Traverse City News and Events

This Northern Michigan Company Wants To Solve The Vape Waste Problem

By Craig Manning | Aug. 9, 2023

In 2018, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Now it has the second biggest cannabis market in the entire country, trailing only California. The tremendous growth of the state’s cannabis market has brought a great deal of economic activity – Michigan tallied nearly $2.3 billion in sales in 2022, according to the Cannabis Regulatory Agency (CRA). But marijuana is also an industry fraught with massive waste and negative environmental impacts – a problem a business right here in northern Michigan is trying to solve.

“The cannabis industry is naturally a very environmentally-taxing business,” says Samuel Rosinski, the CEO of 42 Degrees, a Kalkaska-based company that offers a range of services around cannabis processing, extraction, packaging, distribution, and more. “With a lot of Michigan's industry, the cannabis flower is typically cultivated in indoor facilities so that they can maintain consistent production year-round. And then the processing, packaging, and distribution of the product is also very taxing on the environment.”

Rosinski tells The Ticker he is “philosophically and morally opposed to environmental degradation” and has looked for opportunities since starting 42 Degrees to offset emissions and support environmental causes. “But we also wanted to do something that could meaningfully improve the industry in a way that consumers and businesses, along with government agencies, could get on board with,” he says. “That’s where The Hero Project came into being.”

The Hero Project is a fledgling initiative within 42 Degrees that carries an ambitious goal of creating a comprehensive recycling system for disposable cannabis vape pens, a category that Rosinski says is currently “growing at an incredible 36 percent, year over year.” Disposable vapes, he explains, are made up of three parts: a “chassis,” typically made from a dense plastic or a metal alloy; a “cartomizer,” or the metal or glass container within the chassis that actually holds the cannabis; and a lithium battery, which powers the device. Often, these materials end up in landfills simply because there is no good way to separate and recycle them. The goal of The Hero Project is to put systems in place so that customers not only have a place to recycle their old vapes, but also an incentive to do so.

That idea isn’t new, at least not for 42 Degrees. According to Rosinski, when the business officially opened its doors in 2020, it did so with the plan of having a program that would encourage customers to return vape cartridges from the in-house 42 Degrees cannabis brand, Fresh Coast. The idea was to treat cartridges the way the state of Michigan treats bottles and cans, putting a 10-cent deposit on each package and allowing customers to redeem that amount upon the return of spent cartridges. “Unfortunately," Rosinski says, "when we sent out our first orders, it was March of 2020.”

Health and safety concerns over COVID-19 quickly scuppered any possibility of collecting used vapes – at least in the short term. Eventually, though, the 42 Degrees team came back to the concept and started looking at ways of expanding it beyond the Fresh Coast brand, into something that could feasibly promote the recycling of any disposable vaporizer product.

“We needed a couple of things in order to validate that what we were doing was right and could be monetized in a way that would create self-sufficiency,” Rosinski says. “The first was finding a manufacturing partner for the hardware itself, that would allow us to actually successfully break this product down so we could properly recycle it. The second was finding NGOs or government-sponsored entities – as well as retail affiliates – that would allow us to make the infrastructure possible.”

On both fronts, Rosinski says The Hero Project got the oxygen it needed thanks to NextCycle Michigan, an accelerator program supported by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) that “facilitates a variety of programs to help support businesses and projects which are driving solutions for a circular economy.” The program, described in press materials as “the largest collaborative effort in state history to spark the state’s recycling and recovery economy,” regularly selects new cohorts of “teams,” which are businesses or public entities that are undertaking groundbreaking new efforts related to recycling. NextCycle Michigan then offers business planning support, networking opportunities, grant funding, and other help and resources to help those teams succeed.

In June, EGLE named The Hero Project as one of 14 teams in the latest NextCycle Michigan cohort. Already, Rosinski says the program has been immensely beneficial to getting The Hero Project off the ground. One past NextCycle team, for instance, just happened to be a business based in the Upper Peninsula that specializes in recycling lithium-ion batteries. Thanks to the power of NextCycle and its networking opportunities, that business is now a key Hero Project partner.

NextCycle also allowed Rosinski to connect with policymakers within EGLE and the CRA who might be able to help 42 Degrees change crucial state regulations. Currently, administrative policy in Michigan would make it nearly impossible for The Hero Project to legally collect old vapes for recycling, due to the simple fact that they might still contain marijuana residue. After connecting with multiple key movers and shakers, though, Rosinski says The Hero Project has a summit on the books in October, where it will get the chance to “bend the ears of people in the Michigan Legislature to help us sway this policy.”

While The Hero Project is a first-of-its-kind initiative, Rosinski has high hopes for where it could go. His vision isn’t isolated to Michigan, or even to the marijuana industry, but to the entire country and the entire vape market – including marijuana and tobacco. Positive feedback from third-party retailers and manufacturers has him convinced that the entire industry is interested in a more sustainable way of handling used vapes and that there are plenty of potential partners out there to help. And while any business wants to grow and succeed, Rosinski insists that, at the end of the day, this initiative isn’t about profit or glory.

“All the growth in the disposable vaporizer market, what that translates to is six tons of lithium being contributed to landfills every year,” Rosinski says. “That's the equivalent of 11,000 electric vehicles. So, it's not a small amount [of electronic waste] that we're dealing with. But small changes in consumer behavior, compounded on a vast scale, can make a big difference in our communities, and that’s the genesis of The Hero Project. It’s not a profit motive. It’s about inspiring that level of conscious consumerism and sensibly developing an industry.”

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