Cannabis Packaging Is a Problem But These Innovations Might Just Solve It

Say hello to biodegradable, hemp, and reclaimed ocean packaging.

Calyx cannabis packaging
Photos courtesy of Calyx, design by Grace Han

Cannabis is an amazing plant. The new industry has tremendous potential to make positive changes in the ways we do healthcare and business in general. But there is a really ugly facet of the cannabis industry that we don’t like to talk about. In fact, there’s a pile of it underneath my desk right now, and more in a bag under the kitchen sink. The ugly, unfortunate truth in question? Plastic.

Last time I ran my own numbers, just based on my estimated flower intake since Oregon’s legalization, I am individually responsible for at least 200 pounds of plastic entering the waste stream. My smoking habits alone. Think about retail stores—the average bud tender fills hundreds of containers every week; a fresh container for every transaction. The average child-resistant pop-top container for an eighth of flower can take up to 184 g of plastic, so it only takes about 5,000 pop-tops to create a metric ton of plastic. Legal cannabis is meant to be a healing, paradigm-shifting miracle, and we’re turning it into another high volume channel for virgin plastic and landfill waste.

If you’re currently fumbling with a calculator to figure out how much plastic your pipe is responsible for, that’s good. This is a serious, present problem that we need to mitigate, stat. But if we want to really make a difference, we have to be realistic about the fact that neither consumers nor businesses are able to go cold turkey on plastic tomorrow. We need achievable steps that transition us from this dangerous current trajectory. In the case of Calyx, a sustainable packaging company based in Boston, it starts with changing the way we think about plastic in general. 

“We take the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ very seriously,” says Anneliese Brosch, marketing manager and longtime member of the small team at Calyx. “And with current contradictions in recycling laws region-to-region, emphasis on the ‘reuse.’ As our CEO Simon puts it, ‘plastic’s biggest detriment is that it doesn’t break down, and there’s already a lot of it. But plastic’s biggest benefit is also that it doesn’t break down, and there’s a ton of it.’ We want to harness that, to keep these materials in motion and outside of landfills.”

“Legal cannabis is meant to be a healing, paradigm-shifting miracle, and we’re turning it into another high volume channel for virgin plastic and landfill waste.”

Yes, this innovative, futuristic company devoted to sustainability technically makes...plastic containers. The difference is, their plastic is made with just enough additive in the material to accelerate degradation, but not too much that it’s rendered non-recyclable at a conventional facility. First and foremost, recycle. But if it does end up in a landfill, that added ingredient attracts bacteria to break down the plastic faster than its natural, approximate 450-year timeline. 

Calyx isn’t the only one doing this work—there’s a team of mad scientists at a company called Truly Green feeding bacteria glucose in order to create 100%-biodegradable, no-filler-needed plastic material, and Sana Packaging makes materials from hemp plastic and reclaimed ocean plastic. According to his comments at last year’s Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, the CEO of Dama Distributing swears his company’s biodegradable and compostable hemp plastic containers are technically edible.

The materials themselves are only one part of the ways we can lower this industry’s environmental costs. Calyx designed containers with square edges, as opposed to the prescription pill-styled cylindrical containers typical in most markets. The square shape makes it more efficient to stack and ship; you can fit more containers in one shipment, meaning less shipments overall and thus a lower carbon footprint. The company’s manufacturing process creates less wasted plastic than the traditional method of cutting the shapes out of large sheets (think cookie cutter), using a custom injection mold process to measure out the exact amount of plastic needed to create each piece. Dealing with the plastic problem in cannabis isn’t just about the plastic itself, but how we use, transport and talk about this un-ignorable, still unavoidable material. 

It’s clear there are many ways we can have an impact. Individually, ask dispensaries if you can reuse your old containers, and if they say no, ask if they have their own internal recycling programs. If not, try to be diligent about rinsing and recycling your packaging with the rest of your home recyclables whenever possible. If we keep it in motion, it never ends up at the landfill, and we might even get other industries to try out these more sustainable materials. And weed can continue just being that happy, positive part of our lives without destroying the planet. 

Our Newsletter
Feast Your Eyes
The best in food and drink delivered daily.
By Signing Up, I Agree to the Terms and Privacy Policy.