Do you know how much waste the cannabis industry produces yearly in the United States? Consumers might be aware that some cannabis packaging is recyclable, but how many are aware of the need for large-scale recycling programs to reduce the amount of packaging heading to harmful landfills? In this interview, O’Neil Rudolph, founder of cannachange, discusses how their new program connects consumers and dispensaries with accessible, sustainable recycling in the cannabis industry through an easy-to-use app.
Can you tell us about your background and what motivated you to start a company promoting the recycling of cannabis products? (For example, how much waste does the cannabis industry produce?)
O’Neil Rudolph: As a consumer that regularly uses cannabis for medical reasons, I quickly realized how much waste I was accumulating with my use. After learning that the cannabis industry produces more than 150 million tons of waste every year, I felt compelled to change the way consumers like me dispose of their cannabis packaging. I knew that most of the packaging for the products I purchase is recyclable, but most of it would go to the landfill if it wasn’t diverted to a different waste stream like a recycling facility. Unfortunately, even when cannabis packaging is disposed of in a typical recycling bin, most of it goes straight to the landfill. This inspired me to facilitate a sustainability initiative that strives for consumer engagement and creates strong customer loyalty for dispensaries that care about sustainability—and I felt that an app was the best way to do so. There’s such a high consumer demand for cannabis sustainability initiatives, so if consumers are offered a very direct and accessible recycling option—such as cannachange—dispensaries can differentiate themselves and increase their profitability, so it’s beneficial for everyone involved.
Your Facebook page says cannachange is Black, LGBTQ+, and women owned and founded. How are you working towards inclusivity and racial justice? Can you share any specific challenges you’ve had to face to get this company going?
Rudolph: Considering most of the people in executive positions in any given industry are white, straight, cis men, starting a company that involves the cannabis, tech, and sustainability industries has brought many challenges. Being at the intersection of three industries that are even more clearly male dominated comes with the pressure to prove yourself and your worth, even if you’re confident in what you bring to the table. I often get addressed in a condescending tone by men in executive positions, and they ask questions as if I’ll slip up and won’t know the answer—even if it’s regarding my own business. Then involving race and sexuality brings even more of a challenge when I’m regularly conversing with people who have never faced the discrimination I face on a daily basis, which effects all aspects of my life including my career.
When it comes to cannabis, there’s even more of a racial disparity, given the history of marijuana legislation that has and continues to disproportionately affect Black people. One of my main goals with cannachange is to make it as accessible as possible because the accessibility of sustainability initiatives is something I don’t see addressed nearly enough. If sustainability initiatives are only accessible to those in affluent communities, many other issues are being neglected. The same minority groups that are disproportionately affected by cannabis legislation are also disproportionately affected by climate change and unsustainable waste management. If we can divert recyclable cannabis packaging from the landfill, we can decrease the amount of greenhouse gases accumulating in those areas and help improve long standing issues like air quality. A 2018 study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Black people are exposed to 1.5 times more pollution than white people, and Hispanic people are exposed to 1.2 times more pollution than white people. The study also concluded that low-income neighborhoods are exposed to 1.3 times more pollution than higher income neighborhoods. The disparities in where landfills are located are largely responsible for these statistics, and those landfills cause harmful and potent greenhouse gases to build up in these communities. These rates are parallel to the injustices we see time and time again regarding the racial disparities in cannabis related charges and arrests, which is why—at cannachange—we see increased sustainability in the cannabis industry as a necessity for environmental and racial justice.
What sorts of sustainability programs or resources are already in place for the cannabis industry, and how is cannachange different?
Rudolph: Some dispensaries have tried to implement independent recycling programs, which I think is great, but the problem arises when there’s no consumer incentive. Incentivizing consumers creates the strong customer loyalty that dispensaries need to differentiate themselves from others and increase their profitability. If you’re listening to the high consumer demand for sustainability initiatives and giving them something like dispensary credit to keep them coming back, you’ve mastered the key to creating consumer loyalty, and cannachange helps seamlessly implement that into dispensaries. Independent recycling programs also don’t allow consumers to track their waste, which is another huge incentive, and motivates consumers to keep participating in cannachange and coming back to dispensaries that participate in cannachange as well.
How many dispensaries are currently participating in your program? Is there an area in the country with a more concentrated number of participating dispensaries?
Rudolph: Considering the onboarding process for dispensaries begins when they register through the app, it’s difficult to say how many dispensaries will fully integrate cannachange, but we’ve seen a ton of interest in Colorado and on the West Coast and we are starting to see more interest on the East Coast as well, as more cannabis and sustainability specific legislation is getting implemented there. It will be exciting to see how the dispensary interest continues to grow and how many start offering cannachange over the next few months and even into the next year.
Tell us about what both users and dispensaries can expect to experience when they use cannachange to recycle cannabis products.
Rudolph: Consumers will return their recyclable cannabis packaging, which the dispensary will account for before collecting them in a cannachange collection bin. The dispensary will then scan the consumer’s profile QR code and add points for the recyclables to their profile. After the points are added on the dispensary end, consumers can view them in the app, along with the waste they’ve saved. Once a consumer reaches a 25-point total, they receive a $5 dispensary credit to be redeemed and applied when purchasing at that participating dispensary. This guarantees the incentive for consumers and ensures customer loyalty for dispensaries.
Will consumer’s credits accumulate over time, or do they expire?
Rudolph: Consumer’s credits do not expire and can accumulate over time, however, only one $5 credit can be applied to each transaction so consumers are not able to save and apply multiple credits to the same purchase.
What sorts of challenges has cannachange had to overcome?
Rudolph: Some states are still lacking on sustainability legislation and the implementation of sustainability initiatives, along with reliable recycling services. Unfortunately, many companies that start with a mission of sustainability get caught up in what’s often referred to as “greenwashing,” meaning what’s supposed to be sustainable doesn’t remain that way. This can lead items that should be recycled to still end up in the landfill, which is exactly what we’re working so hard to avoid, so we make sure our participating dispensaries have well established relationships with recycling services on the back-end before they make cannachange available to their customers. This may mean that states lacking in recycling services won’t have access to cannachange as soon as those that have well established recycling services, which has been a challenge, but we’re working hard to make both recycling services and initiatives like cannachange more available in states that need it.
What are you most excited to see happen when you launch the app on 2/25?
Rudolph: I’m excited for consumers who have consistently shown our app and mission so much support to download and see the app in action! It will also be great to see the dispensary interest and registration grow on 2/25 and beyond as more dispensary profiles are created.
What are your current goals and what areas of growth are you looking towards in the long term?
Rudolph: My current goals are to make cannachange as available as possible and integrate user feedback into our upcoming app updates as more dispensaries and consumers are able to use the app. I’m looking forward to collaborating with more cannabis companies driven by a mission for sustainability and expanding our initiative to work on the back-end of waste management as well so we can track the recyclables after they’re collected and transported to a recycling facility.
How can other people get involved and help?
Rudolph: Consumers can help by encouraging their local dispensaries to offer cannachange and showing them that the consumer demand is there, so if initiatives like cannachange are offered by businesses, there will be regular participation that benefits everyone involved. If a dispensary wants to offer cannachange to their consumers, but wants more information before downloading the app and creating their dispensary profile, they can fill out a contact form on our website https://cannachange.co/ and we’ll get back to them ASAP. You can also find more general information and an FAQ on our website, and see more about our app and mission on our social media pages @cannachange. Following and engaging with us on social media is also helpful, as it shows dispensaries the high consumer demand for cannachange and encourages them to offer cannachange to their customers.