The cannabis industry has a waste disposal problem. Whether it’s gnarly solvents used in the manufacturing process or leftover biomass that must be destroyed or extra packaging required to make products impossible for a child (or an otherwise competent stoner) to open, legal cannabis creates a lot of waste. Tons of it.
It’s appalling how much packaging is used to sell a few legal buds. A Canadian Broadcasting Company report suggested that a gram of weed sold at a licensed storefront in Canada, where a legal cannabis industry opened its doors in 2018, can produce close to 100 grams of packaging waste.
The problem of excess cannabis waste is rooted in the legacy of criminalization that now manifests as unnecessary overregulation. Paradoxically, cannabis overregulation is generating a huge amount of extra garbage.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Single-use packaging may be the most obvious problem of waste for consumers. Walk down a sidewalk near a cannabis dispensary in Los Angeles or Seattle and you’re likely to see small plastic tubes and tamper-proof bags that are far larger than the items they once held. A principal intent behind single-use packaging is to more tightly monitor and control the plant’s sale, but it has created an enormous problem of excessive waste, with as little as one gram or a single pre-rolled joint meriting its own plastic container.
Figures provided by Headset, a cannabis data-analytics company, indicate that 32.5 million “units” of cannabis prerolls were sold in California in 2020. (A unit, in this case, could mean a single preroll in a plastic tube or as many as 10-20 prerolls in a carton.) And 53.6 million packets of loose, manicured bud in childproof containers were also sold last year in the Golden State. The oversized plastic packaging for these “units” often ends up as street litter or as refuse in a garbage dump.
States that have legalized cannabis require each product to include a large amount of labeling, such as health warnings, identification numbers, soil and other crop production inputs, as well as testing information and cannabinoid composition. Because of these labeling requirements, “packages end up being significantly larger than the actual product requires,” according to a June 2020 report published in the Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, and most of it is destined for a landfill. “The biggest problem with packaging and labeling are the numerous regulations that result in extra packaging being used to fit everything on the product,” the Law Journal notes.
Colorado regulators recently adopted new rules that make it somewhat easier for cannabis consumers to recycle their stash-related trash. Dispensaries in the Centennial State are now allowed to offer packaging receptacles in their lobbies. In January 2021, the Airfield Supply Co., a cannabis dispensary based in San Jose, CA, implemented a similar recycling program. But this is the exception, not the rule.
Owing to the current patchwork of legalization regimes, there’s no central authority tracking cannabis waste in most states, let alone across the US. California, for example, has three separate state agencies with their own waste management regulations for different parts of the cannabis production process. And Canada does not track cannabis waste packaging at all.
A handful of startups have identified the enormous waste problem as a green business opportunity. Ron Basak-Smith, one of the young entrepreneurs behind Sana Packaging, spoke with Project CBD about his company’s efforts to develop one of the few brands based solely on sustainable packaging for cannabis products. He and his partner James Eicher, both recent business school graduates, are using hemp, reclaimed ocean plastic, and other non-petroleum-based materials to create a closed-loop business model that generates no waste, with their packaging material either recycled into further use (for nonbiodegradable plastics) or discarded in a way that does not accelerate pollution.
The model is based on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition of a “Circular Economy,” which aims to design waste and pollution out of the economy while keeping materials in constant use and helping to regenerate natural systems. So far, Basak-Smith says, Sana Packaging has worked with 370 customers, mostly in the US with a handful in Canada, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
“If [cannabis producers] are using regenerative agricultural practices to cultivate their products, they need to think of things like packaging as an extension of that,” says Basak-Smith. “You don’t want a disconnect between producer and consumer at the point of sale because of unsustainable packaging. It’s all part of a bigger picture.”
Another business at the precipice of innovations in cannabis packaging is Sungrown, an Oakland-based packaging company that works directly with customers to design sustainable, custom packaging made of completely compostable materials. According to the company’s website, its “printing process uses water-based coatings and soy-based inks and we are proud to source our materials domestically.”
PolyCanna, a Colorado-based enterprise, emphasizes hemp-sourced sustainable packaging options, as well as creative recycling and upcycling strategies for mitigating cannabis-related waste. “The main focus right now, PolyCanna CEO Tyler Couch told Ganjapreneur, “is to find viable solutions for the single-use oil-based plastic that the industry currently has while we integrate bioplastics. The trick is finding a way for single use plastic to never reach to ocean or landfills in the first place.”
As the industry evolves, new forms of cannabis consumption will likely necessitate new ways to package and properly dispose of waste. Vape cartridges are a prime example of something few imagined would be an issue a decade ago, but now poses a challenge for sustainability advocates.
In 2019, CannaCraft, Inc., a major cannabis producer based in Santa Rosa, CA, modified its manufacturing process to childproof vape cartridges without adding extra single-use plastic – an innovation commended by the California Department of Public Health. CannaCraft produces two million vape cartridges annually.
The following year, 27.8 million plastic vape “units” were sold in California, according to Headset. But when OMG Farms, based in Arcata, tried to initiate a bring-back program for customers to return used vape cartridges to dispensaries, misguided regulations in California made the program unfeasible.
Vape retailers have struggled to figure out what to do with cartridges – inevitably, they end up in landfills because California and other states bar recycling plants from accepting waste that has come into contact with cannabis products. The Sacramento-based nonprofit Up Kindness sponsored an art exhibit last year made entirely of vape cartridges to raise awareness of the issue. Meanwhile, proposed legislation in California intended to address similar waste from tobacco vaping appears to have gone nowhere.
The New Jersey-based business TerraCycle has developed a national recycling program for vape cartridges, as well as other kinds of cannabis packaging. It’s part of the company’s larger mission to partner with businesses and local governments seeking to dispose of hard-to-recycle waste, such as coffee pods and other plastics. Terracycle operates various recycling programs in 21 countries, but its only cannabis-focused waste program is in Canada.
In 1988, Francis Young, the DEA’s chief administrative law judge, unexpectedly (and accurately) declared in a nonbinding legal opinion that cannabis “in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” and “is safer than many foods we commonly consume.” But regulators in states that have legalized cannabis continue to treat the herb as if it’s a deadly, radioactive poison that must be handled and disposed of in a special way.
Just as many state regulations require excessive cannabis packaging and prohibit their proper recycling, cannabis biomass can also be difficult to dispose of. Not because it’s a dangerous, inorganic material, but because red tape in many states doesn’t allow mixing waste from the Evil Weed with other materials. Illinois, for example, requires any producer that wants to destroy cannabis waste must notify the Department of Agriculture and State Police, and possibly must also have an employee from the agriculture department or another state agency present during the destruction. Reefer madness never seems to end.
Aware that time-intensive composting is not an efficient disposal method for many cultivators, Micronwaste Technologies, based in Vancouver, Canada, says it has found a solution to onerous regulations on discarding cannabis biomass. The company’s “Cannavore” method essentially pulverizes cannabis waste into water, mixing it with microbes and enzymes until it can be reused as water to irrigate cannabis crops. The process does not emit methane – which is a problem with other methods of obtaining produced water – and the company claims the water can also be sent back into municipal sewage once it has removed all “Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients” in the crop.
Mushroom Mycelium & Hemp Hurd
Several other companies are developing hemp-derived solutions to address the issue of cannabis industry waste that state regulations have either ignored or outright exacerbated.
Paradise Packaging in Butte County, CA, produces a unique, cardboard-like composite made of hemp and mushroom mycelium that’s suitable for shaped or molded packaging material and other uses, which are applicable for many types of merchandise, not just cannabis products.
The hemp-mushroom composite “is one hundred percent bio-based and one hundred percent compostable,” Paradise Packaging co-founder Ciaran McCarthy told Project CBD. “It’s also water-resistant and fire-resistant.”
In addition to packaging and shipping containers for a wide range of products, including cannabis tinctures and wine bottles, Paradise Packaging is marketing biodegradable, mushroom/hemp composite seed starters and planters for cannabis clones.
“There’s a huge demand for this material,” says McCarthy, who appreciates the astonishing versatility of low-resin, industrial hemp, a plant with tens of thousands of potential applications. To which we should add one more – sustainable, hemp-based packaging to mitigate the growing problem of waste generated by the cannabis industry.
Aaron Miguel Cantú is an investigative journalist based in Los Angeles and Martin A. Lee is the director of Project CBD. This article is adapted from a forthcoming Project CBD report on Cannabis and the Green New Deal. Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
Green Rush Blues: California Cannabis After Legalization
Part 1 of our 3-part series: Eco-Crisis: Will Legalization Save California’s Forests?
Bag the Tags! California’s Eco-Absurdity
The attempt to track the movement of every cannabis plant is polluting the environment with plastic waste.
Cannabis, the Climate Crisis & the West Coast Wildfires
What does the changing climate portend for the future of cannabis farming in California and Oregon?