An unfortunate byproduct of Oklahoma’s burgeoning cannabis industry is added plastic waste.
For decades, the humble plastic sandwich baggie was the vessel of choice for purveyors of black-market cannabis. They are cheap, easily adaptable to a variety of amounts of flower and keep it relatively fresh for short periods.
But with the legalization of recreational and medical cannabis across the country, the plastic baggie has officially become passé and often illegal in a retail setting, given childproof packaging requirements in most states.
The cannabis industry’s explosion in the United States has been transformative. Laws have changed in one way or another in a majority of states, and public opinion broadly favors legalization, according to polls. But one thing that has not changed is the use of plastics when it comes to how cannabis is delivered to consumers.
With a projected $11-$13 billion in cannabis sales this year according to Marijuana Business Factbook, it is easy to see how plastics add up. If you broke down a pound of cannabis and sold it in 1-gram increments, it would equate to about 450 individual containers.
Vape cartridges, tinctures and edibles require loads of plastics in both their packaging and production. In many cases, the packaging weighs more than the cannabis product inside.
Seeing the amount of plastics used in the industry inspired Ron Basak-Smith to fund Sana Packaging, a company that makes cannabis containers made from reclaimed ocean plastic.
What started as a graduate school project with his friend and co-founder James Eichner at University of Colorado in Boulder has turned into a career. That path is not surprising. Growing up in Colorado, Basak-Smith developed a healthy respect for the environment and how waste products can impact water and land resources.
“I’ve always been concerned about the environment,” he said. “After my undergrad, I got a job at a liquor store and saw a lot of single use plastic packaging in that job, and my father is a veterinarian, so I saw a lot of plastic waste there too. There’s reasons behind that, but we’re saving dogs and cats while we’re killing sea turtles. So it’s the same in the cannabis industry. There’s a lot of plastics. I don’t see that changing, but we can use plastic responsibly. I think that’s imperative as we see the industry grow.”
Sana Packaging has been in operation for about three years. It sells primarily to distributors of cannabis packaging products. The company offers two products: a tube for pre-rolls and a box for flower packaging that can also be used for vape cartridges. Both are childproof.
The idea to use reclaimed ocean plastic came from a chance encounter at a cannabis conference with a distributor. As an added environmental benefit, the containers are made from one type of plastic, meaning it’s easier to recycle than plastics of varying grades.
“That’s another big thing about it,” Basak-Smith said. “It’s 100 percent one type of material, so that goes right back into the recycle stream.”
But Basak-Smith said the industry and lawmakers can do more to reduce plastics. Most states require flower containers and edible packaging to be childproof.
But he wonders if the need for childproof packaging for flower is necessary. Basak-Smith said it makes sense for childproof containers on products like edibles that contain activated THC. Most small children might be tempted to eat cannabis that looks and tastes like candy, but they are far less likely to munch on buds.
“A lot of rigid plastic waste is from flower packaging,” he said. “If it were a situation where we had people dying from cannabis, that would be one thing, but prior to legalization, there wasn’t any kind of child-resistant packaging. It’s a case where maybe the industry and lawmakers are making a problem where there isn’t a problem.”
Some Oklahoma City area dispensaries are trying to stem the plastic container tide. Emerald Alley Dispensary offers patients a 10 percent discount if they bring in 20 used containers.
If they are of the variety and color scheme used by Emerald Alley and are in good condition, the containers are cleaned with the same fluid used to clean dentures and re-sold. If they are not the kind the dispensary uses, they go into a bin for plastic recycling.
“We started doing it because the amount of plastics is something that concerns us, too,” Emerald Alley manager Hunter Quinten said. “All that plastic adds up in landfills.”
The program has been in place for about three months and has been successful.
“We have some people who do it religiously,” Quinten said. “When someone finds out about it, it’s usually a really positive reaction. We had one gentleman who said it was gross to use them over again, but once we explain the process of cleaning, they understand it better.”
Glass is another highly recyclable form of packaging, but few area dispensaries use it, largely because of its cost. Fire Leaf uses glass for its packaging for just about every flower product amount larger than a gram or a pre-roll.
“We feel like it offers patients a better quality than plastic,” Fire Leaf co-owner Cassi Doolittle said. “Glass keeps the flower fresher for a longer amount of time. It’s better all around.”
Fire Leaf offers patients the opportunity to bring in their old glass jars to be refilled at its five central Oklahoma locations, which helps reduce packaging usage. The response has been positive, with the biggest complaints centering on peeling off the labels so they can be relabeled.
“Patients love it,” Doolittle said. “We have had some bring them in to be refilled. I would love for the number to be higher, but the response has been pretty good.”
The downside is cost.
“Glass is significantly more expensive,” Doolittle said. “It also costs more to ship. So there’s also that part of it that you have to take into account.”
And that is what Basak-Smith runs into with Sana Packaging products. A typical pre-roll tube costs 8-10 cents. Those sold by his company can cost up to three times that amount.
“That is a constant challenge,” Basak-Smith said. “You have to have someone who wants to commit to reducing plastic and make it a part of their business.”
Expense is one reason Emerald Alley uses plastic containers.
“We use it because it’s more economical,” Quinten said. “With the Oklahoma standard for packaging, it makes more sense than glass because you can’t see the product anyway because of the labels. Until less expensive options come up, I think the majority of people will continue to use plastic.”