Part II: Wasteful weed packaging is costing operators a fortune. Can it be fixed?
This is part two of two posts about product packaging in the era of cannabis reform and regulation. Today, we look at sustainability as a “megatrend” that crosses generations of consumers. We also examine 20 companies and startups offering packaging solutions. Go here to read the first post where we sized up the booming market for cannabis packaging and the patchwork of state rules and requirements helping to drive it. -G.W. Schulz
Sustainability is a consumer ‘megatrend’
The Minnesota-based Fortune 500 company 3M is one of the biggest makers in the world of packaging, adhesives, medical products, laminates, and more. Don Davidson, a 3M manager, described at the National Hemp Symposium in February how the company was exploring the use of hemp fibers and oils across its tens of thousands of products.
Davidson said public attitudes were firmly shifting. Sustainability had become a “megatrend” among consumers with no end in sight, he said. Manufacturing giants like 3M were paying attention. “Pretty much all across the board, regardless of if it’s a consumer or they’re industrial, health care, transportation, or energy, they’re asking for more sustainable solutions,” he said.
3M isn’t alone. PepsiCo last year joined a consortium that includes the 100-year-old consumer goods maker Unilever to develop viable, paper bottles. The mineral-water company Evian opened a carbon-neutral bottling plant in 2017. The coffee giant Costa has committed to ditching one-time use plastic straws from all of its stores. McDonald’s wants all of its packaging to come from renewable, recycled, or forest-friendly sources in the coming years.
After Congress legalized hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill, the Hemp Business Journal boosted its prediction of future demand for bioplastic packaging alternatives to $27 million by 2022. The Farm Bill also sped up 3M’s interest in the plant for meeting the current and future expectations of consumers.
Ironically, if current cannabis packaging standards and regulations persist, it’s the cannabis industry itself that could become a leading consumer of 3M’s future packaging solutions. A trip to the dispensary these days means walking out with medical-grade packaging and containers, odor-proof exit bags with child resistance, bulky plastics, glass jars, heavy cardboards, foils and wraps, vape batteries and cartridges, and “doob tubes” for pre-rolls.
New York State Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat, said recently after adult-use was legalized there that the cannabis industry was pumping out 150 million tons of waste each year:
“Even when marijuana packaging is recycled at home, it is often sorted out by recyclers and taken to landfills. While no industry is blameless in the plastic-pollution crisis, New York has a unique opportunity to prevent a new source of plastic pollution as we consider the legalization of recreational marijuana.”
Complicating matters further is the fact that the cannabis industry aesthetically interprets itself through a green prism and champions the healthy cultivation of a plant.
“It kills some of them to put organically grown, lovingly tended cannabis into mylar plastic bags,” one packaging expert told Mic in April. “They want their packaging to be as green as their product.”
On the other hand, not everyone in cannabis views themselves as sustainability activists and may say they’re the furthest thing from it. Even if you don’t care all that much about the industry’s environmental footprint, consider the breadth of today’s consumer landscape.
At one end are Boomers who helped create the modern environmental protest movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Following them are X Genners who created punk, hip hop, and Google and increasingly became conscientious consumers as they grew older if they weren’t already.
Following them are Millennials and Z Genners who are so inpatient and unfamiliar with the inherent wastefulness of many traditional consumer products that the idea of subscribing to a daily newspaper made from dead trees is pretty much absurd.
The cannabis trade publication Herb CEO even uses the checklist below to determine what packaging companies it will promote online that are pursuing sustainability.
Remember a few years ago when all those Z Genners walked out of their high-school classes around the world to protest pollution and climate change? They remember even if you don’t. In fact, while Millennials and Z Genners both delight in mocking their uninspired grandparents with the #okboomer hashtag, they bear numerous resemblances.
In one survey, a similar number of Boomers and Millennials reported themselves as “concerned about the impact of climate change.” Large numbers of both also said they considered themselves “environmentally conscious,” were willing to pay for sustainable options, and inspected labels for evidence of eco-friendliness before buying.
The resemblances continue into cannabis. In another recent survey, the cannabis company Verilife, which has dispensary locations in six states, examined Boomers and Millennials specifically to determine where their weed attitudes overlapped. Both reported spending on average around the same each month for cannabis -- about $76. And both reported preferring to smoke pre-rolls, blunts, and pipes over any other method by a large margin:
“Both generations also reported consuming to ease stress or anxiety during different social situations and environments. In many areas, there are overlapping commonalities, which shows that despite their differences, Millennials and Boomers might have finally found something they can both agree on.”
The move toward more sustainable packaging could come at a short-term price for your cannabis business. But it could also be an investment in the long-term allure of your brand among consumers young and old.
The sustainability megatrend demonstrates that many consumers are willing to pay more now where they know a company is committed to renewable, reusable, recyclable, and recycled methods for making and selling their products. If demand for it continues to grow, sustainability could become the standard in packaging and lead to the wider adoption among consumers of more affordable alternatives to non-recyclable, nonrenewable, and nonbiodegradable packaging.
Who’s trying to fix it?
There are numerous cannabis packaging solutions available, and this list below isn’t fully comprehensive. But it covers a lot of ground. Many of these offerings are viable and even practical for Oklahoma cannabis businesses now. Others need time to develop further or for packaging regulations to ease and become more consistent between states where a patchwork of rules exists now. Cannabis operators can still plan ahead just like 3M and other companies that forecast consumer behavior to make smarter business decisions.
Products Boxes made from recyclable and compostable paper.
Elevator Pitch Packaging contains patented mechanisms that meet federal standards for child-proofing. Custom designs and branding options. Materials are available with eco-friendly coating that protects against scratching and damage. “We stay on top of all legislation from the local to the federal level, so we can assist with all the nuances of each project.”
Products Cylindrical paper tubes for pre-rolls and cartridges.
Elevator Pitch Recyclable and reusable. Available in any size and color with custom branding available. Not all are child-resistant. “We help authentic companies thrive in a crowded marketplace through eco-friendly packaging that gets noticed, elevates the unboxing experience, and sells more product.”
Products Jars, tins, pumps, and boxes.
Elevator Pitch Specializes in compliant, responsibly sourced, and sustainable cannabis packaging. Existing company that was already working on sustainable packaging alternatives. Hemp and bamboo are among the materials used. “Fifteen years industry experience coupled with 20 years designing and building some of the world’s most successful brands.”
Products Packaging for pre-rolls, flower, cartridges, droppers, edibles, and more.
Elevator Pitch Some available containers are made from rapidly renewable and regenerative hemp bioplastics. Others are made of plastics that are reclaimed from the oceans. Also offers compostable baggies and pouches. Several child-resistant options available. “There is simply no reason to use virgin, petroleum-based resins, especially for single-use products like packaging.”
Products Depends on the application.
Elevator Pitch This company isn’t offering a specific product line at the moment. But the solution they’ve developed is compelling. Truly Green figured out how to make a fully biodegradable plastic out of the plant material left behind by cannabis cultivation. “Our Truly Green Plastic pellets have superior mechanical properties, which means they can be used to make anything from press-and-twist containers and drug-delivery devices to hospitality products and marketing materials.”
Products Premium-grade cans for flower freshness.
Elevator Pitch Taking cues from the food industry, Nitrotin wants to merge quality, safety, and sustainability with sealed, recyclable packaging made from tinplate steel. Child-proof tops are made from recyclable plastic. “Preserved back stock will be the key to seamless sales and distribution.”
Products Vape-pen batteries and accessories.
Elevator Pitch Numerous sleek designs and colors for vape pen batteries. Also makes carrying cases and wireless base chargers. Made to last almost 300 charge cycles with adjustable power settings to reduce the number of discarded cartridges and batteries. Announced a partnership in late April with a green-waste specialist to make it easier for consumers to recycle their batteries by returning them to secure collection boxes at dispensaries. Says the waste specialist: “Our mission is to help operators handle and revitalize their waste in an environmentally friendly manner within this highly regulated market, so they can get back to doing what they do best.”
Products Depends on the application.
Elevator Pitch Commercial-paper packaging solution made from 100% hemp. LinkedIn posts from the company have generated major interest and led to several signed letters of intent. Founder wants to also use vegetable-based inks and organic adhesives in the future. Her career began in marketing and branding. “If you would have told me I was going to be a hemp-paper expert as part of my career 10 years ago, I would have told you you were smokin’ something and should share.”
Products Paper tubes for droppers, cartridges, pre-rolls, and flower.
Elevator Pitch Company has been in the business of consumer packaging since 1980. Cannabis products contained within the tube would need to be child-protected where desirable or required. The tubes themselves come from renewable resources and are biodegradable and recyclable. “For over 40 years, Hansen Packaging has specialized in the design and custom manufacture of paper tube packaging for retail and industrial markets.”
Products Pre-roll tubes and pop-top containers.
Elevator Pitch Launched in early 2020, the founders set out to create plant-based alternatives to plastics made from fossil fuels. They pivoted during COVID-caused manufacturing disruptions to boost their ability to make plant-based bags. Began with ethanol from corn but added hemp after an oversupply of hemp biomass in 2019 made it more affordable. Said a founder last fall to Marijuana Business Daily: “If next year the economics don’t make sense [for hemp], we still have a consistent supply of non-GMO corn to make our polymers and our high-density plastics. We’re not a hemp or corn company -- we’re a plant-based plastics company.”
Products Exit bags, pre-roll tubes, flower jars, and humidity packs.
Elevator Pitch Offers an array of sustainable cannabis packaging alternatives. Glass jars come with child-resistant caps made from reclaimed ocean plastic. Doob tubes are compostable, and containers for edibles, cartridges, and pre-rolls are biodegradable. Exit bags are certified child-resistant and made from plant-based raw materials. “No fossil fuels are used to power our cannabis-product packaging factory, significantly reducing the HISIERRA carbon footprint.”
Products Odor-free drying, curing, and storage bags.
Elevator Pitch Veteran-owned business making storage bags in the United States from eco-friendly material that’s fully recyclable. Promises that its child-resistant and tamper-evident solutions do not leach plastic smells into the product. “FunkSac’s proprietary and patent-pending green film is engineered to keep your harvest fresher, longer.”
Products Cases and inserts for cartridges, pre-rolls, edibles, syringes, and more.
Elevator Pitch Certified child-resistant cases made from food-grade polypropylene that’s recyclable. Additives are used to make the company’s products biodegrade faster. Paper inserts are recyclable, biodegradable, and chemical-free. Company is pushing toward plant-based products. “The flat surface area is ideal for superior branding and regulatory information that can be effectively and professionally labeled.”
Products Twist-top drams for flower, pre-rolls, capsules, and wrapped edibles.
Elevator Pitch Products are biodegradable and made largely from starch and hemp biopolymers. Containers are also certified child-proof and were made specifically for the cannabis industry. “This proprietary material has been developed to degrade in an ambient environment with exposure to sunlight and humidity, so even if disposed of improperly, our packaging will not become a permanent roadside eyesore.”
Products Large and small twist-top drams, exit bags, and wide-mouth jars.
Elevator Pitch Numerous high-grade sustainable packaging options available with child-resistant features. The company’s R2 line of eco-friendly containers is made from recycled milk jugs. Several twist-top sizes and designs are available that are recyclable. Large-size options hold up to one ounce of flower. From the founder: “Retirement led to boredom. A desire for doing something completely different and out of my ‘comfort’ zone led me to the legal marijuana industry.”
Products Tins cans, tubes, containers, packaging for vape cartridges and pre-rolls.
Elevator Pitch This company has decades of experience in the packaging industry and is on a mission to entirely rid cannabis of plastics. MM Green says that consumers are more aware than ever before about how their goods are being packaged. The company only makes products that are compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable. “Enhance your brand and increase consumer loyalty by choosing sustainable materials.”
Products Launched an effort to recycle cannabis packaging plastic into diesel fuel.
Elevator Pitch The Airfield Supply Co. cannabis dispensary in San Jose, California, formed a unique partnership with the recycling innovator Resynergi. During the week of 420 this year, Airfield dispensary customers received special deals when they returned plastic cannabis packaging that could later be converted to energy. Airfield says that 250 pounds of plastic packaging waste from cannabis can be recycled into 25 gallons of diesel fuel.
Products Depends on the application.
Elevator Pitch This company is still young but is woman-and-black owned and based right here in Oklahoma. They don’t narrowly cater to the cannabis industry. In fact, I’m not certain if they’ve had a cannabis client before. But founder Sharina Perry has developed a plant-based plastics alternative using USDA-approved crops that absorb carbon from the air at four to five times the rate of trees. “With manufacturers across the country, we have now produced samples of finished goods including straws, bags, spoons, forks, knives, film, and a variety of containers.”
Products Depends on the application.
Elevator Pitch This Kansas company founded in 2011 also does not specifically target the cannabis industry. But it has developed bioplastics solutions that utilize an array of renewable materials including hemp, wood, and starch. “We have seen our raw materials turned into everything from surfboards to toys to wearable fashion to 3D-printer filament.”
Products Cylindrical metal and plastic containers for flower, edibles, and more.
Elevator Pitch Uses nitrogen to enhance freshness by eliminating light and oxygen in airtight plastic and metal containers. “This step dramatically increases the product's shelf life while also reducing the possibility of contamination.” The company holds several patents for child-resistant containers and lids, resealable containers, containers for longer-life storage, and other innovations. Cans are lined to protect terpenes and block leaching.
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