The budtender champions the genetics, the organic cultivation methods, the sustainability — the grower uses only electric vehicles to ship her product! —of the eighth of Purple Haze.
Solar panels power the dispensary. Artisans crafted the display cases out of trees felled by pine beetles. Product menus — strains, gummies, vapes, lotions — appear only on iPads. Why rely upon harvested and pulped spruce for menus, when digital options bypass forest destruction?
But then the budtender delivers that eighth. A hard plastic vial. In some states, the vial then gets sealed in a plastic envelope. Plastic child-proof contraptions add to the petroleum pile.
The disconnect struck me early on, beginning when I still needed a medical card in Colorado to buy weed. Unfortunately, more than a decade later, it persists.
The better brands and dispensaries at least try to project a green vibe, even though growing cannabis year-round in Colorado is far too energy intensive to ever count as a sustainable pursuit. Either way, cannabis is here to stay in Colorado. We do what we can to mitigate its environmental costs. Packaging stands as a prominent hurdle.
Hemp, Recycled-Ocean Plastic Solutions
James Eichner, one of the founders of Sana Packaging in Denver, experienced the same disappointment as me every time he shopped at a dispensary.
And then he did something about it.
During graduate school at The University of Colorado, he and his business partner (name?) tackled the packaging problem as part of a class project. When they graduated, they turned it into a business.
“Because cannabis is new and emerging, it’s still developing its best practices. We saw an opportunity to introduce more sustainable packaging practices from the ground up,” says Eichner. “We also thought we could move the needle towards circular packaging.”
Sana offers companies several different packaging options. Some of its containers, most of which are designed for flower and pre-rolled joint sales, are made from a combination of hemp and corn. Others rely upon reclaimed ocean plastic. None of the packages Sana sells to dispensaries and brands in 30 states come from first-use plastic.
“There is no reason to ever use virgin plastic,” he says. “There is so much plastic out there.”
To that end, Sana is launching a pilot program in Denver, which will reclaim and recycle plastic containers already used for cannabis.
Circular Economy Hits Sustainability Bullseye
I’ve been involved here and there with the cannabis industry since 2014, crafting content for clients, engaging in media relations and researching and writing industry analysis. During those six years of work, I never came across a factoid that startled me during a recent conversation with Eichner: plastic used to package weed cannot cross state lines after it is used, due to drug residue. In fact, until recently it could not even by recycled within Colorado. All of it went to landfills.
“We’ve had 10 years of plastic entering the state and then not leaving, because of the drug residue,” says Eichner. “But plastic is so damn useful for addressing things like shelf-life. If plastic is in a closed-loop system, there is nothing wrong with it. The problem is when plastic enters our waste management system.”
Price also counts as a problem. In most industries there is little stomach for boosting packaging costs — the threshhold for spending more for sustainable packaging is low. In the food and beverage industry, for example, companies might up their packaging costs by 20 percent for green solutions. But in cannabis, Eichner says companies are willing to double and even triple costs for packaging.
Regulatory Environment Hobbles Sustainability
At least some of the rationale for such large cost increases revolves around the highly regulated nature of cannabis. Close to 100 percent of other consumer packaged goods sit on shelves open to the public — anybody can pick up the paper canister of toothpaste tablets, the local artist’s ceramic mug or the can of kombucha. But dispensary employees control access to cannabis products — touch-and-feel browsing isn’t a consumer option.
As a result, brands hunt for differentiators. For some, packaging is something to champion.
Regulations might inadvertantly help to push sales of sustainable packaging. But there is no accidental upside to child-packaging regulations from a sustainability standpoint.
“Even though regulations in each state differ tremendously, one thing you can count on is child-resistance being a requirement,” says Eichner. “It is difficult to develop this kind of packaging with sustainable materials.”
Note to regulators: Alcohol is far more dangerous than marijuana. For consistency’s sake, it’s either time to require child-safe packaging for alcohol sales, or it’s time to ditch the absurd requirements for cannabis.
The company, which formally opened its doors to customers at the beginning of 2019, doesn’t employ engineers and scientists to develop new products in-house. Instead, Sana is a packaging brand, says Eichner. Sana comes up with ideas for packaging, and then works with suppliers to manufacture products.
As Sana continues coming up with novel solutions to the industry’s heavy reliance on plastic, from the vials that store the eighths to the envelopes outfitted with rigid plastic devices designed to protect kids from weed, I’ll be looking for them in my friendly neighborhood dispensaries.