Two very interesting stories came out this week. One, from Janet Burns at Gizmodo, details the booming trend of fancy packaging in legal cannabis products: artful tins, minimalist tubes, modernist cubes, faux-vintage cases. The other, from Kristen Millares Young at the Washington Post, examines how this same packaging is clogging the sewers, landfills, waterways, and recycling operations of Washington state, where recreational use is legal.
Cannabis, given its sudden push from longstanding contraband to legal consumer product, is facing growing pains. We’ve detailed those here before, focusing on the agricultural side of things. Cannabis was, for a long time, one of the most environmentally destructive crops in the United States, with truly astounding bad practices involving rat poison, pollution, and forest death.
A strange assumption held by many cannabis consumers – this isn’t a generalization, somebody actually did research on this – is that cannabis production is somehow greener, more environmentally friendly and sustainable, than other crops. It isn’t, and because it isn’t federally legal, the USDA can’t certify organic cannabis farms, which would provide a visible and well-understood label for ethical consumers. (The alternative is a third-party label; for more on that, head over here.)
Packaging has boomed in the wake of legalization. Free of gram-sized Ziploc bags stamped with smiley faces, which are symbols of an earlier, less legal time for cannabis, legal sellers find themselves able to rebrand themselves however they want. Cannabis products can be twee, vintage-inspired, sleekly modern, or serious and medical. But a boom in packaging is not good for the environment.
The Washington Post article singles out some of these new trends as especially bad: “doob tubes,” tiny plastic tubes meant to hold a single, pre-rolled joint, are too small to be sorted in recycling facilities, and end up in the dump. Disposable vape pens are used for a few weeks and then thrown out. The high cost and small amount needed from each serving of cannabis means that packaging is necessarily too specific; imagine if you got a prescription refill of 30 pills, and each one came in its own container. But the need to brand one’s product, in the way that any 2018 product must be branded, means that this problem is exacerbated.
The solution to this problem, as for many of the other problems facing a brand-new and complex industry like cannabis, will probably come eventually. Maybe you’ll buy cannabis in bulk, and bring your own reusable container to the store. Dosist, which makes vape pens, offers a recycling program that gives a discount on future products for bringing in a used one. But for now, be careful what you buy. You’re going to have to throw some of it out.