NOTE: this blog has been updated On May 31st 2022 to address the complicated issue of PLA plastics. New blog upcoming!

In the world of cannabis, packaging is everything. We love a good luxury package. But have we stopped to think about how that packaging can be reused, recycled, or reused to avoid wasteful practices? Let’s take a look at ten ways to decrease packaging waste and explore what else we can do to create greener products for all of us to enjoy. 

Do you, like me, have a drawer full of “too nice to throw away” packaging from your favorite weed brands? Beautiful preroll tins, lovely cannabis flower jars, and those fun snap boxes for gummies that come in a geometric package, you know the ones I mean?

Are you also kinda confused about what to do with all those empty dispensary containers responsibly? Unsure on whether you can even recycle vape cartridges? Wishing there were compostable cannabis bags and recyclable cannabis flower packaging?

The struggle is real. We’ve seen and heard your frustration. This blog post is here to help you.

All these questions and more will be answered as we continue to explore the cannabis packaging industry in an ongoing series. This article is the first in the series! If you fear you missed the boat on understanding cannabis packaging and waste, contact us to learn what you can do at this point to cut down your carbon footprint. (And if you’re a cannabis brand looking to go greener with your prodct packaging, we definitely should talk.)

How did we get here?

It’s hard to find a piece of news today that doesn’t relate to cannabis in some way. And with legalization happening all around the country at a rapid pace, the days when cannabis-related plastics weren’t a problem seem long gone. There’s a downside to legalization – the issue of mountains of cannabis plastic waste due to state regulations around child resistant packaging and opaque packaging requirements.

The US Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1978 (PPPA) requires child-resistant packaging for all household chemicals. But poisonous chemicals like bleach and Tylenol aren’t the only things that require child resistant packaging: due to an abundance of caution, most cannabis products are required to be packaged in child-resistant packaging. And yes, obviously you’d want your adult gummies packaged in a container that is difficult for children to access. 

But what about flower? Topicals? I like to joke, that if your kid knows how to operate a lighter and knows how to roll a joint, they can probably also figure out how a child-resistant jar works. 

Child-resistant packaging comes in many forms: some are stand up bags with a “pinch here and pull here to open” mechanism, while some jars have a “push and turn” logic. Some cannabis packaging manufacturers have gotten innovative, and created boxes that require a key or larger hands to open. 

All this tech means there needs to firstly be a lot of heavy, thick material that is difficult to tear open, and secondly, a lot of these mechanisms require the use of plastics. 

Which leads to our plastic pollution problem. 

The scourge of single-use plastics

No human on earth produces more trash than the average American. This country is sending out more than 40 million tons of waste per year. More than 1 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every day!

In California In July 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Plastic Pollution Prevention Act. The act will reduce waste in California by updating recycling and banning plastic grocery bags and single use straws. Coincidentally that was also the year recreational cannabis became legalized. 

So the logic behind banning single use plastic bags but at the same time demanding heavy plastic cannabis exit bags … is interesting to say the least. But alas, here we are. 

So what can an average consumer do to green up their act?

1. Make less resource intensive choices 

Smoking flower is much less resource intensive than a vape, where a small amount of oil is packaged up in 10x its weight in packaging. Instead of a disposable vape, maybe get a reusable one that takes flower? Take it further, and pick a flower brand grown without artificial lights and with low water, and you’ll be feeling mighty green. 

2. Choose sustainably packaged products

More sustainable packaging choices include: paper and other renewable plant based material, lightweight products made from recycled material such as 100% post consumer waste plastics, or lightweight recyclable materials like aluminum. Petrochemical plastics are, from a purely carbon footprint standpoint, actually not a bad choice, so a lightweight bag has a smaller ecological footprint than a heavy glass jar, for example. The glass jar will be more recyclable, as plastics recycling is at its infancy in the United States. From a purely carbon footprint standpoint, a flexible pouch is better than a glass jar. Less resource intensive to make and to ship. But from a human and planet health standpoint, plastics are no bueno – microplastics, plastic softeners leaching into our bodies, not so great. Especially with cannabis, with its high terpene content, plastic leaching is a real thing. 

3. Support companies making an effort 

Companies are looking at their bottom line, so if a more expensive sustainable packaging option doesn’t sell as well as the cheaper option, those companies will have to opt out of the sustainable option. It is our duty as good citizens to support companies making an effort. Things to look for: 

  • carbon neutral
  • 100% post-consumer waste
  • Hemp plastic
  • Recycled paper
  • Ocean-bound plastic
  • Recycled PCR plastic
  • Compostable plastic
  • Bio-based plastic

4. Find out if there’s a takeback program 

Does the company have a takeback program? Can you ask your local store opt into purchasing a TerraCycle box for dispensary waste? Some cannabis brands have created a recycling program where they will collect the packaging back, wash, and reuse. 

5. Creative reuse 

A lot of cannabis packaging is very sturdy, and can be reused for many things. Organize your paperclips, or make custom spice blends, or pour candles into the jars? 

6. Recycle – if you can 

Find out how to recycle correctly in your municipal waste system, as every city is different. Also be realistic with your recycling efforts: do not fall prey to wishcycling, where you toss everything in the recyclables bin hoping for the best. In turn you may end up ruining the whole batch of recyclables, and creating more waste in the process. So only recycle things that you know will get recycled. Unfortunately a lot of small pieces of plastics, and a lot of flexible plastics won’t get recycled in even the more advanced MRF’s (materials recovery facility) and at worst will jam  their systems. One thing to know is: recycling is a business. So recycling companies only want the stuff that they can resell as material. So that’s also why it’s important to buy items made with recycled materials, to help support that marketplace. 

7. Special shoutout to composting 

Did you know you can compost some packaging? Compost eating worms is definitely more advanced  crunchy level green, but hey, what’s better than gardening? Whether you do it, or send it out for industrial composting,  it may be the best things you can do that are good for the planet. You can compost paper, cardboard, and there are even some plastics that are home compostable! 

8. Avoid greenwashing claims 

Trust, but verify claims made by companies. One buzzword that is currently popular is “biodegradable” which as a term is entirely meaningless. EVERYTHING biodegrades – eventually. It might just take hundreds of years. 

Another greenwashing claim is where a company claims it’s sustainable because it CAN be reused. But they give no suggestions on how one might reuse an acrylic preroll tube, and they will not collect them back, so it’s just left to the consumer to feel guilty about not reusing it. 

9. Buy local 

Shipping is a big part of a package’s carbon footprint. Ask your favorite brands whether their packaging comes from China, or if they’re buying American made packaging. It’s not only supporting jobs right here at home, it is also a big step in sustainability 

10. What’s the most sustainable form of packaging? 

No packaging at all. I say, bring back the days when you could buy flower into your own mason jar, or when gummies or prerolls can be sold into little paper baggies like penny candy, to be put back into reusable containers at home. Or sold in reusable, washable, returnable containers, like one sees happening with companies like Loop or Dispatch Goods. Call your government representative, write to your state’s cannabis regulators, and demand they enact better regulatons for cannabis packaging, with cannabis packaging waste in mind. 

Well, now you have all the information you will need with this list of all the cannabis packaging sustainability resources you’ll need to become a savvy conscious consumer.

Comment below with any questions, comments, or feedback! 

What else would you like to see covered in this cannabis packaging series?