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Can the Future of Cannabis Be Plastic-Free?

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Sana Packaging co-founder James Eichner tells Bloom & Oil why the cannabis industry needs to get greener in a hurry.

Were Jerry Seinfeld a pothead, one imagines he’d likely have a routine by now focused on the struggles it takes to open child-resistant cannabis product packaging.

Those who have purchased a vape cartridge or six-pack of infused seltzers likely know the humbling experience of doing battle with packaging in hopes of unlocking a rightfully earned treat. Suffice it to say, if you can’t afford to attend an escape room, one can enjoy most of those same frustrations from the comfort of your home by trying to puzzle out which locking mechanism must be squeezed in such a way to free your product from its plastic prison.

If somewhat comical to watch, the entire situation also underscores a rather bleak, largely unspoken truth that currently plagues the legal weed market: packaging waste. And according to James Eichner, co-founder of Sana Packaging, the cannabis industry is currently producing billions of units of packaging waste per year.

“It’s really hard to quantify the magnitude of how much cannabis packaging waste is being created,” stressed Eichner in a phone call with Bloom & Oil. “It’s easy to find numbers about packaging waste in general but reliable cannabis data can still be pretty hard to come by because it’s still such a nascent industry.”

According to a 2017 University of Georgia study, the issue — at least on a general level — was one spiraling dangerously out of control:

“The US has created over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since society began mass-producing plastics in the 1950s. Of these 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. And of these 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic, only 9% has been recycled while 79% has ended up in landfills or our natural environment.”

That’s why, back in 2016, Eichner and his future partner at Sana Packaging, Ron Basak-Smith, were already trying to brainstorm better solutions to the single-use packaging they saw being utilized in abundance by the cannabis industry while the two were graduate students at CU Boulder.

“At the time, we were both frustrated cannabis consumers,” Eichner recalled, “because along with all of the positivity that we saw the legal market bringing to Colorado, one of the big, negative externalities we saw in the industry was packaging waste.”

Noting that advents to sectors like cultivation already appeared to be underway in the form of lighting and sustainably-focused technology, the pair opted to narrow their focus to the packaging problem.

A class project would eventually turn into an application for the Canopy Boulder accelerator, which was accepted, leading Eichner and Basak-Smith to double-up on finishing school and starting a business during the spring of 2017. Sana Packaging has been Eichner’s full-time focus ever since.

Initially, the company’s energy went into developing packaging from 100% plant-based plastic and 100% reclaimed ocean plastic. In discussing the evolution his business has taken over the past three years, Eichner detailed how Sana has expanded from hunting for alternative, sustainable packaging materials to advocating for the industry to adopt and embrace what’s known as a circular economic model.

The concept, as Eichner explained, consists of three guiding principles

“One is about minimizing waste and pollution,” he said, “and that covers every step of the supply chain from sourcing to end-of-life to keeping products and materials in use. Two is that the only virgin materials we use are plant-based and, if we’re not using a plant-based material, then it’s 100% reclaimed. The third tenet of a circular economy is to regenerate our natural systems.”

It’s that last one, according to Eichner, that deserves a far larger slice of the industry’s attention.

“In general,” he said, “there’s a lot of focus on the materials, but I think that a much larger piece of the puzzle that we also have to reckon with is our waste management systems and infrastructure, a lot of which are lacking. In order to truly reach circular packaging, it’s not just finding the right materials. That’s one part of it, but then it’s also about trying to affect systemic change to the larger systems that packaging interacts with at the end of its useful life.”

Things like overhauling municipal recycling programs and funding innovations in waste management are the reason Eichner grew slightly skittish when the conversation turned to the subject of personal consumer responsibility.

Far from opposing the idea that consumers should educate themselves on which brands source sustainable packaging and which stores subsequently carry those products, Eichner suggested that the math simply doesn’t work in favor of such an approach.

“I think passing the responsibility of sustainability onto the consumer is kind of shitty,” he offered, “because it’s putting all of the responsibility on the end user to make a better choice as opposed to putting that responsibility on the producer. When you think in terms of how many individual consumers need to make a better decision in order to have the same impact as just a handful of producers making a better decision, it’s obvious where the change needs to come from.”

Asked for one tangible change he’d like to see the industry adopt that would benefit a sustainability-first approach, Eichner first clarified that, as a packaging company, Sana’s customers are really a patchwork of dozens of different state-wide industries that each have slightly different regulations.

In some cases, the differences amount to details concerning the form and function child-resistant locking mechanisms in the packaging must take. Mostly, the labeling is where things differ the most.

Regardless, Eichner said that he’d like to see the industry reevaluate packaging requirements for non-activated products as one way to immediately cut back on waste. As opposed to something like an edible, in which the THC is already activated, items like flower and pre-rolls require ignition before the effects of the plant can be felt.

“If a kid gets into a jar of weed and eats a bunch of it, they’d just be eating plant matter,” Eichner explained. “I think it’s time that we take a hard look at this and really consider whether absolutely everything that contains THC needs to be in child-resistant packaging. My personal opinion is that we could dramatically reduce the amount of packaging waste created by the industry by simply distinguishing between activated and non-activated products.”

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