If you’re a regular cannabis consumer and you purchase your goods from a dispensary, you probably are quite familiar with the excessive amount of packaging often involved. Most likely you know the feeling of having to peel back the seemingly endless, unnecessary layers of plastic and cardboard waste before you can finally get to the weed you’ve purchased. Even if it’s only a gram of flower.

First, we have the container that holds the weed. Which is often those stereotypical plastic medtainers or some type of jar. All packaged up with their protective seals and required labeling. Depending on the brand, these containers themselves might even come in their own box. Commonly inside you will find a pile of unwanted printed marketing material and pamphlets. Along with any other general user information and legally required cannabis regulation jargon. Then, the budtender will usually place your purchase in some sort of child-proof plastic exit bag. Once you’ve arrived home you will continue to spend 5 minutes trying to pry this bag open, before bitterly discarding it.


Trash Cans
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Photo by Paul Baden


Cannabis packaging waste, ending up as a consumer’s environmental responsibility.

For the average person, these layers will most likely all wind up in the trash can and in turn the landfill. Even for those who are a little more environmentally conscious and take the time to actually place their used cannabis packaging in the recycling bins. It still just might end up in landfills anyway. 

In 2019, California entered its 4th consecutive year of declining recycling figures. CalWatchdog reports that the increase in un-recycled waste has reached levels of up to 2 million additional containers littered or landfilled a day. It is also estimated that the cannabis industry alone produces at least a billion units of plastic waste annually, according to the Santa Fe Reporter. This isn’t even including cartridges and vape pens. Though they are discreet and convenient they are pretty much impossible to recycle and also end up in landfills.




Garbage in California



The wasteful amount of packaging in the California cannabis industry saw an increase following the passing and enforcement of the California Department of Public Health‘s strict child-resistant regulations and packaging guidelines. Every State with some form of legalized cannabis has its own set of varying requirements. In California, the policy states that cannabis packaging must be tamper-evident, child-resistant, resealable (for products with multiple uses), and opaque. There is no mention concerning the use of reusable or recyclable materials. 

Cannabis companies who care, and their mission to help alleviate the waste problem. 

CannaCycle offers to ease the stress of cannabis waste in California by providing consumers with a drop off recycling service. I was able to take a bunch of my used cannabis packaging to one of their pick-up locations at the Kind Peoples dispensary in Santa Cruz. My experience was quick and easy. I just handed my items over to the greeter in front, that simple. They accept glass jars, pre-roll tubes, boxes, concentrate packaging, and any other types. The only exception is vape cartridges and pens. CannaCycle collects these items and cleans them. They then return them back to cannabis companies to further be used again.




Cannabis Recyling




As a consumer it’s super convenient, also a bit gratifying, to be able to pass on the burden of appropriately recycling your discarded items to a responsible third party. You can find CannaCycle’s program at one of their 11 dispensary drop off locations in the Bay Area and Northern California. Other businesses have offered their support with the issue by designing innovative packaging for brands that helps reduce the amount of plastic waste.

Sun Grown, a cannabis packaging manufacturer in Oakland, utilizes recyclable and compostable materials to make their child-resistant packaging. They use soy-based inks and water-based coatings in their print process to create custom display boxes and inserts for brands. Another company, Sana Packaging which is based in Denver and Los Angeles, creates their products from 100% plant-based hemp plastic and 100% reclaimed plastic from the ocean. So far they have helped remove 8 tons of plastic from the ocean.




Discarded Medicine Bottles
Wasteful Cannabis Packaging – Photo by Haley Lawrence

Vape pen popularity, sparking concern for their environmental impact. 

One of the biggest threats to the environment stemming from the cannabis industry is disposable vape pens and cartridges. Succeeding flower, vape pens had the highest retail sales in 2018. They contributed to 22% of combined dispensary profits in California, Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon according to BDS Analytics. Still, their popularity only continues to grow.

A crucial problem is that some pens come as an all-in-one or single-use. Cartridge attachments are disposable and usually also single-use. Many vape pen batteries are reusable and for the most part universal, but they also must be discarded properly. Users can try to take them to their local battery disposal center but some places will not accept these type of lithium batteries.




Vape Cartridges





Generally, these pieces will end up in the trash. There is currently no solution properly to dispose of them otherwise. The materials from these pens can potentially release harmful pesticides and metals into our earth’s soil and water. In order for them to be recycled, they would have to be cleaned and taken apart piece by piece. In just one cartridge there can be up to 30 pieces alone.

Some cannabis businesses are trying to do their part to help alleviate this waste. The disposable vape pen company Dosist, uses recyclable materials in almost all of their plastic cases, shell, and electronic components. They also offer a recycling option. Users can get a discount on their next Dosist purchase if they return their used pen to a dispensary where their products are sold.





Helping the Environment


The best thing cannabis consumers can do for the environment is to reduce, reuse, recycle.

In the grand scheme of recycling and waste, it would be easiest if companies were required to package items in compostable or reusable materials. However, like most things that are good for the planet, it all starts with the individual. If you care to lessen your environmental impact while still supporting and consuming cannabis there are simple steps you can take today.

Start by saving your exit bags and reuse them at the dispensary for your next purchase. You can also recycle or repurpose old jars and containers. There are a whole bunch of creative uses listed on Weedmaps, like using them for holding earbuds, earrings and jewelry, travel items, dab tools, or bobby pins. It’s also important to stay informed. Ask your local dispensary if they have a recycling program or look for one online! Don’t forget the power of your own voice and choices. Try supporting companies that make the environment a priority, and tell your friends to support them too. Together we can all make a difference!


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