The idea behind Ron Basak-Smith's cannabis packaging company was simple.
"I love cannabis," says the co-founder of Denver's Sana Packaging, "and I hate what packaging waste is doing to the environment."
Sana Packaging is one of a few new companies, including Boulder's STO Responsible and Oakland's SunGrown Packaging, that are attempting to solve cannabis's plastic waste problem. Though there's no data yet on how much packaging waste is generated by the newly legal industry, anyone who has ever walked into a dispensary has probably noticed that every product is contained in its own, typically disposable, package. In Oregon, that's primarily due to Oregon Liquor Control Commission regulations—like most states with legal weed, Oregon requires anything that comes out of a dispensary to be encased in odor-proof and childproof packaging. Plastic is often the cheapest option.
So while at grad school at the University of Colorado Boulder, Basak-Smith and business partner James Eichner began what would become Sana Packaging, which manufactures tubes for pre-rolls and vape cartridge tubes, plus rectangular containers for flower and edibles, out of hemp-based and reclaimed plastic. The company officially launched last year.
Creating eco-friendly packaging for cannabis businesses seems like a no-brainer. "There's an ethos within the cannabis space that wants to do better for the environment," says Basak-Smith. "There's a lot of people in the cannabis space that care about the environment."
But even now that multistate, regulation-approved options are available, sustainable packaging is far from the norm. For now, companies like Sana serve a niche market. In a sense, they're trying to create a demand more than serve one. At 25 cents each, Sana's pre-roll tubes are more than three times as expensive as plastic tubes. That's a tough sell in a highly competitive industry that's still in its infancy. Especially in Oregon, where the market is inundated with surplus crop, it can be tough to convince financially desperate farmers and dispensaries that they need to invest in packing.
"The biggest thing is going to be willingness to pay," says Basak-Smith. That and taking the onus off the consumer: "The mindset that consumer education is what is going to solve this problem is a little shortsighted. Companies that are manufacturing these materials should be using some percentage of reclaimed or recycled material, or a plant-based plastic or something along those lines."
For small farms, sustainability often comes at a cost. One of Sana's Oregon clients is Rising Leaf Farms, a natural, sun-grown operation just south of Eugene in the foothills of the Cascades. In its three-year history, Rising Leaf has never used single-use plastic to package its products. That's required the farm's four owners to get creative. Before they could find a sustainable company that could custom-make pouches for half-gram pre-rolls, Rising Leaf bought from a bulk seller, and cut down and resealed each package themselves.
Even now, Rising Leaf hasn't been able to eliminate waste from its supply chain. Its compostable pre-roll bags aren't considered childproof, so the OLCC requires dispensaries to place the product in a plastic "exit bag" after it's sold.
In order to be deemed child-resistant, cannabis packaging has to be tested by a third party. "It's an uphill battle to be considered child-resistant," says Rising Leaf co-owner Stephanie Doan. "I think the question is, is the child-resistant packaging really necessary?" Nicotine and alcohol, both of which are poisonous in smaller doses than cannabis, do not require childproof packaging. But there's hardly a movement to change the regulations for those industries.
"I think there's too many other things to worry about," says Doan's partner in Rising Leaf, Jason Brainard. "By the time you rewrite the book, you're three, five years out."
"And then you're broke," adds Doan.
Basak-Smith agrees that reducing cannabis packaging waste on a large scale is a multifaceted issue. Still, he sees the fact that the industry is still finding its feet as an opportunity.
"Because it's a new industry, it has the ability to get off on the right foot," he says. "If we don't invest now and invest in unsustainable practices, it's going to be harder to change that further down the road."