“You can recycle your vapes, “all-in-one” doesn’t need to mean “disposable,” [and] you don’t have to choose between the vape you want and being environmentally friendly.”
Cannabis packaging waste. It’s the elephant in many rooms around this industry, and if you consume as much as we do at the Dig, then empty jars and pre-roll tubes are literally strewn around your room as well.
But as Fernway Chief Marketing Officer Liam O’Brien contends, it doesn’t have to be that way. His company has looked to other markets and consulted experts, and is trying to step in the right direction—away from trash cans, and toward recycling bins.
That’s literally speaking, since Fernway is now placing receptacles for their Traveler products via a new Fernway Recycling Program at dispensaries across the state. We asked O’Brien what it took to build the system and about the potential implications it has for broader recycling in the Mass industry.
So before we start to talk about recycling, let’s talk about disposable vape pens/cartridges. What do you feel makes for a good one?
First of all, it actually has to work. Quality is actually a big issue for these kinds of products. There’s way too much low-quality all-in-one hardware out there. Buying an all-in-one is a crapshoot—it might run too hot, or run out of charge too soon, or you might get one or two hits out of it but then it just dies on you. But the good news is that budtenders really know their stuff, so it’s always worth asking which brand they buy on the regular. If they swear by a particular all-in-one, that’s a very solid indicator of quality. If they say it tastes good, hits great, and works well, you can feel confident buying it.
What have been some of Fernway’s experiences, successes, and lessons learned in the vape category up until now?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that having the right team is essential. I’m so incredibly proud of our whole Fernway team and all our friends—we couldn’t have become the number one vape brand in Mass without all of them. We get a lot of attention through word-of-mouth because we actually care about our customers and we show it. So they show us love in return by shouting us out to their friends and their family and their coworkers which is the best possible publicity. Fernway is unabashedly recreational, too. We’re a group of passionate consumers, and that’s the perspective we bring to our work. I think people pick up on that because they share our belief that cannabis makes the good life better. And since we custom-design everything we make—packaging, terpene blends, hardware, merch, you name it—that message shines through in everything we do.
Cannabis waste is of course a big issue, as it should be, but there are also packaging requirements. As you started looking into doing something and coming up with solutions for your own products, what examples if any did you find from other states or maybe other industries that got your attention?
The cannabis industry has a notorious waste problem, but the good news is that we can act now to change that. Packaging requirements are what they are, though we’ve started to see a shift toward more sustainable practices like in New York that has pending regulations to reduce single-use plastics in cannabis packaging. The only path to comprehensively solving the waste problem is through changing regulations but in the meantime, brands still have the opportunity to act, so that’s what we’re doing. Fernway is carried in most dispensaries in Mass, so we knew we needed to create the recycling program in order to launch the Traveler in the right way. Otherwise that would have meant thousands of batteries going right into the trash, which is just straight up wasteful.
What was the process like working with the CCC to make this actually happen?
Believe it or not, there was actually no specific regulatory guidance on vape recycling. It’s pretty much unprecedented in Massachusetts. So when we brought the idea to the CCC, we were relieved (and thrilled) to find out that they strongly supported it. We created a transparent internal process, reviewed it for compliance, and the CCC agreed with our approach. All in all, it was pretty simple.
You’re working with a third-party recycling contractor to service these boxes. What role will they play in the process and why was it necessary to bring them in?
We collect the dropboxes when they’re full and bring them back to our facility in Northampton. Then our partner GAIACA picks them up and handles the rest. We cover 100% of GAIACA’s fees because we feel strongly that it shouldn’t cost our customers or retail partners anything to recycle their vapes. We view our partnership with GAIACA as an investment, not as an extra cost. Plus, if you want to recycle lithium ion batteries you actually need to work with a specialist like GAIACA since it’s a much more complex and labor-intensive process than regular household recycling. The recycling process is honestly pretty badass. The finished Travelers get cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen, then get pulverized in an industrial shredder and hammer mill. Then GAIACA uses chemical and mechanical processes to filter out the different metals, purify them, and turn them back into raw material that can be reused.
And finally, now that you did it, have you opened up the door for others to do similar programs?
We hope so. Our goal is to spread the word—that you can recycle your vapes, that “all-in-one” doesn’t need to mean “disposable,” that you don’t have to choose between the vape you want and being environmentally friendly. We’re also hard at work on expanding our recycling program so we can give even more people more ways to recycle their vapes. Stay tuned.