Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Consumer ProductsEnvironmentPolicy

Vape eWaste Recycling: Showing The Business Math

The question I’ve gotten a lot in the process of planning this eWaste recycling program is, of course, “how much would it cost?” I had done a lot of napkin math before, but I figured it’d make sense to work out some semblance of a finished budget to be able to show to potential funders or partners. The most important point here is that if we want to avoid the proliferation of eWaste, we need to reduce it at the point of manufacture. This echoes a wealth of literature that is coming out these days suggesting similar points about plastics recycling.

Ideal Solution: Ban Disposable Vapes

The ideal solution here is really that the cannabis industry and the tobacco/nicotine/ENDS industry should collectively decide to just ban all “disposable” vapes by a certain year. Why not tomorrow!? Because industries have lobbying power, and they could prove that point with lawsuits that would be very expensive on both sides. Litigation is highly inefficient in most cases. Banning a product with a specific time horizon, though, is an approach regulators often take when there is room to give the industry some sort of runway for the sunset of these products– so they can fly off in their planes, to continue the metaphor, toward a new day and a new product somewhere else.

The cannabis and nicotine lobbies might well argue that this deprives them of a vital revenue stream. The regulator’s response is that there are plenty of other ways to sell your products– just not through an all-in-one “disposable” product. 510 cartridges, for example, are an easy solution. And plenty of nicotine vape products operate with the user having to buy “vape juice,” which is approximately as disgusting as it sounds– nicotine dissolved in a solution full of, well, they promise it’s not as bad for you as cigarettes.

Anyway, let’s say these products are all banned starting in 2026. Until we get to that year, then, we’ll still have to figure out how to manage the disposal of pens that are currently on the market. Realistically, the problem won’t go away after 2026, it will just become much, much smaller.

The Known Knowns: How It Could Work

Process is a valuable thing to figure out first. One hallmark of managerial accounting– a class that I at least passed in business school- is a strong complement to business process improvement, because it involves mapping out production on multiple levels and quantifying inputs and outputs in terms of not just material cost, but also labor. This helps identify inefficiencies and it helps show where production bottlenecks occur.

We start at the point of retail sale.

First. The process begins with a $1 fee charged per disposable vape pen or “battery,” assessed at the point-of-sale. This is easy to set up and it’s easy for the consumer to understand. It will increase the price of a vape by anywhere ranging from 13% for the bargain entry-level vapes to less than 2% for an ultra-premium product. I’m trying to test the hypothesis that a $1 fee is reasonable to cover the cost of recycling.

When you go to buy a car battery, the retailer charges a disposal fee to cover the cost of recycling the battery, which contains not only lead but also valuable metals and toxic acids. That effectively becomes factored into the cost of the battery. Getting more nerdy in economic business: It’s not really a tax, either, because a tax goes to the government in its entirety, while this is a matter of a retailer charging a fee to offset a potential negative market externality. It’s possible, of course, to dump the vape pens in the river with the hexavalent chromium, but we are at least broadly in agreement that this is a less than optimal market outcome.

Second. Every dispensary would receive a receptacle in which patrons would deposit their discarded vape pens. Let’s say this would cost $50 per store.

Third. I suggest that dispensaries offer a 50-cent rebate per returned vape, and then 50 cents is paid to the recycler. Whether this results it a financially solvent operation depends on a few things (discussed later).


The Known Unknowns

There are two huge costs in the transaction.

One is easily quantifiable at $135 for a shipping container that can hold 40-50 lbs. of batteries to be shipped to an eWaste recycler. A deposit receptacle used in 50 transactions would cost $1 per shipping container. The cost of bags or gloves for handling would be negligible, so we’ll say $1 per transaction. We’re now at a whopping $2 upcharged on the $135, for a total of $137. A service pickup charge of $30 to cover gas, labor, and vehicle maintenance, would bring this up to $167, with the understanding that numerous pickups would be possible in a single day.

I asked Midjourney to render me a piece of robotic machinery that disassembles vape pens. The AI diffusion model is surprisingly bad at understanding how to render a vape cartridge or vape pen, so I sometimes try USB sticks instead.

The Tricky Part

The other major cost is not easily quantifiable, and that’s the cost of labor (or machinery to replace labor) to break the vapes into their constituent bits.

The eWaste recycler only takes batteries, not the full units. There are regulatory issues with why an eWaste recycler wouldn’t want to handle something that has a regulated drug like nicotine to cannabis in it, but I suspect the biggest issue is that it’s just cheaper that way because they’re able to get more volume of the good stuff in the batteries themselves.

The other problem is that you can’t run these through a shredder. You’d damage the battery, which could potentially ignite something somewhere along the line, so it has to be done with pretty low-tech equipment. Trying this out on a few trial products, they take anywhere from four seconds (needle-nose pliers and a pair of human hands) to a couple of minutes with various pointy objects and much consternated grunting from the user (a.k.a. me). If I can disassemble 60 pens in one hour, that means I can disassemble less than a full box of recyclable batteries in an entire workday.

How much less than a full box and how many a single human can do in one sitting, though?

Also a tricky one to figure out.

Understanding Weight

For the pens themselves, weights vary substantially in my research, from 15.87g for an Old School Organics pen, to 16.61g for a Sauce pen, 18.1 grams for a WULF Micro battery, to a hefty 41.1g for a Church x Hyman Soñando “disposable,” to, finally, a behemoth 89.27g for an Ooze Duplex (which proper stoners might refer to as a “dab rig” in the common parlance). While these are all the empty weights, I’ve encountered considerable variation in even the same product line. The cartridge itself in a product like the Church pen weighs 25g alone, which puts the battery and charging port and the housing that contains them at about the same weight as the first three products.

The Church product, an expertly weighted, highly ergonomic paragon of industrial design, has a stainless steel mouthpiece, a glass cartridge, and metal as well as plastic construction, while the WULF Micro is just, well, exotic, two-toned plastic. Most vapes are closer to the WULF, favoring lightweight plastic in lurid colors, probably polypropylene and something. The battery itself accounts for 6-9g of weight. USB-rechargeable devices would add another few grams of weight (many are, some are not).

At ten grams per battery and 50 lbs in a box, that’s a whopper at 2,270 batteries for a single box. I can’t quite imagine what 2,270 batteries looks like, but I am taking a wild guess that we are going to be way less than that to fill up an entire shipping box.

Anyway, this is just where I’ve landed. Still waiting on a response from the FDA on the question. Or my state representatives. But I will update if they respond!


Price Conclusions

2,270 batteries means that the recycler receives $1135 gross. This means that the recycler would have to be able to disassemble 2,270 pens to fill one box, which would, at one pen per minute, require a full work week. If that’s calculated at $1000 ($25/hr. * 40 hrs), then our math does come pretty close to working, because we’re spending $1000 on labor, $167 on the box and the cost of pickup, and we are bringing in $1,135. However, it’s more probable that we’d be getting way fewer than 2,270 vapes in a single box, and that we’ll need to figure out a faster way to disassemble the pens. This means that we’d have to revisit our $1 hypothesis. But in the meantime, the example is provided here as a “good enough” starting point.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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