Legal weed packaging is wrecking the planet. What are we going to do about it?

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 02: A customer reaches for cannabis cookies at MedMen, one of the two L...
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Originally Published: 

American popular culture has long conflated cannabis with crunchy-munchy environmentalism, thanks to the role counterculture groups played in advancing the visibility of, and public dialogue around, both illicit substances and eco-consciousness from the mid-20th century on. Even as pot has escaped that subcultural niche, growing into an increasingly broad, professionalized industry over the last 25 years of gradual and piecemeal legalization, this heritage can still influence the kind of people who decide to get into the legal weed space, and the decisions they make. Overall, argues James Eichner of Sana, a legal pot packaging firm, “cannabis is an industry that skews progressive, and that wants to do well with respect to its impacts on the environment.”

That’s why I, like many other cannabis consumers, find it so odd — jarring even — that legal weed often comes wrapped in excessive amounts of plastic, a notoriously environmentally unfriendly substance. No agencies or watchdogs track the industry’s plastic use in detail yet. But one analysis in the U.S. found that a sample of cannabis products used plastic packaging weighing four to 30 times their contents. Another investigation in Canada found that a gram of weed can come in up to 70 grams of plastic. That’s more plastic per unit of product than most other licit industries use — and a lot more plastic per nug, joint, or gummy than the tiny, lightweight dime bags most small, neighborhood black market dealers have historically used.

American industry insiders say they sell over a billion units of product every year, which likely translates to thousands of tons of plastic packaging. Most of that is single-use plastic, designed to be discarded after it’s opened and emptied; the vast majority of it ends up as litter or in a landfill, even if it was placed in a recycling bin. And as the industry inevitably grows exponentially with the continued march of legalization across the country, plastics makers believe they stand to make bank on what some of them have already dubbed a green rush. All of which deeply concerns people like Judith Enck, an Obama-era EPA administrator who now runs Beyond Plastics, a pollution elimination project. “This is a major new universe of plastic waste,” she stresses.

Vince Chandler/Denver Post/Getty Images

Industry insiders insist that they’re not using all of this plastic because they want to. “In fact, it kills some of them to put organically-grown, lovingly-tended cannabis into mylar plastic bags,” says Melissa Green of MM Green, a weed packaging firm. “They want their packaging to be as green as their product.” But they say a confluence of regulatory restrictions, economic pressures, and other practical concerns make plastic unavoidable for many.

A number of companies are trying to push back on these forces, in part with innovative packaging made of deceptively simple materials like paper board, stainless steel, and even plant matter. However, some common and attractive solutions may not actually be as promising as they’re cracked up to be. And the most interesting projects may need a mixture of consumer advocacy and pure luck to take off.

When I asked a number of cannabis industry insiders why the world of legal weed uses so much plastic, the first thing the majority of them mentioned was child-proofing regulations: Every state that has legalized cannabis mandates that every individual product needs to be sold in a container that the average child cannot open, but the average senior can. That’s a higher burden than alcohol, tobacco, and other adults-only industries face, they point out. The easiest route to compliance is often to look towards the established field of (almost entirely) plastic medical packaging, which has child-proofing down pat, either for plentiful and accessible supplies, or for ideas and templates to springboard off of.

On top of this, some states have imposed regulations limiting the amount of THC that can go into a single package, “which may mean in some cases that a package can only contain one or two gummy bears,” Green points out. “So, that’s little mylar bags all over the place, right there.”

Most states also require a ton of labels and warnings on every item sold, often of a specific size, which can themselves necessitate packaging beyond a product’s actual requirements. Other restrictions, like Colorado’s “prohibition on bringing any cannabis into a retail facility that’s not able to be sold,” functionally preclude reusable packaging as well, explains Andrew Livingston, a packaging expert at the cannabis-centric law firm Vicente Sederberg. “If there’s any cannabis residue or remnants in a reusable jar, for example, then there’s a regulatory risk for the retailers,” as that could technically run afoul of this restriction. Few businesses want to roll those dice.

Some lobbyists are trying to get states to loosen a few of these restrictions, Green notes. At least one academic report has specifically suggested that child-proofing is not necessary for products like raw flower, that aren’t actually chemically active yet. Eichner believes this carve-out alone could reduce 30 percent of all plastic usage in the industry. But Livingston doubts that any state will be willing to pull back on regulations surrounding cannabis in the foreseeable future.

And besides, Livingston points out, plastic is just incredibly useful from a logistics standpoint: It’s lightweight and durable, so it’s cheaper to ship than glass or metal — and less likely to break en route in the supply chain. It also seals perfectly, keeping the levels of air and moisture inside a package at just the right levels, so that products can survive on store shelves for months on end.

Although plastic is the obvious — and may at times seem like the only — option for the cannabis industry’s many needs, a few companies have proven that alternative materials can work just as well: Sun Grown Packaging has developed tiny boxes made of recyclable or compostable paper products that incorporate a specially-patented child-proofing mechanism, and can be customized with intricate and stylish designs tied to a specific brand. Paper Tube Co. has done the same thing, but in tiny cylindrical form — perfect for joints, vape cartridges, and other small items.

“Our products are not going to be as good as plastic for shelf stabilization, for sure,” admits Sam Agrawal of Paper Tube Co. “But, I mean, prior to legalization people just threw cannabis into a baggie and put it in the freezer for a year.” So, he believes that paper products can keep flower fresh long enough for most people’s actual, practical needs. “Things that move off of shelves at high-velocity especially, like pre-rolls and edibles, may not need plastic’s shelf-life,” he adds.

Even when long shelf-life is vital, plastic isn’t the only option. Companies like the Canadian-based Nitrotin use metal cans and established “modified atmosphere packaging technology” to seal products so well that they can survive unchanged for years, founder Eric Marciniak explains. Their pull tops, like those used for tinned fish or soup, comply with child-proofing restrictions.

Vince Chandler/Denver Post/Getty Images

One start-up, Re:stash, has even created a child-proof lid made of farm waste and customizable silicone sleeve that fit over standard eight-ounce mason jars, which they’re marketing as reusable non-plastic packaging for the cannabis industry. Their materials insist their system complies with many states’ laws. The company did not respond to a request for comment on this, though. But even if they are not reusable, glass, tin, and paper are all reliably recyclable — unlike plastic.

“We keep using the same cans over and over,” Marciniak explains, of his production process.

However, Agrawal, Marciniak, and other alternative packaging makers acknowledge that their products are more expensive than plastic — sometimes by orders of magnitude — thanks to the costs associated with launching a wholly new solution, and the ample infrastructure built up around plastics. That’s a hard barrier for cannabis companies, many of which operate on slim margins and are too small to place bulk orders that’d bring down some of the costs, to overcome.

Rather than move entirely against the grain of plastic packaging norms, Sana and a number of other companies in the cannabis industry have focused their efforts on producing plastics made using plant matter (often at least partially hemp) rather than petrochemicals. These materials basically do all the convenient and useful things plastic does. But under the right conditions they biodegrade like other forms of organic waste — whereas petrochemical plastics usually just break into tinier bits of plastic over dozens-to-hundreds of years, releasing greenhouse gasses and potentially-toxic chemicals into the environment and hurting plants, animals, and humans in the process.

Green explicitly calls these solutions a form of “greenwashing,” an approach that conveys environmentalism and sustainability beyond what it delivers, convincing people that they’ve done enough to mitigate their environmental impacts when in truth they’ve done little.

Sana, like many other companies, also turns plastic waste reclaimed from the environment into new packaging. Eichner argues that this creates an incentive to take harmful junk out of nature, and mitigates plastic’s overall environmental impact by squeezing at least one more use out of it.

These materials are still more expensive than traditional plastics, Eichner admits. But often not quite as expensive as other novel alternatives. Sana has also had a lot of success selling people on the idea that just using their packaging is an effective means of showing a brand’s eco-conscious bona fides, and standing out among a sea of ever-changing products in an emerging market. Not every company cares to communicate that, Livingston notes; some are more focused on bringing costs down to compete as affordable, rather than premium and conscientious, items. But “our products have been flying off the floor since we started making them,” Eicher says.

Yet plastic waste reduction experts caution that the promise of these solutions is easily oversold. Plant-based plastics often only biodegrade in specific conditions — usually only in special waste processing facilities. Eichner freely acknowledges that “there’s only a five percent chance” that consumers live somewhere with access to these sorts of facilities.

Jonathan Levy, a zero waste blogger and waste management specialist, says he’s “actually yet to find a single facility in the country that will actually take and properly process this kind of packaging.” Absent those conditions — and especially in the crush of a landfill — these plastics just linger in the environment, in some cases breaking into hard-to-recover and potentially harmful microplastic bits like traditional plastic. In fact, cultivating biomatter and turning it into plastic, then failing to biodegrade it, can arguably at times take a greater toll on the environment than making and discarding traditional plastics.

And recycling plastic almost always degrades the material, so it usually has to be supplemented with some newly-made plastic to make anything useful. Few plastics can be recycled more than one or two times before they become functionally useless to manufacturers. As such, reclaimed plastic packaging often ends up in landfills, or back in the environment. Waste reduction experts take a dim view of plastic recycling, casting it as something that only occasionally offsets a bit of the environmental impacts of plastic production and waste, rather than really address the issue.

Eichner insists that his materials and others like them will help push waste management systems to develop more, and more accessible, facilities and processes to collect and deal with them in the future. Plastic waste reduction experts doubt this. Green explicitly calls these solutions a form of “greenwashing,” an approach that conveys environmentalism and sustainability beyond what it delivers, convincing people that they’ve done enough to mitigate their environmental impacts when in truth they’ve done little. Enck actually believes that people only work with these sorts of materials, over entirely non-plastic options, if “they’re not actually serious about sustainability.”


Instead of trying to find good or more palatable plastic options — inherently acquiescing to the ubiquity of plastic in the process — the waste reduction advocates I’ve spoken to agreed that the cannabis industry should simply move away from using plastics altogether whenever possible. Agrawal hopes that the industry will open up to this path as more people learn that Paper Tube Co. and other non-plastic packaging companies exist, see major brands trusting their product to their packages, and realize that they are both functional and worth a bit of investment as a marketing tool. He also believes that, as legalization spreads and the industry develops, suppliers will develop the scale and resources to place bulk orders for non-plastics, and his own business and others like it will expand and mature, slowly bringing down costs to more accessible levels.

But Enck suggests that this shift will also hinge on tearing down barriers that hold non-plastic packaging back—and struts that prop plastics up. That might involve trying to revise packaging regulations to find a sweet spot between safety and sustainability. It might also involve passing laws that make plastic manufacturers responsible for long-term environmental costs associated with their products. That would adjust market prices to reflect holistic realities, raising awareness of plastic’s real-world downsides and closing the feasibility gap between it and other materials. Whatever the approach, this will require sustained consumer education and advocacy efforts — like telling your local cannabis retailer that you want to see more plastic-free options on their shelves, exactly why you want to see that, and how much more you’re willing to pay for it.

However, change of any sort in legal cannabis’ plastic-heavy packaging norms will likely take some time to develop, because the industry is grappling with several other sustainability issues all at once. Insiders and outside observers have arguably devoted more attention to the waste associated with increasingly industrialized cannabis cultivation, and the disposal of excess plant materials. So, unfortunately for the foreseeable future I and other perturbed parties just have to live with a plastic-drenched industry, and do our part to support non-plastic packaging makers if and when it’s possible to do so.

Unless, of course, we’re willing to get into small-scale personal cultivation. “Growing your own,” Levy points out, “is currently the only way to avoid plastic packaging entirely.”