It’s no secret that the environmental legacy of the marijuana industry isn’t very pretty. Prohibition of cannabis and the failed War on Drugs drove cultivation indoors, necessitating energy-hungry artificial lighting to grow a plant that thrives naturally in the sun.
Less than scrupulous operators have damaged public lands and poisoned the environment with dangerous pesticides and fertilizers. A shortage of local cultivation creates a market for cartels to ship weed hundreds or even thousands of miles.
What’s that going to do to the carbon footprint of your bag of pot?
But as legalization slowly gains ground across the nation, this legacy is getting better.
Large outdoor grows are free to see the light of day, reducing energy use. As regulation of cultivation and manufacturing takes hold, businesses are required to dispose of dangerous wastes responsibly. An open and educated marketplace demands more product that is grown sustainably and organically, free of chemical pesticides.
However, one aspect of the marijuana business seems to be going backwards—from the viewpoint of sustainability and environmental responsibility. Obviously, an unmarked Ziploc baggy of dope isn’t going to cut it at a medical or recreational dispensary.
But is the packaging of cannabis products getting out of hand?
At a recent marijuana festival, all manner of free samples were being shared. A popular giveaway was pre-rolled joints. One joint I was offered was contained in a hard-plastic cone—five grams of plastic to package one gram of weed. Another was neatly packaged in an easily recyclable and biodegradable cardboard box. This is clearly an area where an enlightened and vocal consuming public can make a difference.
Products aimed at the luxury cannabis market seem to be especially guilty of outlandish overpackaging.
I was recently shown the prototype box for a high-end cannabis subscription service. Seven-gram portions of four top-shelf strains are separated in glass containers, which are then placed in a hinged carton. Four glass jars and a box big enough for a pair of sneakers, to market an ounce of herb!
I understand the urge to differentiate products in a crowded market, but costly packaging isn’t the only option. One challenge for clever and conscientious marketers is to make a product stand out, without resorting to a wasteful use of resources.
One company taking on that challenge responsibly is OutCo, located in El Cajon, California, a suburb of San Diego. OutCo cultivates, manufactures and markets marijuana and cannabis products for its licensed medical dispensary, Outliers Collective. Virginia Falces, the communications director at OutCo, showed me several ways the company is keeping environmental concerns in mind.
Flower and joints are minimally packed in plastic for freshness. The flat sleeve they use for pre-rolls weighs less than two grams. OutCo brand tinctures are marketed only in attractively labeled bottles, without the unnecessary box used by some companies.
The environmental initiatives at OutCo don’t end with their packaging.
The company is currently constructing a state-of-the-art cultivation facility in rural San Diego County. Greenhouses will allow their plants to be grown, mostly with sunlight, drastically reducing the need for artificial lighting and the energy it requires.
Even the environmental impact of staffing the site has been considered. Falces, of OutCo, explained that the grow will hire as many employees as possible from the small communities surrounding the remote location. A van pool is being planned to transport workers coming from farther away, to cut down on traffic and pollution.
Unfortunately, regulation may be only one challenge to more environmentally responsible packaging. Understandably, cannabis products will be required to display safety and warning messages. Skillful marketing will be needed to integrate brand objectives and required messaging into wrapping that is less wasteful.
Of course, the environment isn’t the only beneficiary of responsible packaging.
As the cannabis industry grows into a legal and highly competitive market, shrewd companies will recognize that minimizing packaging and reducing the use of resources will benefit the bottom line, as well.