Lorena Cupcake, voted “best budtender in Chicago,” has answered hundreds of questions from cannabis shoppers and patients during their time as a budtender. And now they're turning that experience into a monthly advice column, Ask a budtender. Got a question for Cupcake? Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
20-plus year weed enthusiast here, asking if the trend of overpackaging is simply the result of the commercialization of weed, or if the fact that every time I buy weed, pre-rolls, or gummies, I'm also bestowed packaging that seems like it could be . . . less than . . . because of security concerns? Is there something I'm missing?
IMO, it would be great if I could "bring my own bag" so to speak, so I don't feel like I'm killing Mother Earth every time I buy a big ol' joint and it comes in a test-tube sized container I immediately recycle or throw away.
According to San Jose Inside, cannabis packaging significantly outweighs the products inside. 3.5 grams of flower might come in a 184 gram jar; a one-gram joint comes in a doob tube that weighs 40.5 grams. The packaging for edibles can weigh up to 22 times as much as the gummies or capsules inside.
The industry is creeping along, taking baby steps toward environmental sustainability. New Jersey gently recommends that “Cannabis businesses shall make a good faith effort to utilize packaging that is biodegradable," while brands like Stone Road voluntarily package their products in 100% post-consumer recycled goods.
Unfortunately, most cannabis packaging is still bulky and difficult to recycle. To find out why, I went straight to the primary source: the byzantine statutes regulating cannabis packaging, each specific to a particular state with some form of legalized cannabis.
Save the Children
According to Alaska's regulations, packaging “must be designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open; but not normally difficult for adults to use properly." Anyone who's ever struggled to open their new concentrate or edible has to laugh at the second half.
States like New Jersey and Maryland hold edible cannabis product packaging to the same poisoning prevention standards applied to mouthwash, cleaning products, and medicines, adding that consumers must be able to reseal the container in a child-resistant matter (unless it only contains one serving). Utah seems somewhat laxer, allowing cannabis processing facilities to follow regulations outlined for the dietary supplement industry.
One bright spot is that California regulators rolled back requirements for opaque, child-resistant “exit bags" that added expense and waste to dispensary trips. Since most customers removed their products once at home, the focus is now on keeping individual products child-resistant.
Protect the Product
Most state cannabis laws contain rules similar to Maryland's Edible Cannabis Packaging Requirements, which state that “any container or packaging containing edible cannabis products shall protect the contents from contamination," specifying that only food-safe materials that can't migrate to the edibles should be used.
Flower containers need to keep cannabinoid-degrading oxygen out, and that instantly-recognizable dank odor inside. In some states, packages also need to be tamper-resistant, with sealed contents that can't be consumed without breaking the seal.
While some packaging choices are strictly utilitarian, there's also marketing at play. Customers often perceive an eighth in a heavy glass jar and colorful box as higher value than an eighth in a mylar foil bag. Many popular preroll companies have built their brand identity on reusable tins with branded designs.
Identify Products and Potencies
Mandating easy-to-read labels makes sense: budtenders need to be able to keep the eighths of Alien OG straight from the grams of Chili Verde, and customers want to know the details behind their purchases. Almost all states require basic information like harvest date, use-by date, ingredients, recommended dosage, lab results, lot and batch numbers, a unique serial number, and information about the cultivation and processing facilities.
In some states, products must disclose what solvents were used to process cannabis concentrates, along with any chemical additives like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Others require warning labels in clunky language, like Michigan's many disclaimers regarding “marihuana."
States even specify that product designers should use a certain font size (or above) to stay legible, which means all this information takes up space; too much space for a tiny sticker on a preroll tin or glass jar. That means glass or plastic product containers often get packaged in cardboard boxes: they're easier to stack in dispensary vaults, but harder on the environment.
Since I'm currently working in the cannabis industry, people often ask me whether they can bring used cannabis containers back to their dispensary for recycling. Illinois explicitly bans open products from returning to dispensaries, which means collecting empty (well, slightly kief-y) jars on the premises could potentially get the whole operation shut down.
According to MJ Brand Insights, the West Coast has the most recycling-friendly atmosphere in the USA, with Seattle dispensaries Canna West and Canna Culture Shop boasting recycling bins. Bay Area-based Canna Cycle repurposes glass flower and concentrate jars within the cannabis industry, turning other recyclables into 3D printer filament or fuel for delivery vehicles.
In Maryland, reused cannabis packaging is explicitly banned. Despite that, local nonprofit The High 5 Initiative has made it their mission to divert pop-top cannabis containers from their landfills. In 2020, their collection centers kept about 100,000 pop-tops out of local landfills, turning them into non-food grade items like air conditioner pads.
The patient-led organization has some suggestions for the industry. “Growers, processors, and dispensaries can try and keep the containers consistent with the #5 plastic packaging that the majority of the industry is using," they write on their website. “This helps keep down the potential for contamination as each plastic has different properties." They also suggest using labels that are easy to peel off.
If federal cannabis reform becomes a reality, it might be an incredible step forward for sustainability. In Canada, where cannabis has been legal since 2018, Terracycle accepts any brand of cannabis packaging at over a hundred collection centers across the country. In the US, legalization could lead to a brighter future for both our citizens and our environment.