Cannabis, We Have a Waste Problem…

cannabis flower in green, plastic, child proof jar

Plastic cannabis containers are the bane of the cannabis industry. Deemed a necessary evil, the excessive packaging required to keep marijuana products discreet and out of the hands of children is only contributing to much bigger problems like litter, pollution, and toxicity in everyday life.

If the stereotype of cannabis consumers dictates that we are health conscious, environmentally-aware, straw-boycotting, water-bottle-avoiding, tree-hugging hippies, shouldn't we be more concerned about the long-term implications of this problem? Have the regulations and requirements handed down by the marijuana enforcement agencies trumped our ability to demand a better solution? Or has society become so complacent to plastics that we are genuinely oblivious to the plight they cause as long as we can continue to buy weed legally?

To shed light on the subject, let's start with a lesson in environmental degradation due to plastic waste. Solutions do exist, so we must demand better, not only from the industry, but from regulators and ourselves.

The Proliferation of Plastics

the world in a plastic bag

There's little doubt that the invention of plastic changed our world. Although plastic was first created in the early 1900s, it wasn't until the 1960s that plastics started gaining popularity. Suddenly, goods didn't have to be made from wood, natural fibers, and metals, and manufacturers quickly embraced the pliable, moldable, and versatile, human-made material.

Plastics revolutionized manufacturing, enabled the creation of medical devices that save lives, and they ultimately made life easier for the general population. Today, nearly everything is plastic or contains plastic components. Unfortunately, as with so many good intentions, when we discovered, we could... we didn't stop to think if we should.

A World-Wide Problem

While the pop band Aqua once sang, "Everything is plastic, isn't it fantastic!" in their song Barbie Girl, living in a plastic world isn't as fantastic as we thought. Actually, a study conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2015 found approximately eight million metric tons of plastic flows into the ocean annually and kills about 1.5 million sea creatures each year.

Unfortunately, although plastic waste is a significant concern in the United States, defeating the beast goes far beyond domestic coasts. Outside of the US, many other countries don't have the privilege or bandwidth to emphasize the importance of reducing plastic waste. In a story told by a travel writer, after asking beach workers in Costa Rica about all the trash on a beach, the worker simply replied, "Oh, no worries, it'll be gone in the morning," referring to how they relied on the tide to carry off all their garbage.

Nothing Good Comes from Excess

Ask any nutritionist about the key to a healthy life, and they'll likely tell you, "All things in moderation." For example, occasionally having a burger from McDonald's won't instantly give you liver disease, but eating there every day, could. Environmentally speaking, plastics serve a purpose, but when we start to use them in excess, we need to consider the consequences.

For decades, Americans have known the planet has a problem with plastics. Television commercials from the 1980s showed ducks wrapped up in plastic six-pack rings and sea turtles strangled by plastic fishing line. In fact, research shows that much of the marine life in our oceans is plagued with plastic. Add in the invention of the plastic grocery bag, proliferation of plastic beverage bottles, the absurd use of straws in the United States, and now the plastic cannabis container; we are creating the perfect storm for potential problems.

Plastic Poop

In multiple studies, fish, birds, and whales were all found to contain microplastics inside their bodies, so it would be inherently na´ve to think that humans have somehow avoided ingesting the material as well. In a recent pilot study conducted at the Medical University of Vienna, eight people from different countries all contained microplastics in their digestive systems, specifically in their stool samples.

Researchers tested for ten varieties of plastics and ultimately found nine different types of plastic in the excrement of the participants. Defined as less than 5mm in size, on average, the results showed ten microparticles of plastic per 10g of poo. From this, researchers estimate as much as 50% of the world likely have plastic in their digestive system.

How Plastic Infiltrates Everything

a large fish swims to eat a plastic bag

Unlike unsuspecting wildlife, unless they're under the age of three, humans are not deliberately eating plastic, so how are these tiny particles of plastic ending up inside of our bodies? Experts believe there are multiple ways we ingest plastics without realizing it:

  • The Foods We Eat – Ever heard the phrase, "you are what you eat"? As science discovers more about the body, this statement could never be more accurate. As fish and marine life continue to be plagued with the islands of plastic garbage and debris floating in the oceans, plastics will continue to move up the food chain.
  • The Water Supply – A study published last year showed 83% of tap water from around the world contained plastic fibers. The US came in the worst with 94% of the samples from various locations in the nation showing plastic contamination.
  • Food Packaging – Everything is wrapped in plastic these days. From beverage bottles to saran wrap, food packaging and food storage solutions almost always use plastic. Just like all things in existence, plastic is made of molecules, and microscopic particles of the material can slough off on the foods it touches.
  • Cosmetics – Microbead exfoliators and other plastics are commonly found in many types of cosmetics, shower gels, and hair treatments. While we may not directly ingest these plastics, ultimately they end up in the water supply.

The Cannabis Contribution

cannabis flower in plastic bag on yellow background

Packaging requirements in the cannabis industry are stringent. Although everyone agrees marijuana packaging must be childproof and discrete, many packaging options seem excessive and many questions whether the numerous layers of packaging aren't doing more harm than good.

Yet, cannabis producers are bound by the laws set forth by their state marijuana enforcement agency. Regulations required do vary slightly from state to state, but generally speaking, cannabis products must be packaged in tamper-evident, child-resistant, resealable, opaque containers. A few of the different types of approved plastic cannabis containers include:

  • Doob Tubes – these plastic cylinders are designed to hold pre-rolled joints.
  • Drams – small plastic containers of various sizes designed to package dry cannabis flower.
  • Stink Sacks – an opaque, scent-locking security bag designed to keep the aromas from escaping after you leave the dispensary.

The Plant That Can Package Itself

hemp plants and blue sky with sun

In a recent article for Cannabis Packaging News, James Eichner, co-founder of Sana Packaging, stated "The cannabis industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and by 2020 it will be generating well over one billion units of single-use plastic packaging waste per year. In other words, the cannabis industry is on its way to having a real plastic problem."

Leafbuyer reached out to Eichner to expand on these cannabis packaging concerns and talk about their revolutionary new hemp-based bio-plastic which offers a greener option for cannabis packaging. After launching their pilot program in July with 20 customers, the company plans on scaling to full production in 2019. Today, as a fiber reinforced bio-composite, their plastic is 100% plant-based and biodegradable using hemp hurd and corn PLA-based resin. However, as more hemp processing facilities come online after the recent signing of the Farm Bill, Eichner is optimistic for advancements in hemp plastics.

Reclaiming Ocean Plastic, Too

Plastic bottles float in the ocean

In an exclusive sneak peek of an upcoming press release, Eichner told Leafbuyer about an exciting new venture for Sana Packaging. Next month, the company plans to announce a new line of packaging products made from reclaimed and recycled ocean plastics. By partnering with OceanWorks, a company which creates a market for reclaimed plastics, as well as, processes the material. By sourcing resin from OceanWorks, Sana Packaging hopes to help the environment from both ends of the spectrum: by offering a better, plant-based plastic and by cleaning existing plastics out of our oceans.

"This is a great opportunity to broaden what we're already doing and to make a direct impact on the ocean plastics problem," Eichner proclaimed.

While we'd like to put all the responsibility in one superhero to solve the pollution problem and save the planet, Eichner reminds we all have a responsibility to really make a difference, stating "It will take a group effort of big industries and consumers, alike, demanding a change."

It Takes a Village

man tends to cannabis plants in a greenhouse

Eichner is correct. There is no singular solution to a problem which has been normalized for decades. With a future toxic pollution problem inevitable without change, the answer will only be realized when we acknowledge it is going to take a collective effort to correct the errors of our past.

From the Lawmakers

While product safety is critical, we cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. By enforcing such strict policies regarding the packaging of cannabis products, we are only creating a more significant environmental issue which may not be as easy to fix in the years to come. Today, to purchase a 2-inch plastic vape cartridge, the product is packaged in a child-resistant, plastic liner, which is inserted into a 6-inch cardboard box, and then placed inside a 12-inch child-proof zippered bag – all of this for a product which could fit in your pocket.

Boulder County, Colorado, for example, takes the initiative by ensuring county recycling services include both glass and plastic cannabis containers. In doing so, residents rinse their containers and toss them in with the rest of their curbside recycling.

To the Manufacturers

Unfortunately, in a consumerism-based society, profits tend to reign supreme in the business world. Erin Brockovich taught us in the 80s; some manufacturers will go to great lengths to optimize revenues without even considering the destruction they do. The cannabis industry needs to recognize this is not an image conducive to our cause. Environmental stewardship should be a core value within all cannabis and hemp production facilities. Producers need to partner with greener packaging and marketing solutions, such as Sana Packaging.

To the Retailers

While the containers can be recycled, they must first be sterilized according to FDA regulations, which can be costly. To combat this, some dispensaries in Colorado offer their patients the ability to reuse containers and bags. Similar to carrying your own fabric grocery tote bags to avoid using the plastic bags at the grocery store, cannabis patients can carry-in and reuse containers they personally use. Additionally, as long as the secured closure is functional, consumers and patients can reuse plastic security bags, as well. Dispensaries need to remind and encourage their patrons to do so.

In one example, Levity Wellness, a medical cannabis dispensary in Colorado Springs, encourages environmental mindfulness among its patients. By using a sterilization service provided by the Cannabis Can Collector, they save on the expense of ordering new containers. Returning customers who bring their bottles in for recycling are rewarded with a $1 joint. Making recycling a win-win for everyone encourages participation.

To the Consumer

Taking accountability for ourselves is the first step in maturity and mindfulness. As consumers, we need to be aware of our footprint and take active strides in reducing waste. Unfortunately, it seems wherever humans go, we end up leaving a trail of garbage in our wake. While some of us are appalled at the amount of trash which litter our streets, parks, and even wilderness, others don't seem even to take notice.

As cannabis professionals, consumers and just as human beings, we need to do better. As the hemp industry gains momentum in the coming months, we owe it to the Earth and to future generations to stand behind the sustainable crop as part of a bigger solution to a growing problem. Although plastic cannabis containers in the legal industry are just a fraction of the problem as it exists today, the explosive growth of the sector could spell disaster if the issue isn't addressed soon. Besides demanding more from the industry, we need to demand more from each other, start holding ourselves accountable, and take responsibility for the mess we've made before it gets worse.