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Entrepreneurs be warned: sustainable cannabis packaging claims lack evidence

Efforts to make legal cannabis more environmentally friendly are not as easy as you might think

3 min read

Every time a cannabis producer asks Mark Finkelstein about “environmentally friendly” packaging options, the VP of sales at Cannasupplies - among the largest packaging-focused players in the cannabis space - always poses a qualifying question:

“I ask what they really want to achieve,” Mr. Finkelstein told The Rise in a recent interview. “If they say they want to call their packaging recyclable that is one thing, but if they say they want something that is better for the planet, it is a completely different conversation.”

‘Excessive’ is perhaps the most common criticism of legal cannabis packaging in Canada. While Mr. Finkelstein attributes that to warning label size requirements, he notes issues ranging from shelf stability, food-grade quality standards and the higher cost of more sustainably-sourced materials all add to the challenge of reducing the global carbon footprint of cannabis packaging.

The source of the packaging material itself, Mr. Finkelstein says, arguably matters more from a sustainability standpoint than how easily that material can be recycled.

“I can give anyone products that can be put in your blue bin and be recycled tomorrow. They might come from down the road or they might come from China,” he said. “I can give you a better recycled product that is made from glass or something else, but that is also coming from China or India or Peru. If you look at the macro effects of the entire supply chain, you could argue it is way worse than purchasing something made locally that is more difficult to recycle.”

Producers are also getting increasingly cost sensitive amid ongoing sector-wide fundraising challenges, Mr. Finkelstein said, and more sustainable packaging usually means a higher price tag.

“Our big push right now is for these recycled and reclaimed materials, post-consumer recycled or PCR from old water bottles and the like, which for the most part can be produced domestically or in the U.S.,” he said. “Typically speaking, you’ve got virgin plastic at, say, one dollar per unit. Your PCR product is going to be around $1.10 so it is about a 10-15 per cent cost increase.”

Producers are also getting increasingly cost sensitive amid ongoing sector-wide fundraising challenges and more sustainable packaging usually means a higher price tag.

Ocean-bound plastic, which is salvaged from rivers before reaching saltwater and being rendered unusable, adds another 10-15 percent or about 30 cents on the dollar above new, petroleum-based plastics. Those costs will come down as demand for those materials scales up, Mr. Finkelstein said.

In the meantime, he has a stern warning for any producers who might be tempted by unsubstantiated claims of biodegradability or other vague-yet-impressive environmental bona fides.

“It is all just buzzwords, organic this and compostable that. I think a lot of people are using these buzzwords to try and make a sale or launch a product,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “There is nobody policing any of this, nobody is able to authoritatively call bullshit.”

In August of 2019, a cannabis packaging distributor in Vancouver announced it was bringing Calyx Containers to the Canadian market. Boston-based Calyx makes recyclable plastic containers that include a proprietary organic enzyme the company claims can “accelerate degradation” when their containers end up in landfills.

After a University of Toronto scientist with specific expertise in biomaterials challenged the company’s environmental claims, Calyx did not refute the criticism when it was brought to the personal attention of the CEO.

Once the issues surrounding national origin, cost and credibility are addressed, Mr. Finkelstein notes there is still one more hurdle legal cannabis packaging must overcome; and it is often considered the tallest.

Child testing.

“Everything is recyclable, it is just a matter of difficulty. For example, paper is a better recyclable than plastic, per say, but it is very hard to make a product out of paper that maintains humidity and moisture and keeps everything child-resistant,” Mr. Finkelstein said.

“For the testing you’ve got 50 kids then 50 adults then it goes back to 50 kids and then they are encouraged to try different things to try and get into it, so you can imagine how that goes with anything paper-based.”

All the more reason to be skeptical of packaging sustainability claims. Not only do they have to survive an onslaught of testing and regulatory requirements, they also need to stand up to the destructive efforts of several dozen children.

Try making something that does all that and can still be tossed into a compost bin. It is even harder than it sounds.

Extracts

  • This story explains the challenges involved with making cannabis packaging more environmentally friendly and the dubious sustainability claims made by some container makers
  • It should help you make more sustainable choices without getting duped into buying the packaging equivalent of snake oil
  • “Nobody is able to authoritatively call bullshit” on unsubstantiated claims, warns one of the sector’s largest packaging providers

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