Guiding Light: Achieving Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry

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With climate change emerging as a top priority for the U.S. government, more citizens and businesses are starting to pay attention to their own impact on the environment. These days, people expect companies to act responsibly and do right by society and the environment. Increasingly, consumers are seeking out sustainable products.

The reality is there is an incredible amount of waste in the cannabis industry. Because of strict regulations around how products are packaged, single-use plastic containers are frequently used. One could argue that the negative impact the cannabis industry is having on the Earth is completely counter to what cannabis stands for in the first place: relieving pain, righting social injustices, and feeling connected and enlightened to the world.

How can companies in the cannabis industry demonstrate corporate social responsibility through sustainable business practices, while still maximizing economic success?

The Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) offers a list of values to provide strategic direction to the industry. One of the values is accuracy – protecting public health, safety and the environment. FOCUS also recommends standards for Good Manufacturing Practice, which, “provide minimum requirements that a manufacturer must meet to assure that products are of high quality and do not pose any risk to the consumer or public.”

Sustainability requires that you actually think through the solution

from beginning to end and make sure it makes sense…”

Sustainable packaging is an element that consumers increasingly value. The average American goes through 250 pounds of plastic waste each year, a lot of which comes from packaging. The realization that plastic can take hundreds of thousands of years to decompose, is accumulating at a rapid rate, and is effectively polluting our oceans and killing millions of animals, has renewed our collective focus and urgency around reducing waste.

Michael Markarian owns Contempo Specialty Packaging, which creates well-designed, child-resistant packaging for cannabis products. He’s also the star of educational videos called The Green Cannabis Packaging Series available on YouTube.

What do we really mean when we say we want sustainable product packaging? “Sustainability requires that you actually think through the solution from beginning to end and make sure it makes sense,” Markarian says. When taking into account the overall environmental impact, the most sustainable packages tend to be more expensive than traditional plastics. “The barrier to having a sustainable option is low, but to create one that actually makes an impact and excites your customers is another story,” says Markarian.

Many entrepreneurs say they want to be eco-friendly, but don’t have sufficient knowledge of what that even means for the cannabis industry. Here are some things to consider around packaging. First, you want to use naturally sourced materials and as little plastic as possible. If you have to use plastic, make sure it can be reused or recycled. Materials that don’t biodegrade – like plastic – are going to be on this Earth for up to 450 years. That’s how long it can take a plastic bottle to decompose. If you use materials that can be recycled, think about how many communities actually have recycling programs that accept them. Don’t use materials that may be harmful to people’s health. Research the chemicals you use to ensure there aren’t potentially negative health effects. Finally, consider it part of your mission to educate your customers about sustainability. People need to be made more aware. The more they hear it, the more it will sink in that sustainable packaging is an irrefusable value add.

Beware of plastic packaging that is marketed as recyclable. There are many barriers to recycling plastic in the U.S. For example, plastic pieces smaller than three inches in diameter create issues for recycling equipment, and as a result usually get sorted as trash. Another example is flexible packaging, such as plastic pouches and plastic bags lined with aluminum, aren’t recyclable in residential curbside pickups, don’t get reused and recycling facilities often incorrectly sort it. The thing to keep in mind is, a product may technically be recyclable, but if there isn’t a recycling program for that type of plastic in your area, then it’s almost certainly going in a landfill.

Another big opportunity to reduce harm to the environment is through sustainable cannabis cultivation practices. There is an argument in the industry about which is more sustainable, outdoor or indoor cannabis cultivation. Indoor facilities use a lot of energy, but outdoor farms use a lot of land and water. Cultivators should not be dumping leftover fertilizer so that it runs into our rivers, lakes and oceans. They should consider how to compost harvest waste, rather than allow it all to wind up in landfills.

While all this may mean thinking creatively about how to solve problems, consider it a nod to your customers of tomorrow, who will undoubtedly blame you for stealing their future. As teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg said, “We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change – and it has to start today.”

Kelly Swan is a freelance cannabis writer based in Baltimore, Maryland.