Plastic Packaging Is A HUGE Problem For Cannabis

Jessica McKeil June 10, 2019 0 comments

To get an idea of the plastic packaging in government cannabis: 1g flower = 70g plastic waste.

If you’ve visited a federally regulated cannabis retailer in Canada, you may have noticed the plastic packaging. The packaging was one of the first complaints consumers had in October 2018 when legal cannabis sales began. If you compare the packaging of a joint sold legally and one sold on the black market – well, let’s just say, the federal packaging is… excessive.

CBC spoke with Remi Robichaud of Moncton, New Brunswick, who was one of the first consumers to publicly take issue with the plastic problem. For one gram of cannabis, he had over 70 grams of packaging. It included plastic, foil, wrap, and cardboard. He stated in his interview, “Seeing the amount of plastic being used for such small quantities, it’s really shameful.”

But a little extra plastic packaging isn’t that bad because you can recycle it, right? Wrong. As consumers and producers have discovered, federal rules make it very challenging to recycle through normal municipal avenues. If the various components are recyclable through city pick-up programs, they require extensive handling to separate the multiple layers. The trick to recycling is making it easy for the consumer. So far, Canadian cannabis packaging is light years away from an easy recycle.


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What are the Rigid Rules Which Make it Hard to Recycle Cannabis Containers?

Why is cannabis that is sold through federal retailers so wasteful? It has to do with the strict packaging rules that came with legalization. Among other regulations, containers must be waterproof, childproof, and odor proof.

Furthermore, excessive regulations surround the label. If you haven’t noticed by now, labeling on federal cannabis is boring and bland. Manufacturers have to use limited colors, limited shapes, and tons of unnecessary warning declarations.

According to a Canadian graphics design magazine, cannabis packaging must have limited branding elements, including images. Packaging must be matte in finish, with no cut out windows allowing the consumer to see the product. The label can’t have any special UV features or other hidden features such as a QR code or virtual labeling. There are even regulations on the bar code (it can only appear once, and must be rectangular).

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These strict regulations on packaging and labeling don’t leave producers a lot of wiggle room when it comes to packaging design. And with so many rules standing in the way, recycling options were put on the back burner. It was hard enough to get a package approved, let alone include recyclable components.

Packaging Rules Causing More Problems than Recycling

In Canada, consumers have a choice between three legal recreational substances: cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco. Cannabis is the safest by far and the most preferred. In the many side-by-side comparisons with other illicit substances, alcohol and tobacco continually top the list as most harmful. Cannabis typically comes last.

If cannabis is so safe, you might wonder why it seems to have the most regulations, especially when it comes to plastic packaging. After all, beer cans and tobacco products aren’t childproof. A liquor store is stuffed full of bright, fun, and artistic labels. Why are the restrictions so different for cannabis? Many consumers are left scratching their heads when they look at the differences between the three substances.

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Consumers like to see, smell, and touch cannabis before purchase. The current plastic packaging doesn’t allow for that. This lack of transparency (literally) is one of the reasons why the black market in Canada is flourishing. After all, one of the best ways to know if you’re buying quality bud is by smelling it, and looking for important visual traits. 

Packaging plays a significant role in sales and brand loyalty. The black market continues to carry cannabis products with better packaging aesthetically, and, more importantly, less packaging overall. Black market cannabis doesn’t include 70 grams of waste for one gram of flower. Moreover, they can smell and see the product before purchase.

Where Can You Recycle Cannabis Packaging in Canada?

In a recent report by Global News on cannabis container recycling, they discovered many challenges standing in the way of consumers. Recycling the containers largely depends on where you live. Most municipalities have a plastics recycling program, but not all accept cannabis containers.

The black plastic packaging for cannabis is the most challenging. Global News reports that across Canada, most cities rely on an automated machine to scan conveyor belts of plastic during sorting. These machines cannot read black plastic, thus these containers are not recyclable.

Other cities, like Winnipeg, don’t allow for cannabis packaging recycling at all. When Global News interviewed industry experts, they too were skeptical about recycling programs and cannabis packaging. In their opinion, most of the “plastic” packaging isn’t actually 100 percent plastic. Instead, it contains layers of materials required to meet the strict regulations. All these materials need manual separating before tossing in the bin, something which isn’t available in most cities.

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Are Changes on the Way?

So what’s next? Any changes to Canadian cannabis packaging is a long way off. Regulatory changes are always slow, and must go through an extensive review process before they roll out. Therefore, many retailers are offering an in-store cannabis recycling program. Bring your old containers in for recycling, just like you can bring empty beverage containers to a liquor store.

Canadian plastic packaging regulations is not ideal. In 2019, many cities across the country are taking steps to reduce plastic consumption, banning plastic straws and plastic bags. And yet, the cannabis industry seems to have gone backwards.  How much wasted plastic is pumping out of government cannabis stores?

There should be easy option for consumers to recycle their containers. The equation is simple: lower barriers + low additional labor = more recycled. It’s an uncomplicated formula and one that the federal government should consider during the next round of cannabis consultation.

Author avatar

Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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