The cannabis industry produces over one billion units of plastic waste annually and it’s the responsibility of the industry as a whole to mitigate environmental damage. With US sales expected to hit $30 billion by 2023, we need to drastically rethink our reliance on fossil fuels and implement strategies to achieve greater sustainability. Reducing the industry’s carbon footprint requires complete buy-in across the supply chain, from producers to packagers, and the support of regulators to establish policies that protect both the environment and end-user.
As the market develops there is a pressure for constant innovation, which compels companies to develop eco-friendly products in isolation. However, without visibility across the supply chain, its near impossible to develop solutions that address everyone’s needs. To reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, companies need to break down the silos in which they operate and communicate challenges faced at every point of product delivery. Only through open dialogue and constant feedback can solutions be designed and implemented.
The US recycles less than 10 percent of plastic with the vast majority destined for the incinerator, landfill and oceans. As virtually every regulated cannabis market has child-resistant packaging stipulations, often plastic, in conjunction with other materials, is the only viable industry solution. As containers must also contain product and regulatory information, they also have to be of a certain size. Due to these stipulations the amount of packaging can vastly outweigh the contents, with one company found using 116 grams of plastic for just 3.5 grams of cannabis.
Collaboration between businesses and regulators to reduce the consumption of traditional plastics is vital to increase industry sustainability – and it could also increase market sentiment as 60 percent of consumers desire non-plastic packaging options. While consumers demand eco-friendly products, they need to know which items can be recycled and how. Plastics are separated by the numbers found within the triangular recycling symbol, with one (polyethylene) and two (high-density polyethylene) the easiest to reuse. This education is essential, as ultimately it comes down to the end-user to ensure recyclable products are properly processed.
Extensive research is conducted to identify and develop packaging that degrades quicker and utilizes renewable materials, but there are often substantial obstacles to produce these at scale. As a result, biodegradable, reclaimed and compostable materials can cost three times as much as typical polyester. While the majority of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, few companies are willing to significantly increase overheads to reduce their carbon footprint. This is especially true of those burdened by debt and competing against lower prices in the unregulated market, with costs central to purchasing decisions and sustainability relegated to an afterthought.
When innovations are made in low carbon packaging, the industry and regulators need to collaborate to ensure their viability and compliance. This is especially true as cannabis faces unique challenges to achieve greater sustainability, with certain widely recycled products facing industry-specific hurdles. Recycling aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than extracting it, but concerns have been raised that the lining of aluminum cans may absorb emulsified cannabinoids over time. This nullifies the efficacy of the metal in the infused beverage market, but glass isn’t a permissible packaging material in certain jurisdictions either. Consequently, companies struggle to adopt traditional eco-friendly solutions, despite consumer demand and a need to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
As the market continues to develop, businesses will always encounter challenges to adopting sustainable materials. Change is a hard sell to a cash-strapped industry; however, opportunities to improve regulations and devise long-term strategies will arise as demand grows. As a result, stakeholders and governing bodies need to continually cooperate to explore initiatives that reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. We will achieve success in supporting environmental preservation only through a unified effort underpinned by ongoing communication and cooperation.