Anyone who has ever visited a cannabis dispensary has seen, even marveled at, the array of products and their various forms of packaging. From intricate glass bottles to elaborate plastic wraps, bags of all sizes, tubes and a seemingly endless supply of vape cartridges, most retail cannabis products, although made with child safety concerns in mind, are certainly not created with environmental concerns at the fore.
When it comes to packaging requirements, laws differ from state to state. Last August, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission updated its Packaging and Labeling Guide, which now requires both “resealable and continually child-resistant” vials similar to prescription bottles, as well as resealable exit packaging described as “a sealed, child-resistant certified receptacle into which marijuana items already within a container are placed at the retail point of sale.”
Meanwhile, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, Oregon’s neighbor to the north requires cannabis packaging be comprised of “plastic four mil or greater in thickness and be heat sealed with no easy-open tab, dimple, corner, or flap as to make it difficult for a child to open and as a tamperproof measure.” There is no nationwide industry standard.
According to National Geographic, 91 percent of plastic is not recycled, as it can take up to “400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. Only 12 percent has been incinerated.” Seventy-nine percent of the world’s plastic ends up as landfill, eventually making its way to our waterways and oceans. National Geographic predicts that by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic at dump sites.
As the legal cannabis industry grows, so too will the associated waste. There is not yet a federal program in place for cannabis waste recycling, but work is being done to change that. To that end, holding company SinglePoint, Inc. is working with Phoenix-based Circonomy Solutions to develop the cannabis industry’s first waste diversion project.
“With every state implementing different rules on cannabis waste disposal, few, if any, provide useful resources,” SinglePoint president Wil Ralston said in a March press release. “With the assistance of Circonomy, we feel very confident in the development of a simple, state-by-state scalable solution that we can take one step beyond the normal seed-to-sale [tracking system] and move to cradle-to-grave while tracking the entire process.”
As of this writing, it does not appear this effort to reduce waste has been implemented by either company.
Reaching out to various state health departments with medical and/or recreational cannabis laws enacted, we take a look at which states have information in place to address the reduction of packaging materials and recycling within their current rules and regulations.
The Arizona Department of Health Services advises to check its Medical Marijuana portal, which has a tab devoted to Rules & Statutes, detailing how cannabis businesses must package products on-site. However, there are no specific rules for what type of packaging materials are required. While Arizona appears to be good about publishing grower, patient and caregiver advice and rules, and provides substantial information regarding product labeling and packaging, a search of the site did not reveal any relevant recycling information, nor did it show specific requirements for the actual packaging material itself.
Colorado, a pioneering state in both medical and recreational cannabis, posted a document, entitled Solid and Hazardous Waste: Marijuana and Marijuana-Related Waste Disposal, which states:
A marijuana establishment shall dispose of marijuana and marijuana-infused product waste in a secure waste receptacle in possession and control of the marijuana establishment. … This must be accomplished by grinding and incorporating the marijuana waste with any of the non-consumable, solid wastes listed below:
- Paper waste, plastic waste, cardboard waste, food waste, grease or other compostable oil waste, bokashi or other compost activators and soil.
The Delaware Medical Marijuana Code requires unusable medical marijuana waste must be stored, secured and managed prior to the waste leaving a registered facility. This will be done by grinding and incorporating the medical marijuana waste with non-consumable, solid wastes including paper, plastic and cardboard.
Maine did not feature any specific rules or laws regarding package recycling. However, Maratek is a company that recycles and reuses common solvents utilized within the cannabis extraction processes, including butane, ethanol, hexane, propane and isopropyl alcohol. Maratek not only operates in Maine, it also provides services in all legal states within the US as well as in Canada, and claims its customers recover their investment costs within 12 to 18 months.
Massachusetts runs the Cannabis Control Commission, which is tasked with implementing and administering the laws enabling access to medical and adult-use marijuana in the state. The commission has also published a document, Adult Use of Marijuana, which addresses the issue of how a cannabis facility is to recycle and dispose of organic material, recyclable material and solid waste disposal.
In a 2018 story published in the Santa Fe Reporter, it was reported that New Mexico has also experienced issues with cannabis recycling:
“For the cannabis industry to have a pretty low-value plastic material to begin with, and to try to find a market for that, to try to recycle that, it’s hard,” says Sarah Pierpont, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition. Even if cannabis packaging used the kind of plastic for which there is a relatively high demand, such as plastic water bottles, “it’s a pretty hard time to be trying to recycle plastics right now in the whole country.”
When asked about recycling initiatives for cannabis packaging in Washington state, Misha Jones, marketing head of Tacoma dispensary Mary Mart, provide the following statement:
We’ve known of this problem during the very beginnings of this industry. This is a huge issue for all industries. However, many are coming to solutions quite quickly. We feel that we need to bring in the right people (entrepreneurs and inventors) to help us do so!
The state of Washington needs to be encouraged to create a recycling program of some sort. … In-store recycling would currently be considered illegal because it will be considered open containers. It is illegal to have open containers in cannabis shops.
Legalizing hemp at the federal level [is] a great help in fighting waste in America at large. We feel that there are many creative solutions that will aid in the waste issue in the i502 industry:
1. Simply ensuring that all consumers recycle packaging is a great start. To help push individual responsibility, there should be more PSAs on how to recycle, why it’s important, and the process thereof to further understand recycling and why it’s important.
2. A state-approved or municipality-approved recycling program would be a great start in creating a more green future for our industry. It could be colorful recycling bins, that are secure, outside of dispensaries that somehow encourage the local populace to engage in recycling through making the experience fun.
3. Ban the use of petroleum plastic in the i502 industry. This will help to address the problem at the root. This will prevent plastic waste from even entering the industry.
In a bid to think globally, act locally, each morning Mary Mart staff canvas the neighborhood for receipts and trash that customers leave upon exiting the store. The dispensary also encourages customers to properly dispose of packaging and also participate regularly in local cleanup initiatives to ensure a cleaner environment.
What The Cannabis Community Is Doing About Packaging Waste
When discussing with cannabis workers the matter of excessive waste in the cannabis industry, many agreed that it has become a serious issue. Former cannabis professional Nicole Costello says, “It absolutely killed me to watch how much plastic was wasted. I worked at one dispensary that did have a recycling program where if you brought back a certain amount of jars, you would get a free gram. That seemed to be a good solution, but only very few people would participate. Here in California, everyone has to have the childproof reusable bags to store their products in. I think it would be a good idea to get reusable jars also! The problem is getting people to participate.”
For this reason, and also to account for the physical challenges some customers might face, medical marijuana patient Jason Lang, who is missing fingers from both hands, has created a petition to allow cannabis consumers to bring their own containers to dispensaries.
Packaging requirements within the cannabis industry have evolved from those instituted in 1970 when, in an effort to protect children from accidentally ingesting dangerous household items and medications, President Nixon signed the Poison Prevention Packaging Act. This act required a number of household substances to be packaged in child-resistant packaging, which must be “designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open within a reasonable time, and not difficult for normal adults to use properly.”
The act also provides that “for the sake of the elderly and handicapped who might have difficulty opening such containers, a regulated product … may be packaged in one non-complying size provided it carries a warning that it is not recommended for use in households with children.”
Florida medical marijuana patient Deborah Hooper consumes cannabis to help with her arthritis. She says the childproof containers are difficult to open, requiring a screwdriver at times. Meanwhile, Colorado patient Alice R. Foster says that while she “totally gets” the need for childproof packaging for cannabis medicine, she would like the option of an easy-to-maneuver flippable lid. She also called for recycling containers to be made available in every dispensary and suggested a discount for returning them, noting “every penny counts” for disabled and elderly patients.
MediWaste Disposal has for decades provided waste disposal services for the medical and chemical sectors. Now, it’s launched a Cannacycle Program to “manage all waste streams that are produced in the cannabis industry; solvents, organics, edibles, oils, waxes, waste water, etc.”
Zeoform is an Australian company that manufactures a sustainable, biodegradable, industrial-strength molding material made of cellulose fibers and water. These cellulose fibers include agricultural biomass, recycled or discarded paper, cotton — and yes, hemp. Its applications include flat panels for construction items such as cladding, doors, walls, floors, ceilings and countertops. It also creates tubes and pipes for structural beams, columns and furniture. As the US government introduces legal hemp into farming and production practices, Zeoform represents the type of company we can look to regarding sustainable business practices in the emerging hemp and cannabis industries.
Meanwhile, over in China, Marijuana Packaging Solutions is a company that creates environmentally friendly paperboard items designed specifically for cannabis products, like this Cannabis Concentrate Container Folding Carton Wax Container Box or this Child Resistant Folding Carton. All its products are sustainable, affordable and logical solutions to many of the issues the cannabis industry faces. Company spokesperson Sam Cheung explains, “Our packaging products such as paper boxes and paper tubes are made of biodegradable paperboard materials,” and Marijuana Packaging Solutions actively encourages customers to recycle or reuse its products.
Perhaps a possible solution to the plastic problem is bugs. Wax worms can chew a hole through a plastic bag within 40 minutes. According to National Geographic, scientists discovered that over the course of one night, 100 wax worms degraded 92 milligrams of plastic shopping bags. At that rate, it would take approximately one month for wax worms to completely break down an average 5.5-gram plastic bag.
Whatever the issue, it’s clear the cannabis industry has a lot of growing to do, especially when it comes to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Will key players within the community spearhead recycling and packaging reduction efforts, or will the federal government develop a comprehensive program, encompassing all cannabis producers, helping to ensure a more sustainable future? This is an area that needs to be explored and expanded upon. After all, whoever invents a recyclable vape cartridge or reusable hemp plastic packaging will likely become a financial winner, and also a cannabis community leader who shows others how to respect our planet.