This story is part of our Ethical Cannabis series, which explores moral quandaries in the cannabis space and empowers readers to become conscious consumers. Got an issue to unpack? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of legal cannabis’s greatest selling points is an obvious one: It’s a plant! Smokable cannabis flower, in particular, has the shortest connection to its original agricultural state. It’s simply dried and cured buds, plucked straight from the original plant.
For folks looking for natural relief from a variety of symptoms, or casual consumers looking to kick back and relax, it’s hard to find a remedy as closely connected to the earth as cannabis.
And yet the rise of legal cannabis has also introduced a growing environmental cost:
- shoddy farming practices
- the advent of disposable consumption methods
- clunky packaging mandated by law
All of this has created waste that the industry doesn’t have a good way to handle.
Here’s a closer look at how we got here, and what some brands are doing to create a more eco-friendly future for cannabis products.
The fact that the cannabis industry is so tightly regulated means that consumers are more or less at the mercy of what the legal market provides to them locally. Whatever a local dispensary chooses to sell is what a local market is going to receive.
But many consumers are seeking sustainable practices and demanding better of the companies they buy from.
“As global awareness of climate change increases, more people are learning about all the different choices they can make to do their part in combating these issues [of excess waste],” says Jed McWhorter, director of purchasing at Curaleaf, the world’s largest cannabis company.
While McWhorter acknowledges that “reducing the amount of single-use plastics is a good first step” when it comes to things like reusable grocery bags and refillable water bottles, the hands of the cannabis industry are largely tied when it comes to sustainable options.
“Unfortunately, many state packaging requirements lead to a lot of single-use plastics within the industry. For example, many states require child-resistant packaging, which requires an additional layer of plastic packaging across the supply chain,” McWhorter says.
He’s referring to the required but often tedious, extra packaging add-ons designed to keep children out of cannabis products (and that often end up keeping adults out, too).
In addition to being annoying, these create extra plastic packaging that other legal intoxicants, like alcohol, for example, aren’t required to have. Whether they keep children (who, if they have access to scissors, can easily access the product inside) safe or not is another question entirely.
According to California regulations, which were codified in Proposition 64, the law that legalized adult use cannabis in the state, there are different labeling requirements for smokable cannabis, like flower or pre-rolled joints, versus what it considers “manufactured” cannabis products, like edibles, topicals, and concentrates.
The state also provides a packaging checklist that requires a cannabis package sold in a dispensary to be:
- Tamper-evident. This includes things like a plastic seal, a sticker across the lid that rips when opened, or jars with lids that pop up after opening.
- Child-resistant. Plastic packaging must be at least 4 millimeters thick and heat-sealed or certified in accordance with the federal Poison Prevention Packaging Act.
- Resealable. Products designed for multiple uses must come in packaging that includes some type of closure, whether that’s a lid or an adhesive seal.
- Opaque (for edibles only). This rules out any glass that isn’t amber-colored and creates a preference for plastics.
And all of that is just in California.
While all of this packaging must be single-use, there isn’t any law requiring it to be virgin plastic, as it’s called in the plastics business. This provides an opportunity for those with the right eyes and a tolerance for higher material costs.
Ocean Cannabis Co.
Mary Ersig and her husband, co-owners of Ocean Cannabis Co., began their business in 2013. It wasn’t until after legalization, when they attended MJBizCon, a popular industry conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, that they realized the environmental problem rapidly growing in the cannabis industry.
“There was just so much plastic! And so many layers of it in all of the packaging,” Ersig says. “So, we actually started with a paper cube because, at least, I didn’t feel so bad about putting all that into the world. At least you can just toss it in your recycling bin and it would biodegrade.”
Not long after, she says, they found their current packaging source: ocean plastic.
Currently, Ocean Cannabis Co. uses recycled plastic harvested from the ocean via Oceanworks. The company gathers plastic and turns it into pellets, which are transformed into cubes that end up as packaging.
“So far, we’ve taken 6 tons of plastic out of the ocean,” Ersig says of the company’s efforts. She estimates that each Ocean Cannabis Co. product contains the equivalent of 15 straws’ worth of plastic.
This comes at a price, though.
Each container from Oceanworks plastic costs 27 cents, while boilerplate plastic packaging from China costs pennies apiece. Ersig says this is exactly why the practice of using ocean-recovered plastic isn’t more widespread.
Bigger companies, like Curaleaf, are beginning to explore what sustainable packaging looks like for them, but it’s a tricky process.
In addition to being large with a variety of different verticals and product lines, the company also operates in several states — all of which have different packaging requirements.
“We have a cross-functional team that ensures all packaging requirements are met in each different state. All packaging goes through at least three review sessions before printing,” McWhorter says. “We use paper and glass wherever possible, as well as recycled plastics.”
McWhorter also says that sustainability, in particular, is one of the four pillars listed in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative called “Rooted in Good,” which launched in 2020.
Curaleaf says it plans to announce a partner in 2021 that will assist the company in assessing its environmental footprint and will focus on how to lessen the footprint by sourcing materials from a sustainability and social equity perspective.
At present, the company’s packaging protocol is standardized and monitored by regional compliance specialists. They specialize in a handful of the largest markets and keep an eye on regulations across the 23 states where Curaleaf operates.
“We try to keep costs down by having all states in the same master package and applying the different regulations using labels. There is certainly a notable cost to having different regulations and packaging requirements in each market,” McWhorter says, adding that regulations in the cannabis industry are constantly changing, which adds more packaging challenges.
McWhorter says that the company prioritizes batching shipments together whenever possible to reduce its carbon footprint. It also performs routine supply chain assessments to identify how it can not only cut costs but be more eco-friendly.
At several of its proprietary dispensaries, the company runs local recycling programs with organizations like The High Five Initiative in Maryland, which collects and recycles #5 plastic packaging (the material used to create those ubiquitous pop-top containers).
“We recognize our responsibility and take that seriously,” McWhorter says. For such a big company, it’s a good start.
Aside from being armed with knowledge and shopping smartly, what else can you do to ensure your cannabis footprint isn’t too outsized?
The options are pretty limited (for now), but there are a few key things to consider.
Look for alternative materials
The next time you’re shopping for cannabis, aim for products that come in packaging made from:
- glass (bonus points if it’s a container you can reuse for something else)
- hemp plastics, like those made by Sana Packaging
- recycled plastics
Buy from companies doing the work
If you can, make it a priority to buy from companies, like Ocean Cannabis Co., that have already sacrificed their bottom line to offer a more sustainable product.
Finally, keeping the topic of sustainability top of mind for bigger companies, like Curaleaf, is vital.
If companies notice sustainable packaging is an issue that consumers won’t skimp on, they’re more likely to build it into their business models.
Same goes for dispensaries. If you specifically ask for, say, Ocean Cannabis Co.’s vapes, you just might sway them to stock the brand on their shelves.
The cannabis industry has a long way to go in solving its plastic problem, but a growing number of cannabis companies are thinking outside the box to come up with some fresh solutions.
The next time you need to re-up your stash, set aside some time to search for eco-minded brands in your area.
And if you come up empty-handed, make sure your local dispensary knows that you (and your valuable dollars) are holding out for better options.
Jackie Bryant is a freelance writer who focuses on cannabis, food, travel, and other culture topics. Originally from New York, she now calls San Diego home. She is a regular contributor to Forbes, where she covers cannabis, and her work can also be found in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Sierra, WeedWeek, Afar, Playboy, and many others. She also writes a newsletter and hosts a podcast, both about cannabis culture. More of her work can be found here.