When James Choe jumped into the cannabis vape industry a few years ago, a few concerns dampened his enthusiasm.
Choe, the founder and CEO of California-based Vessel, which manufactures high-end vape pen batteries, was encouraged by the industry’s meteoric rise over the 2010s and the bright projections of its future. But he was also troubled by what that growth, and its resulting waste, was doing to the planet.
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“When you start doing the math about the rapid rise of vape, the industry, how many each consumer will go through – shoot, power users will burn through eight to a dozen of these things per month,” Choe said from his Carlsbad office in early May. “You multiply that by the number of millions of consumers and it gets scary.”
Indeed, waste produced by the overall cannabis industry, including its vaping subsector, has become a budding problem. But it is one that Choe is hopeful the industry can lead the way in helping to solve.
The vast majority of single-use plastics, the use of which are mandated for cannabis companies in most jurisdictions, end up in landfills, according to a 2020 report by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). Landfills are also the final destinations for many vape products, a large swath of which are sold as disposable.
Choe said he and his team at Vessel considered this unacceptable. They set out in search of ways to both reverse those trends and to be more responsible stewards of the planet and encourage others – operators and consumers – to join them.
In April, Vessel announced it had teamed with a cannabis-focused company called GAIACA Waste Revitalization for a multi-state initiative that will allow for increased recycling of vape pen batteries.
Through the new partnership, consumers are able to discard used vape pen batteries at participating retailers. The batteries are then collected by GAIACA and processed in such a way that they can be recycled and resold to consumers.
Choe, at Vessel, admitted that pitching the program to potential partners has sometimes been an uphill battle. Most love the general idea of being eco-friendly, he said, but efforts for sustainability aren’t necessarily equated with profits, which typically dictate companies’ priorities.
But, Choe said, he’s hopeful Vessel and its partners can help spur change, regardless of the magnitude of this particular initiative, which he describes as larger than the company itself. His team, he said, carries the mantra that just because they can’t change 100% of something doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do anything at all.
“[We’re] starting the process, and planting our flag in the ground and saying this matters to us and it matters to our consumers,” he said. “I don’t think size is really the determinant to show your commitment to doing things the right way.”
While Choe makes clear that this push isn’t driven by a desire for financial gain, he’s hopeful it can prove the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Consumers, particularly amid the current political climate, are placing increased emphasis on the values of the companies they support. If consumers prioritize eco-sustainability, operators inevitably will follow.
Those within the industry should also take a more active role in helping shape policy, Choe said. He encouraged patience, as this industry is also new for lawmakers, but suggested that those most invested can help show regulators how and where sustainability initiatives can be most effective.
“Like anything, it’s not like we have to be the ones to be the experts or act like we are,” he said. “I think a lot of this is about leaning on people who’ve been there and done that.”
As the industry’s waste problem continues to grow, so too will efforts to combat it. For some operators, Choe included, this only underscores the importance of operators being involved and proactive now. The survival of their business – as well as the planet – could depend on it.
“It’s already coming [to cannabis] and it’s only going to get more and more of a mandate as time goes on,” he said of eco-based regulations. “They’re going to account for how much waste this industry is creating, and for us it’s best to … go where the puck is going vs. where it’s at.”