Varying regulations and a turn toward sustainable packaging spurs creative solutions from operators
Whether it’s in tins, tubes, glass or mylar bags, the packaging surrounding a cannabis product says a lot about its perceived quality and the company producing it. While the standards have existed for years — top-shelf products need packaging to exemplify its value and budget-priced products can get by with minimal effort — operators are now facing a rise in package counterfeiting and growing demands from consumers for sustainable packaging.
Combined with a lack of national standards and a diverse set of ever-changing rules regarding warnings and labels that vary from state to state, multistate brands in particular face a challenging packaging environment that can lead to different forms in different markets, driving up costs and jeopardizing customer recognition — and therefore sales.
“Every state has their own rules, and every state has their own regulations,” says National Cannabis Industry Association Packaging and Labeling Committee chairman Nick McCormick of Taylor Packaging Corporation. “Long story short, it is frustrating when Cookies places an order for pouches that go into eight legal states because the artwork is different for all of them.”
McCormick and members of the NCIA’s committee are working to create a more consistent set of packaging standards that can meet the needs of each state and, potentially someday a federal marketplace, like those for alcohol or pharmaceuticals.
“We can get to a better place in the U.S. to at least have more consistent regulations from state to state so it makes it a little bit easier for brands to be able to scale operations and sell in different states,” says committee member Lilly Blum of Inland Packaging.
Among the packaging concerns facing the cannabis industry, the most talked-about issue may be sustainability. With states requiring individual containers with child-proofing mechanisms, many are looking for ways to reduce the amount of waste the cannabis industry produces, as well as the costs.
“The biggest topic today is the cannabis industry has the wherewithal right now to try to be environmentally savvy with the packaging, making sure that we’re not putting more plastic in the ocean,” says McCormick.
P3 Distributing owner Patrick Caldwell is developing numerous solutions to bring sustainable packaging to operators, including one solution in Oregon that is strikingly simple and similar to the recycling plan Coca-Cola used in the 1950’s.
“Right now, our big thing is reusing glass,” Caldwell says. “We take them back, wash them out, sanitize them and repackage them all up to food safety guidelines, so there’s no deleterious materials, which is what’s required by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.”
Caldwell says the glass buyback program is a “fully circular economy” that has spread to more than 460 cannabis retailers in Oregon.
“It’s a start,” he says. “They’re burning through quite a few of these reusable jars and every one is a step in the right direction.”
In addition to directly buying back glass containers, P3 is also collecting and recycling plastic containers that consumers are dropping off at participating retailers. Caldwell estimates his company is collecting about 15 pounds of plastic from each participating retailer every month.
Caldwell is hoping to expand his recycling programs into Washington with the help of his partner, Jason Lammers, the president of the Washington cannabis group Cannabis Alliance and the chair of its sustainable committee, as well as the general manager of SnoCo Packaging in Arlington, Washington.
“We’re both aligned as far as what we’re trying to accomplish when it comes to packaging waste, specifically, but also just in general in sustainability improvements in the industry,” Lammers says.
While SnoCo is already locally producing joint tubes made from 100% recycled plastic, Lammers says the Cannabis Alliance is currently pushing for both legislative and regulatory actions to improve sustainable packaging options in Washington. Cannabis Alliance made strides in reducing packaging waste in 2019 when the group successfully petitioned state officials to reduce the minimum thickness for bags from 4 mil to 2 mil, which, based on sales data from Headset, effectively removed about 40 tons of waste annually.
But while locally recycled glass or plastic is an easy supply chain to trace, not all products that seem sustainable at first play out that way in the long run, according to Blum, with different local recycling or compost rules affecting packaging choices.
“Once you dig into it, it might not be the most sustainable option or the best option for a brand to choose,” Blum says, noting that she has seen packages labeled as “compostable” that need to go to commercial facilities. “Quite frankly, a lot of people just want to be able to recycle something in kind of the conventional stream.”
NCIA packaging committee member Chason Sordoni, co-founder SnapSlide, also warns against outright plastic bans. While he admits his bias as a company that produces plastic, pharmaceutical-style bottles with a “reimagined” and patented child resistant technology, Sordoni points to a study by the McKinsey & Company consultant group warning that depending on where it is sourced and how it is manufactured, plastic can actually have a smaller carbon footprint than other materials, like glass.
“We’re living on a planet where there are islands of plastic waste, so sustainability is the biggest issue both in the [cannabis] industry and at large,” he says. “The snapshot of our contribution to sustainability is source reduction, is using less plastic to start the process.”