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The Cannabis Industry Has A Plastic Problem

by Rudy Sanchez on 11/28/2018 | 4 Minute Read

Legal cannabis comes with more than a few regulatory strings attached, and for plenty of good reasons as they are meant to satisfy the concerns of the public while providing a safe and legitimate market for consumers. This also allows states to impose taxes on the sale of cannabis which theoretically would be put to use for the benefit of everyone. For example, in Washington state, half the tax revenue collected from cannabis sales go to the Basic Health Plan Trust Account, which subsidizes health care for people that can not afford coverage, while in Colorado, $100 million went to public schools.

Legalization, however, is a double-edged sword as every stakeholder has to be satisfied, from the public and consumers to the industry and the state. Currently, one major issue the industry is facing that doesn't get a lot of attention concerns sustainable and child-proof packaging. While many companies are moving away from or minimizing plastics in their packaging, for those in the cannabis business, there’s little choice if they want to stay compliant with new regulations.

While no one is arguing that cannabis shouldn’t be packaged in child-resistant packages, the industry is still generating quite a lot of plastic. Typically, medical marijuana was minimally packaged before the passing of Prop 64 in California. Think simple plastic tubes with a label affixed at the store and put into a stapled brown paper bag. 

These plastic tubes were often reused with a new label affixed, a solution that not only reused plastic, but cut down on additional costs for the shop, and like your latte, often came with a discount for bringing in a used container. New California regulations require childproof exit bags, and if a customer doesn’t reuse theirs, a new one is required, in addition to the childproof packaging for the product itself (which is illegal to reuse).

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The biggest hurdle to sustainable packaging appears to be CR (child-resistant certified) packaging required in many markets with medical and recreational marijuana. California, Colorado and 12 other states have some form of child-resistant packaging, and most require that packaging conforms to federal law 16 CFR 1700, the Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1972, which is regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. ASTM International maintains and updates child-resistant standards and provides package designers and manufacturers with access to these standards.

Once designed, these packages must be certified and tested, as outlined by 16 CRF 1700, which includes having a panel of children attempt to open the containers. Furthermore, according to 16 CRF 1700.20, there is even a mandate that if the subject doesn’t try to open the package with their teeth within 5 minutes, the child must be told “you can use your teeth if you want to,” verbatim. Literally, no other words are allowed.

Plastic, while harmful for the planet, has proven a durable and price-effective material that will pass CR certification. Industries such as the pharmaceutical business, have shown little interest in researching and developing sustainable and child-resistant packaging.

The cannabis industry, now faced with child safety packaging regulations, is driving specialty packaging that is sustainable and plastic-free. California-based MM Green Packaging Solutions is currently developing several packaging alternatives using materials such as recycled paper, cardboard and sugarcane, believing that “it’s not how a product starts, it’s how it ends.”

“The big[gest] challenge and main culprit, the regulated EXIT BAG has been a problem child for everyone in the industry,” says Albert Moe, owner of MM Green Packaging Solutions. Exit bags not only add to the cost for consumers, but they're made from materials like plastic and mylar and are often un-recyclable. Plus, once the consumer gets home, the bag is chucked in the trash bin, which means it’s not protecting anyone’s kids. While exit bags are reusable, that relies on consumers choosing to do so. Moreover, delivery services will have to use new exit bags with every purchase.

Sana Packaging, based in Colorado, is another company blazing a trail towards sustainable and compliant cannabis packaging.  Sana has created and is currently piloting hemp-based, biodegradable and recyclable packaging that is CRC compliant. James Eichner, a co-founder of Sana, sees an opportunity within the pot business to innovate and advocate for sustainability. 

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“We're using this platform to speak up and help change the way we think about sustainability, disposable products and waste recovery,” James says.

Ultimately, while child-resistant packaging may make sense for things like edibles and tinctures which are psychoactive and might be confused by kids or pets as candy or food, other items like cannabis buds do not pose a threat if eaten raw. These items need to be heated in order to release the compounds that bring on marijuana’s psychoactive properties. Regulators already make distinctions over marijuana products like the flower, concentrates, edibles, and topicals and have different packaging requirements for each.

The focus on child-resistant packaging on cannabis is unique: alcohol and cigarettes are not required to be sold in CR certified packaging. Cannabis’ legacy as a societal ill seems to linger within packaging regulations at the expense of sustainable packaging. 

States are going forward in a positive direction by banning single-use plastics, but are moving in the opposite way when it comes to cannabis. While legal weed is still sorting itself out, some companies are fortunately not waiting and creating packaging that’s both sustainable and compliant.

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