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Possible Green Solutions in Plastic Cannabis Packaging

Photo by Karina Tess on Unsplash
Benjamin Mumford-Zisk
Benjamin Mumford-Zisk 15 Oct 2019

The cannabis industry has a packaging problem. The carbon cost of manufacturing, shipping and disposal is astronomical. Several companies have taken it upon themselves to alleviate the issue, but unless their practices are adopted industry-wide, the cannabis industry will become an environmental catastrophe. 

Let’s back up. Industry regulations in states that have legalized the public sale of cannabis all dictate that cannabis must be sold sealed in an opaque, childproof container. Opaque just means the material can’t be see-through, but child-proofing demands a level of durability found, for the most part, in plastic. 

“A lot of time people focus just on the primary package, and sometimes not on the waste that was created in making that package.”

There is a misconception that all plastic is created equal, which simply isn’t the case. Modern processes allow us to make plastic from corn silk, hemp, or sugarcane, but even plastic derived from virgin petroleum can be made in a way that minimizes the carbon cost of manufacturing and shipping, an oft-overlooked part of the process. 

“A lot of time people focus just on the primary package, and sometimes not on the waste that was created in making that package,” says Simon Knobel, CEO of Calyx Containers. “We want to produce the least amount of material in the beginning of things.” 

Headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, Calyx Containers espouses a holistic approach to manufacturing, seeking to maximize efficiency and minimize waste across their manufacturing and shipping process. 

“If we don’t manufacture [waste], we don’t need to figure out how to dispose of it effectively.” 

“If we don’t manufacture [waste],” Knobel says, “we don’t need to figure out how to dispose of it effectively.” 

To increase shipping efficiency, Calyx only manufactures square containers, which allows them to eliminate the empty space that surrounds traditional cylindrical containers. This increased their shipping capacity by 18%, without any increase in shipping volume. 

Basing manufacturing in the United States further reduces their carbon footprint, minimizing the distance packaging must travel to reach the production facility. And by shipping their packaging materials in reusable, returnable containers, and partnering with distributors, they can more fully embrace circular manufacturing, extending the operational lifespan of their products. 

Calyx still produces petroleum-based plastic, but they have a method in place to limit the time their plastic spends in landfills: plastic-eating bacteria. 

“Look at all this trash, it’s going against the whole culture.” 

“We use a microbial attractor in the material.” Knobel sounds proud of this. “[It] helps in landfills, for accelerated degradation.” 

Other companies use alternative plastics. Mike Greenfield, founder of HiSierra Exit Bags, uses plastic produced from sugar cane to create a flexible, carbon-neutral exit bag. He recalls his first contact with cannabis industry professionals. 

“They were like ‘Mike, we like you, but we need something Earth-friendly… Look at all this trash, it’s going against the whole culture.” 

Greenfield has worked his entire professional life in packaging manufacture, and he came into the cannabis industry with a set of rules for himself. Whatever he created had to be green, “the real deal,” as he puts it. Not only that, the manufacturing had to be green, as well. It had to be certified child resistant and cannabis compliant, and it had to be made in America. 

“Our goal is to address the five primary material types used for cannabis packaging.”

Today, he makes HiSierra bags in a LEED-certified wind-powered facility in California and sells them to dispensaries nationwide. The bags are derived from a clean, minimally invasive source of carbon, plant carbon, “not dinosaur carbon,” as Greenfield puts it.  

Other companies, like Colorado’s Sana Packaging, are using hemp-derived plastic to make their products. Sana also produces packaging made from reclaimed ocean plastic and glass. 

“Our goal is to address the five primary material types used for cannabis packaging, so, rigid plastics, flexible plastics, glass, metal and paperboard,” says James Eichner, Co-Founder and CSO of Sana Packaging. Eichner sees the cannabis industry as an opportunity to develop green manufacturing practices that can be exported to other industries. 

“We are never going to be able to compete, unfortunately, with overseas products that are made with the cheapest materials possible.”

“It’s about scaling up existing supply chains for circular materials and then trying to get those materials into other industries. We’re building [the cannabis industry] from the ground up, so best practices are still being developed…as opposed to trying to tackle industries that have been around for 20, 50, 100 years… we really see an opportunity to implement circular packaging at an early stage in the cannabis industry.” 

The major obstacle facing sustainable packaging, Eichner says, is cost. “Our current products are all 2-3 times more expensive than your cheapest products.” He’s not the only one who brings this up.

“Margin is the first line of objection,” Greenfield says at one point. “I’m not gonna be in a race to the bottom on price. Some people get it, and some don’t.” 

“We are never going to be able to compete, unfortunately, with overseas products that are made with the cheapest materials possible,” Knobel says. 

“A lot of our customers have been really receptive to downsizing their packages, using less materials, reusing the packaging that we provide.” 

Add to this the fact of the United States’ lagging waste-management infrastructure. HiSierra’s sugarcane plastic exit bags, for example, are #7 recyclable, but in most parts of this country, there isn’t an apparatus to deal with anything but #1 or #2. Industrial composting is nearly non-existent in this country, preventing the wider adoption of compostable plastic. And our tendency to toss waste in the bin and move on presents its own set of problems. 

“It quickly becomes a very complicated conversation,” Eichner says. “Packaging is just one piece of the puzzle.” That said, early signs have been encouraging. 

“We’re fulfilling orders on a national basis,” Greenfield tells me. “Business is good. It can always be better.” 

“It’s definitely something people are embracing,” Knobel says. “A lot of our customers have been really receptive to downsizing their packages, using less materials, reusing the packaging that we provide.” 

“The best people I’ve ever met have been in the cannabis industry.”

It all comes down to universal effort, though. “Ultimately, we need everyone to be doing this,” Eichner says. “For there to be an impact, we need everybody to be doing this.” 

Greenfield echoes Eichner’s words, demurring when asked about competition and market share. 

“It’s not about cornering the market,” he tells me. “It’s about being helpful, being of service.” 

He’s optimistic about the future of packaging in the cannabis industry, though. People want to make a positive change. 

“The best people I’ve ever met have been in the cannabis industry,” he says. 

The trick, then, is giving the best people a better way forward.

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