Cannabis companies are innovating to reduce packaging waste and still comply with child safety regulations

As one of California’s largest cannabis producer and manufacturer, CannaCraft was facing a dilemma.

California is by far the biggest cannabis market in the world, with rigorous child-resistant packaging requirements that trigger an avalanche of waste that mars the environment and the image of an industry that strives to be “the most green.”

The company’s policy of meeting and exceeding the California’s packaging regulations meant it was contributing significantly to California’s waste problem. As it is, one expert estimates that the cannabis industry is generating more than a billion units of plastic waste each year. This contradicts everything the industry and its customers stand for.

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Regulations around cannabis packaging include using opaque materials so that products can’t be seen; individual packaging for individual units or dosages; labels that don’t appeal to children; and child-resistant packaging (as with medicines). This adds up. And it is more regulated than any other industry globally for a product that has to date never killed a single person.

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Many progressive initiatives — such as strict carbon emission restrictions or banning single-use plastic bags or limiting cigarette smoking —  first take root in California, so California should be able to show the rest of the nation how to consciously and responsibly package cannabis.

“We felt compelled to provide guidance, which may multiply the effects and reduce a tidal wave of ongoing waste generated across the country — averting a major environmental crisis,” says Dennis Hunter, CannaCraft co-founder.

Related: 5 Smart and Safe Ways to Package Edibles

CannaCraft took a step back to reimagine its regulatory compliance tactics through the lens of environmental protection. In taking on these strict regulations compelling so much waste, it first focused on packaging strategy for its vape product. Vape pens are among the fastest growing segments of the marijuana market. The convenient and discreet vape category accounts for  22 percent of all dispensary sales in California. Look at the sales figures among extraction and concentrate products, and vape commands as much as 86 percent of the market in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and 71 percent of the market in California.

But packaging vape pens is a challenge. They’re disposable and single-use, on top of which they require significant packaging to house a whole lot of regulatory language. So, like other infamous products — such as plastic water bottles, plastic shopping bags and coffee pods, to name a few — vape pens have a justifiable negative reputation as presenting a significant environmental challenge.

Unfortunately, recycling vape pens is not a viable option. Vape cartridges are small, difficult to clean and mostly made of single-use plastic, all of which makes them impractical for a typical recycling center. Second, recycling regulations vary by state and often change, making it difficult for producers, dispensaries and consumers to keep up. In 2018, some vape pen recycling programs in California serving the medical marijuana market had to be discontinued due to new regulations.

Last but not least in terms of difficulty, there are up to 30 individual parts in a vape pen, including glass, batteries, coils, ceramic and more. Each piece must be recycled separately, which requires different techniques and equipment. Throwing the pen into a recycling bin is not the same thing as actually recycling it.

The two million vape cartridges produced by CannaCraft yearly were originally packaged in plastic, child-resistant tubes to comply with cannabis packaging regulations in California. In an effort to reduce waste, CannaCraft developed a new step to the manufacturing process which allows them to simply seal the vape cartridges themselves, making the products inherently child-resistant while also reducing the amount of plastic.

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“Our original plastic tubes stood five-and-a-half inches tall. One years’ worth of CannaCraft’s child-resistant tubes would reach over 900,000 feet if stacked. Or 30 times taller than Mount Everest. That’s a lot of waste that we’ll be eliminating,” says Tiffany Devitt, CannaCraft’s Chief Compliance Officer.

Other cannabis companies are struggling to tackle the waste issue in various ways. Denver-based Sana Packaging has created a line of packaging for cannabis products made from plastic removed from ocean waters. Restalk is addressing the issue of biowaste from cannabis growers, turning discarded plants into paper.

According to the EPA, general product packaging makes up 30 percent of all municipal solid waste — the largest category. The good news for our environment is that both cannabis companies and other leading consumer brands are tackling the problem, announcing their commitment to decrease plastic waste.

Related: The Next Big Thing in ‘Green’ Packaging Is Hemp Bioplastic

McDonald’s has said that within the next eight years, 100 percent of its packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sustainable sources. Costa, one of the world’s largest coffee companies, is providing discounts to customers providing their own reusable cups and is removing plastic straws from their stores. They also are paying garbage collectors for every ton of used cups that they keep out of landfills and recycle. Evian has opened the first zero-carbon bottling plant and has pledged to produce only 100 percent recycled bottles by 2025.

Every entrepreneur and company should be thinking of how to reduce waste. But the cannabis industry, which champions respect for nature, has the rare opportunity to be the grown-up on this issue and show others the way forward. Cannacraft has taken the lead in California, and as they say, “so goes California, so goes the nation.”

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William Sumner