The cannabis industry has a plastic waste problem — but some are finding solutions

CBC News – Dec 15, 2022 

Here’s a story about how my insomnia turned into a plastic problem.

Back in 2019, I was having serious trouble sleeping. My prescribed pills were no longer working, so I experimented with cannabis. After seeing poor results with edibles, CBD oil and CBD capsules, I decided to try smoking it. After some hits and misses, I found a strain that worked.

You can buy the cannabis flowers or pre-rolled joints, but they both require a plastic receptacle, which can range from a round container to a tube, even a bag. 

My local store in Toronto suggested that when I was done, I could bring the tubes back, as they could be recycled — so I did. But I recently discovered that my giant bag of “doob tubes” — the nickname for the tubes that store pre-rolled joints — was just going into the trash.

Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the first phase of the federal government’s move to ban single-use plastic. But this transition leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the cannabis industry, which very much relies on one-and-done plastic.

To start, Health Canada regulations don’t allow consumers to reuse these containers, so they are often tossed into recycling bins. In some jurisdictions, like Toronto, the black containers and doob tubes aren’t recyclable because optical sorters are unable to recognize the black plastic. Even the light-coloured plastic is difficult to sort, as some packaging contains up to three types of plastic. And so a lot of it goes in the garbage.

Some of the plastic I was using back in 2019 may have been recyclable, as the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) provided customers with a link to Terracycle’s cannabis recycling program. But the program is no longer in operation.

Although cannabis was legalized on Oct. 17, 2018, under the federal Cannabis Act, the Act never addressed environmental concerns.

“The Cannabis Act was written with a preponderance of focus on risk — not environmental risk, not sustainability risk, et cetera, but really risk that that product would fall in the hands of a kid,” said George Smitherman, president and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada.

“The Act that we operate under was written blind of the consideration for sustainability, which is rather odd. Because it was an act of a government that is at the same time very focused on these things.”

One research study from Toronto Metropolitan University estimates that between October 2018 and August 2019, between 5.8 million and 6.4 million kilograms of plastic cannabis packaging ended up in Canadian landfills.

There are people who are tackling the problem. One of them is Corey Saban, founder and CEO of [Re]waste, an Edmonton-based company that collects and reuses plastic waste, including that from the cannabis industry.

He launched his business in 2020, and started off small: first, by making coasters from compressed plastic bags and other items. That caught the interest of an employee at Value Buds (then called Nova Cannabis). It snowballed from there.

“We’re really seeing consumers pushing [recycling/reuse] for the cannabis supply chain,” Saban said. “They want better options for recycling.” 

As a result, [Re]waste is now providing recycling services for about 250 cannabis retailers across Canada. Among the items [Re]waste makes with the plastic are rolling trays and display tables.

Saban, who is collecting statistics on packaging, notes that cannabis packaging could be a lot smaller. For example, a flower in a round container takes up about eight per cent of the total volume, meaning 92 per cent is wasted space. But labelling regulations have forced the containers to be larger than they need to be.

Nova Scotia-based company Aqualitas is not only a sustainable cannabis grower, but it also uses reclaimed ocean plastic to produce packaging that is 100 per cent recyclable. Products range from containers to bags, even glass products. 

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