How do we get to zero waste on cannabis packaging?

What if cannabis retailers operated like bulk food stores where customers can fill their own reusable container?

By Michelle da Silva

2019-09-16

When International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer was declared by the United Nations in 1994, cannabis was probably the furthest thing from the minds of climate scientists.

The climate crisis – and legalization – has changed that.

The environmental benefits of cannabis are well-known. But we’re only beginning to see the effects of the mass production of legal cannabis.

Thanks to the exponential growth of cannabis farms (both indoor and outdoor), scientists now want to study the impact of cannabis on air quality.

The issue: VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released by cannabis terpenes. Turns out they can react with pollution from cars and other industrial emissions to form ground-level ozone. And that could spell bad news for the ozone layer that protects the planet from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

The quickly-growing legal cannabis industry is doing its part to promote awareness on a host of environmental issues. One of the most pressing issues hits customers in the face every time they venture into their local dispensary to score: cannabis packaging.

Child-proofing requirements and all-important branding have led to overkill on that front. Greening out isn’t always so green after all.

When actor Seth Rogen’s cannabis brand Houseplant was launched in Canada in April, the company boasted on Instagram about creating packaging in “the most responsible way possible.” The brand only uses “post-consumer waste and recyclable packaging to reduce the environmental impact.”

But some online commentators were not as impressed.

“I can’t justify buying weed and getting way more packaging than weed,” one commenter posted on Instagram.

Houseplant comes in a cardboard box meant to look like a VHS tape. When I purchased some from Tokyo Smoke in Toronto recently, a cashier had to show me how to open it. You have to slide the box out from a another box to access the plastic jar containing the bud.

“I know, it seems a bit much,” the cashier apologized, before asking me if I’d like a bag for my purchase.

The days of scoring weed in a Ziploc from your local street-level dealer may be over. But we’re a long way yet from zero waste when it comes to cannabis packaging.

“It seems kind of ridiculous,” says Chris, one customer I spoke with in the line outside Tokyo Smoke.

Licensed Producers in Canada are reacting to consumer concerns about cannabis packaging.

Houseplant’s partner Tweed, has joined with U.S. recycling outfit TerraCycle to create a Canada-wide cannabis packaging recycling program.

The program launched on Earth Day allows consumers to unload cannabis tins, tubes and containers at legal stores. More than 250 cannabis retailers are participating in the program.

Customers who buy through mail order can also register online with Tweed to have their discarded plastic containers picked up free by UPS for recycling. Tweed spokesperson Samantha Spence says about 500 individuals are currently enrolled in that program.

But Chris says Licensed Producers should take waste reduction a step further – they should consider eliminating non-essential packaging altogether.

He’d like to see cannabis retailers operate like bulk food stores where customers can fill their own reusable container. 

“Imagine a craft beer store but for weed,” he says.

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