How to Guide: Choosing Sustainable Cannabis Packaging

by | Mar 16, 2021 | Blog

The cannabis industry has a waste problem. We’re drowning in plastic, as each item gets wrapped in multiple layers of what is often non-recyclable materials.

Nicepaper called it “inception-level layers of packaging”.

Better, greener options exist for every product type. So why isn’t the cannabis industry doing better? Why are we still doing mylar? 

There are a couple things that you need to know when you’re choosing your cannabis packaging. First thing is: this is something consumers truly care about – it’s not just a nice to have – it can drive sales. 

The overall trend is toward sustainability: 2/3 of consumers want companies to be sustainable, and over 70% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

In a nightmare inducing scenario, a single gram of cannabis product can be wrapped in as much as 30 grams of packaging.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of seeing nonrecyclable mylar bags everywhere, or a thick plastic container for a tiny eight of flower inside, or a vape cart inside a bag inside a box inside plastic – often many duplicate layers of redundant packaging. And none of it is actually recyclable.

And that’s just dumb. And I want to change that, one package at a time. 

 

What you need to know – understanding sustainability

First thing about choosing cannabis product packaging is to think about:

1. What material it was made out of 

2. How it was manufactured

3. Where was it made (and how far is it shipped from)

4. What happens to it after use 

What is it made out of and how? 

The source material, whether it’s an oil based plastic versus a renewable resource like cardboard. Renewable resources are always better bets; paperboard and things like hemp plastics will have a smaller footprint. Things like glass and aluminum are resource heavy to make and heavy to ship. This is why a lot of companies making refills are packaging them up in a plastic pouch – the amount of packaging material is so much less (this is called lightweighting) where it makes sense to sell you dish soap in a flexible bag than a hard plastic bottle. One has way less material, and material weight, than the other. Both are still plastic, though.  

Sustainable swap example: 

+ Hemp plastic 
– Regular plastic  

 

Where was it made and shipped from? 

Was it made in China and shipped all the way across the world on an airplane? Or was it made locally, using local materials? Shipping alone can be the biggest individual contributor to a package’s carbon footprint, so knowing where the thing ships from, can have a huge effect. Heavy, large items have a larger shipping footprint. Glass is heavy, and breaks in transit. Paper is light, so is aluminum. Shop local, don’t ship! 

Sustainable swap example: 

+ Paper box made in the US
– Glass jar, made in China

 

What happens to it after use? 

When we think about eco-friendliness, we often think recyclability. But in actuality, that is just a one small part of the overall impact of a package. Truth is, we’re not going to be able to recycle our way out of this mess! Plastics recycling in the USA  is especially dismal, and it often downcycles more than it re-cycles. Things like aluminum and glass recycle much better, but even those, with small items, like small jars and tubes, and color or amber glass more often than not doesn’t actually recycle that well (if at all). There’s a term in the industry called wishcycling – where we as consumers put more stuff in the recycling bin than actually gets recycled in the end, because it makes us feel better. 

Sustainable swap example: 

+ Compostable bag
– Nonrecyclable mylar bag 

 

On the scale of recyclability: 

1. Compostability is the best

2. Paper and cardboard recycles (or composts!) 

3. Aluminum recycles well

4. Glass recycles well, if large enough pieces

5. Plastic barely ever recycles at all (about 9% gets recycled)

 

Plastic recycling is in its infancy,  so calling a plastic package recyclable is a bit greenwashing. Realistically, only plastic soda bottles and bigger plastic tubs actually end up picked up, and not all municipalities even collect plastics to begin with.  Aluminum can be recycled multiple times,  same with glass too – there is still an added impact from the reprocessing the material, but it is way less than doing brand new items, the impact for recycled aluminum is 90% less than virgin aluminum. So recycle those cans! Compostability is the gold standard, but not always practical with all products. 

 

HOT TIP: 

If a package has multiple materials glued together, like a jar with a plastic child resistant insert, or preroll tin with a glued on plastic tray – multimaterial pieces do not recycle without the consumer separating out the plastic pieces. So when choosing packaging, make sure yours is 100% single material (called monomaterial in designer speak). 

 

My company, Changemaker Creative helps cannabis and hemp companies stand out with unique custom branding and packaging design – and attract a cult following of loyal customers. With a focus on sustainable packaging for conscious cannabis and hemp product brands, Lilli Keinaenen, the founder and designer of Changemaker Creative is deeply passionate about saving the planet through better design. Her other work outside cannabis includes multiple award-winning sustainable consumer products available in stores globally.

Her background is in environmental and social justice nonprofit organizations. 

Let’s get started designing a cleaner future!

Let’s talk all things sustainability, cannabis packaging – I love to connect with others who are likeminded. 

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