found that 2021 vape sales increased by 28.1% from 2020.
Overall, the cartridge market grew 25% in 2021, totaling $2.3 billion in sales. Disposable vapes accounted for $164 million in sales, a 64% increase in 2021.
Operators offered Benzinga various estimates on disposable vape's US market presence, ranging from approximately 15% to 50% of products sold.
Chris Becker, sales director for Colorado brand Honeybee Collective, cited convenience and discretion as crucial factors for consumers and margins for producers.
"With disposables containing from .2 to .5 grams of oil, the hardware costs more than the oil being put into it in most cases," Becker said.
Others noted the selling points of vapes as well as their concerning points.
"They're cheap, great for product testing, convenient and sometimes extra discreet, but the degree of waste they create across the industry is cringeworthy," said Allison Krongard, co-founder of Her Highness.
Myron Ronay of California's Belcosta Labs added that higher THC concentrations are the allure for many consumers.
"Much of the growth comes from sauce pens with higher cannabis-derived terpene content than a strict distillate pen," Ronay said.
Brandon Dorsky, an attorney and CEO of edibles brand Fruit Slabs, believes several factors may prompt consumers to choose a disposable vape:
- Rechargeable vapes can malfunction or get easily lost
- Some may prefer not to hold products still considered illegal on a federal level
- As an alternative to a favorite brand not available
Regarding the third point, he said certain brands develop their proprietary batteries and pod delivery vehicles.
Dorsky speculated that fans of brands with proprietary batteries "may elect to go with a disposable vape over purchasing a different battery and cart system."
Growth despite environmental concerns
Despite their popularity, vapes substantially contribute to the market's non-hazardous waste problems. Some companies and governments have taken notice. But, due to either complex laws or a lack of public interest, proper vape disposal doesn't happen as often as it should.
Vapes, both cannabis and nicotine types, have been accused of being substantial trash producers. Often containing lithium-ion batteries, heavy metals and plastics, vapes aren't easily disposable products.
Depending on the market, a recycling program may be available. Still, products often end up in landfills rather than someone taking the several steps needed to clean vape components and return them to either a dispensary or waste center.
"Although disposable vapes are very convenient and easy to use, the environmental impact and non-renewable nature is a black eye for the cannabis industry," said Michael Sassano, CEO of Somai Pharmaceuticals and Solaris Farms.
Sassano implored producers to buck trends and create rechargeable products or offer consumers a vape cartridge disposal option.
A similar vape recycling program was presented across Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia provinces. The program, backed by several companies and the Cannabis Council of Canada, was launched in December 2020. Lithium batteries found in disposable vapes were the initial focus but shifted to vape recycling after speaking with retailers.
The program was shuttered in June 2022, citing a lack of use.
In February, New York lawmakers proposed a recycling law that would compel dispensaries to charge a $1 deposit on single-use plastic products. Customers would be reimbursed the $1 upon returning the product.
Additional programs may roll out, but many feel nothing will change until consumers demand it. Alex Bauer, COO of vape brand Rokin, said producers are stuck between profits and the environment. "If they don't produce what the consumer wants, this can put their business at risk," he said.
Bauer would like to see consumers better understand how companies react to their needs. "The consumer has more power to change the problem of waste than the producers do," he added.
Education is critical to change
Lo Friesen, CEO and founder of extracts brand Heylo said customer education is critical to changing trends. She considers educating on the importance of rechargeable vapes to be a critical focus going forward. Friesen likened the likely long-shifting effort to THC consumer education that's underway.
"Thanks to educational efforts by cannabis companies, we're seeing preferences shift towards consumers purchasing products that include specific terpenes and cannabinoids instead of just THC," Friesen said.
At another point in the interview, Friesen added, "The cannabis community has always had a strong environmental commitment, and the use of disposable vapes is antithetical to this important industry value."
Bauer added that his company is now considering disposable options to meet consumer demands.