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Marijuana’s Environmental Issue

Marijuana has an environmental issue, well maybe several when you talk about electric and water use and fertilizers, but this issue is one that is the result of over regulating the industry and the changing rules regarding packaging.  

The states have strict packaging requirements for marijuana, both recreational and medical, and the laws regulating the packaging have often changed in some cases as well. The laws may differ from state to state which makes it difficult for producers who then pay additional costs for packaging because they cannot buy in the bulk they would like to as they fear another change, leaving current stock useless.  These additional costs are then passed along to the consumer.

While that is an issue for the producer and consumer, one of the bigger issues for the environment is the amount of packaging required when selling marijuana products.  For example, in California, all cannabis products must be sold in child-resistant packaging. Pre Rolls are sold in plastic tubes and edibles, vape cartridges and flower must all be sold in additional protective packaging.  For example, a vape pen sold in California must arrive in child-proof packaging, and then when it has been purchased it is placed in additional child-proof packaging.

Colorado has strict laws regarding packaging as well.  The standard opaque, plastic container that holds 7 grams of flower weighs almost 29 grams, a standard container for 1.75 grams of flower weighs 10.1 grams, and when comparing weights of concentrate, the packaging can weigh up to 30 times more than the product.  Most of this packaging is not recycled and is not biodegradable.  Finally, in Colorado, the exit bags which are often plastic zippered, heavyweight bags are typically not recyclable due to their mixed materials.

The industry is aware of the environmental issues excess plastic packaging causes, and the irony that the packaging is the antithesis of one the values that cannabis teaches us - and that is to respect Mother Nature.  In an interview with Merry Jane, Steve D’Angelo founder of the dispensary Harborside said, “One of the things that cannabis teaches us is to respect Mother Nature and to treasure her gifts. These regulations don't do that. Frankly, it's disgusting to see the amount of waste that goes on. I get disgusted every time I buy a cannabis product and, in order to get to the cannabis, I have to work my way through three or four levels of completely unnecessary packaging.”

D’Angelo expresses yet another frustration to the overpackaging issue in a different interview, this time in regard to the overregulation of packaging of an item that is significantly less harmful than those items which have been proven to be harmful to children. “I see aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs being sold in containers that are not childproof. I see tobacco being sold in containers that are not childproof. I see alcohol being sold in containers that are not childproof. Then I see cannabis — which is safer than any of those substances — being wrapped in these completely superfluous and unnecessary layers of packaging. It's appalling.”

Government subsidies or even rolling back the tax rate to combat the extra cost of the discrete childproof packaging would be welcome, however, the marijuana industry understands that it is likely not going to happen and that it will be up to private companies to make the changes necessary.  Of course, these changes come with costs and some companies do not have the capital necessary to create new products or to invest in sustainable packaging.

There are, however, several companies which have been working hard to find solutions. Sana Packaging in Denver launched in 2016 with the knowledge that few packaging companies in the cannabis industry were using sustainability as a guide in their business practices.  Sana Packaging uses biodegradable materials such as hemp biocomposite and used recycled plastics that have been sourced from the ocean. “Our basic thing is that we no longer want to create single-use petroleum plastic packaging for the cannabis industry,” said Ron Basak-Smith, Sana’s co-founder. “When we looked at the regulations in place, we saw that it was very difficult for anything to be made out of sustainable materials with the child-resistance [packaging requirements]. That really took out all of the current options.”   Unfortunately to succeed as a business Sana’s products must be 2-3 times the cost of another non-environmentally friendly packaging.

Disposable vaporizer pens, while certainly convenient, are a large source of waste.  Dosist, makers of disposable vaporizer pens, is combating the problem with a recycling program where there are collection bins at dispensaries where their product is sold.  When a pen is recycled the consumer will receive a $5 discount on their next Dosist purchase.

Another company fighting back is CannaCraft which has created a cannabis oil cartridge for vape pens which itself has been certified as child- resistant.  This has allowed for the removal of one layer of plastic between the product and the consumer. Kial Long, Vice President of Marketing for CannaCraft in Northern California said, “I think this is bigger than our margins,” she explained. “I think the fight against the overuse of plastic is something that our company holds in higher regard than the small savings on our packaging. We'd be very interested in helping other companies get there.”

Another easy solution to a part of this problem is to recycle your plastic.  Green for Green, based in Boulder Colorado, is the first cannabis container recycler in the state.  Created by Dave Drake and Shawn Naughton, the founders do believe their business is scalable and can be introduced to other states.  “We absolutely want to grow nationally but we think it’s got to start in Colorado,” says Naughton.

If you’re wondering, yes Michigan does have some similar packaging laws but expect them to be refined as we move to allow recreational marijuana sales.  The best practice will be to recycle your waste, and if you personally do not have recycling available to you, ask the dispensary if they can start a recycling program to help the environment.

Connie Maxim-Sparrow