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Rethinking Cannabis Packaging for a Better Sustainable Future

 May 27, 2022  Written by Jeff Rowse
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In his latest interview on sustainable packaging in the cannabis industry, Jeff sat down with Co-Founder & CSO of Sana Packaging, James Eichner, to learn more about his company and their vision of an unpolluted future.

The Cannabis Industry and the Quest for Sustainable Packaging

Jeff: What led you to sustainable packaging in the cannabis industry?

James: My business partner, Ron, and I, were in business school together and we were studying sustainability and entrepreneurship. We also both went to grad school in Colorado, and we both lived in Colorado during the transition from the black market to the medical market and finally the recreational market. Along with so much of the positivity, we saw the legal market bring to the state, one of the big negatives was the amount of packaging waste being created by the industry.

So, we actually started this as a class project in a sustainable venturing class. At the time we were looking to explore why there was so much packaging waste, and if there may be some better packaging systems or materials that could be used. Then it kind of snowballed from there.

We ended up going through Canopy Boulder, which is a cannabis-specific accelerator in CO, and has been working on it full-time since the spring of 2017 when we graduated. Really our ultimate goal is to design and develop cannabis packaging for a circular economy. We’ve by no means achieved that yet, but we are making steps as quickly as we can in that direction.

Really, the three primary tenants of a circular economy are, one eliminating waste pollution. So that’s from sourcing, to manufacturing, to the design process all the way through the end of life cycle. Two is keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, whether it's through reuse models or collection of recycling models. Third is regenerating our natural systems. So, trying to use rapidly renewable and regenerative resources, and also stranded resources such as ocean-bound plastics.

Jeff: What kind of hurdles did you encounter along the way?

James: So many. First and foremost, just being first-time founders, and starting a company using non-traditional materials in a non-traditional industry. For a long time, it felt like we were really just, especially before we were actually selling anything for the first two years or so when we were in our R&D and product development phase and building out the business model.

Getting investors on board by selling them on a hope a dream, and an idea. Since we’ve started launching, we're now up to 8 products that we produce in-house along with a number of other products that we supply to our partners. So we’ve grown pretty quickly, so there are challenges every day.

Cannabis packaging is a unique market given that cannabis is broken down into state-by-state markets. Every market is similar but also different. While some packaging regulations are largely the same in every market, like child resistance, other things differ from market to market. Some markets require opaque packaging, others don’t.

Some require specific wall thickness for packaging, others don’t. And really the biggest thing that also changes from market to market is where along the supply chain the packaging actually happens. So, in a state like Colorado, it can happen at any point along the supply chain even at the retail level. So you can walk into a dispensary and they’ll take a nug out of a jar and put it into packaging right in front of you.

Then you have states like California where everything has to arrive at a retail location pre-packaged. So the biggest thing that affects us is who our customer is in each market. We have so many different permutations as to who our customer is based on the market we are selling into.

Problems with current cannabis packaging

Jeff: Aside from regulations being different from state to state, what problems do you see with the cannabis packaging that is currently on the market?

James: Well, it's a lot. There are parts of the industry reaching a more mature state. Markets like California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. The biggest thing that we are thinking about right now is, we really do think it's time that the industry reevaluates child-resistant packaging. Specifically for non-activated products like flower or pre-rolls.

It absolutely makes sense to use child-resistant packaging for activated products like edibles, but the risk to children is virtually non-existent with non-activated products. There’s a recent study that came out of McGill University in Canada that suggested the cannabis industry could reduce the amount of packaging waste it creates by upwards of 70% simply by getting rid of child resistance for non-activated products like flower.

Child resistance is also a pretty big hindrance to using sustainable materials. For instance, the plant-based hemp plastic that we use is all compostable inputs, but due to the wall thicknesses required in order for us to build that locking mechanism, the product is not compostable. It is 100% plant-based.

It becomes significantly more difficult to design something that is either compostable or to use materials beyond plastic, metal, and stuff. It would also increase the amount of materials available to use. It would also lower the overall cost of packaging in the industry if folks didn’t have to worry about child resistance for a certain number of their products.

That’s a big thing we’re wrapping our heads around. We really want to be on the right side of what we believe to be the right side of that issue. Which is why I think we need to reevaluate child resistance. The benefits of getting rid of it for non-activated products far, far outweigh the risks.

That’s the direction we think the industry needs to be moving in. It's hard to imagine a change like that would happen till cannabis is legal on a federal level. So we don’t see child resistance going away anytime soon unless one of the more mature markets tries to push something like that.

Reimagining packaging materials

Jeff: Now, you guys use 100% hemp-based plastic and you use 100% reclaimed ocean plastic.

James: It’s not 100% hemp-based. It’s 100% plant-based. 30% PLA (polylactic acid) and 70% hemp. There aren’t really any commercially viable, 100% hemp plastics on the market at this time. We’re hoping there will be soon. We’re material agnostic, so we don’t create the materials we use ourselves. We just specialize in using emerging materials we believe to be sustainable for packaging. Beyond the hemp-based plastic, the other big material we use is reclaimed ocean plastic.

Jeff: Why plastics over paper?

James: The ease of designing child-resistant locking mechanisms is one aspect. Another is product preservation. Cannabis is a perishable product, and in states where you don’t have point-of-sale packaging like Colorado, which does, in a state like California folks are a lot more concerned with shelf life because everything needs to be pre-packaged and plastic is very good at extending shelf life. But, that said, we don’t just work with plastics.

We also do hemp paperboard through partners of ours. We also do recycled glass jars through partners of ours. We offer a variety of materials outside of plastic. And for all the plastic we do use it's either 100% reclaimed or 100% plant-based, so we’ll never be using virgin petroleum-based materials. Like I said, the child resistance thing is so huge. For instance, for the hemp paperboard packaging we do, we don’t have anything child resistant in hemp paperboard. So that’s the material we are currently able to use for things like outer packaging. So if someone wants their pre-roll or their jar to go in a box or something, we can do that.

One of the interesting things about sustainable materials for packaging, there’s no silver bullet. There are pros and cons to every material, so for something like glass, it could be that you can’t recycle it that many times before it starts getting cloudy.

It's also very heavy, so it is expensive to ship. For materials like metal, they're very resource intensive to extract from the ground even though they can be recycled a lot more. For things like plant-based hemp plastics, we don’t have the waste management infrastructure in the US set up to process those materials.

For things like paperboard, it can be hard to find things that are tree-free. Anyone who says their material is perfect, or their packaging is perfect, or that there is one solution, I think, is kind of missing the point with sustainability. Looking at the whole life cycle of a product, there are pros and cons to everything. Trying to figure out what the best solution is can be difficult. You can make pretty good cases for any material depending on what specifically you’re concerned about.

Our focus on creating a multi-use design

Jeff: Are Sana products single-use or multi-use in design?

James: They’re designed to be multi-use in the sense that it’s not a one-time use child-resistant locking mechanism. You can open and close it thousands of times before the product breaks down. Unfortunately, it is very difficult in the cannabis industry to set up packaging reuse models due to the nature of how strict cannabis regulations are.

For instance, there are some companies out there that are working on this. One that immediately comes to mind is Green For Green in Colorado. But because cannabis isn’t federally legal, once there is a cannabis product inside of the packaging, and the packaging has been used, it becomes a liability issue to collect and clean and reuse the packaging. Green For Green has made leaps and bounds in Colorado trying to get to a point where they can collect, clean and resell packaging.

When you think of what would be a kind of perfect circular packaging model, and I think cannabis lends itself really well to this, think back to the milkman model of the 1950s. You drink the milk, and the milkman collects the empty bottle, cleans it, refills it, and redistributes it.

Cannabis packaging would be perfect for a model like that, but it's pretty much all regulatory hurdles in the way. I know of some other companies in Oregon doing this, but once this kind of program gets up and running, that's the type of system we would love to plug our packaging into, to extend its life as much as possible, before it needs to be physically recycled into a raw material to be remanufactured again.

Jeff: What sets Sana above the rest?

James: I (laughs) I don’t know what sets us above the rest. I think what sets us apart from the rest is that, aside from the partners that we work with, we’re kinda the only group of companies in the cannabis packaging space dead set on transitioning cannabis packaging from a linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model towards a circular model. And that's a vision that extends beyond the materials we use.

It involves also trying to integrate into systems of circularity and figuring out ways to extend the life cycles of our products. We’re really not just concerned with selling single-use widgets. We joke that we’re the only cannabis packaging company that wants to put ourselves out of business.

Not really out of business because we want to be part of the solution that extends the life cycle of the products, recycles the products, remanufactures them, and resells them. So, it's a lot more than just selling something. It’s trying to affect a broader systemic change to the way packaging works, and the way our waste management system works.

Please note that this blog is not to be considered medical advice. Always consult your physician for more information and/or questions related to your specific medical history.

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