Here is the ugly truth: The cannabis industry produces billions of units of single-use packaging annually while consumers demand sustainable packaging containing quality products. The cannabis industry needs to develop a circular packaging model that reduces the impact of single-use packaging. Every sustainable cannabis packaging business must strive to help the industry mitigate the impact of single-use packaging for our customers and end consumers.
For decision-makers at cannabis brands, sourcing sustainable packaging requires an objective assessment of a material’s impact throughout the value chain. A sustainability assessment includes data on a packaging material’s upstream and downstream environmental effects. These ecological impacts must be equally evaluated while sourcing from a sustainable packaging company.
An accurate assessment of packaging’s environmental footprint begins with evaluating both the upstream and downstream impacts of packaging materials at the local, regional, and global levels. Such an assessment will inherently prompt a discussion about the trade-offs between different packaging materials.
In my pursuit of truly eco-conscious products, I have found that materials with significant upstream sustainability benefits often have negative downstream impacts and vice versa. Having an honest conversation about these trade-offs can help your company determine specific sustainability goals throughout the value chain where you want to make a positive impact.
Upstream Environmental Impacts of Cannabis Packaging
An honest assessment of packaging’s sustainability includes an evaluation of a material’s upstream environmental impacts. This assessment produces data on the ecological implications of the sourcing of raw materials and the production and transportation of packaging materials.
The most commonly used materials for cannabis packaging are plastic, metal, glass, and paperboard, so let’s look at the upstream impacts of these materials.
The raw materials for glass, metal, and plastic are all obtained from mining, and the mining of these various materials has varying degrees of negative upstream environmental impacts. That said, the carbon footprint of sourcing the raw materials for glass far outweighs those of metal and plastic. Furthermore, the production and transportation of glass and metal generate two times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the production and transportation of plastic.
The sourcing of raw materials for paperboard, on the other hand, contributes to deforestation and the production of paperboard requires a tremendous amount of water and significantly more energy than the production of plastic. For example, the production of paper bags generates over three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the production of plastic bags.
Downstream Environmental Impacts of Cannabis Packaging
Now that we have looked at some of the upstream environmental impacts of the most common materials used for cannabis packaging, let’s shift focus to the downstream ecological effects of these same materials.
Upstream analyses examines the environmental impact of sourcing the raw materials and the production and transportation of packaging materials. Meanwhile, downstream analyses primarily focus on waste management and the ecological impacts packaging materials have when they escape traditional waste streams and end up in the environment. Waste management includes the collection and recovery or disposal of packaging materials, i.e., recycling, composting, and landfilling.
While there is a compelling case to be made for the upstream benefits of plastic packaging, these benefits are often lost downstream, and there is a desperate need to improve the waste management infrastructure surrounding all plastics. In fact, less than 10% of plastics are correctly recycled.
While metal, glass, and paperboard have problematic upstream environmental impacts, they have a much higher recycling rate than plastics. However, it is worth noting that glass, metal, and paperboard are extremely energy-intensive to recycle.
Paperboard recycling, like paperboard production, is not just energy-intensive. It also requires a tremendous amount of water. That said, recycling paper is 40% less energy-intensive than the initial paper production process, uses 35% less water and creates 74% less air pollution than the initial paper production process.
Plastic is the biggest culprit in terms of packaging materials that end up in the environment because the value placed on the material is so low. Recycled plastic can sometimes cost even more than virgin plastic. That said, all packaging materials can harm our ecosystems if they end up in the environment. For example, heavy metals leaked from metal product creation are detrimental to the health of our waterways. Microplastics are also a hot topic right now because they are difficult to remove from the environment.
This consideration is why one of the major downstream considerations for all packaging materials is their potential to present pollutants to humans and the environment. Toxins inside any packaging material can potentially leak into the environment and harm our ecosystems.
The Future of Sustainable Cannabis Packaging
In short, there is no silver-bullet solution to sourcing sustainable cannabis packaging. Consumers and the cannabis industry have roles to play in developing a circular cannabis packaging model. Recycling materials will normalize as communities continue developing recycling infrastructure and consumers become fully compliant with recycling protocols. The cannabis industry must educate consumers on properly reusing and recycling cannabis packaging. Most importantly, the industry and regulators must establish back-end systems to manage packaging materials' collection, recycling and reuse properly.
Cannabis retailers and brands must provide transparency in their sustainable packaging practices to earn customer loyalty. Retailers and brands need to use sustainability as a marketing tool to explain why their product arrives inside sustainable packaging. Your customers will demonstrate why sustainability makes good business sense as they purchase your sustainable packaging solutions. By shaping consumer and brand conversations about what sustainable packaging truly looks, feels, and functions like, we stand the best chance of minimizing harm to our planet.
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