The grind towards sustainable cannabis packaging in Canada
Consumers, governments, licensed producers and retailers all say they care about sustainable packaging, but who is holding the cannabis industry to account?
July 31, 2023 By Devon Scoble
It’s not hard to find licensed producers, governments and cannabis retailers who recognize sustainability as a worthy goal. The real challenge for the Canadian cannabis industry is developing a clear definition of sustainability and creating a roadmap to get there.
Governments focused on recycling
Regarding packaging, Health Canada has much to say about materials, colours and branding elements and little about sustainability. Its Packaging and labelling guide for cannabis products acknowledges that “plastic pollution is a growing problem in Canada and around the world” and encourages innovation in packaging so long as it satisfies regulatory requirements.
Reducing plastic waste, says senior media relations advisor Tammy Jarbeau, falls under the purview of Environment and Climate Change Canada, adding that, “I believe here at Health Canada for food product packaging, our role is to set the standards for what is included in the package and not necessarily what the package is made of.”
In an emailed statement, a separate Health Canada representative noted that amendments to the Cannabis Regulations to allow accordion or peel-back labels on smaller packages create more flexibility for licensed producers to use non-plastic packaging alternatives such as cardboard.
“Canadian governments have the right ideas, and I believe they are trying to help by requesting LPs and processors to use sustainable packaging,” says Joel Darichuk, calling it “a start.” A veteran with over 25 years in the packaging industry, Darichuk is the CEO and GM of CannaGreen Packaging, which produces cannabis packaging and supplies, focusing on sustainable and responsible manufacturing processes.
While he sees recyclability as an excellent first step, he’d like governments to educate industry players on biodegradable and compostable packaging and encourage sustainable production practices across operations, not just in packaging.
Mika Unterman agrees that governments should be doing more. She’s a circular economy and reverse logistics consultant, and the founder of Apical – a consortium that helps cannabis companies adopt sustainable packaging.
“Government lags behind the business community, generally speaking, which is why they are focused on recycling and regulating what you can call recyclable or recycled content,” she says. While recyclable packaging is ultimately a good thing, its impacts are limited when only nine per cent of the plastic goods Canadians throw in their bins are actually recycled.
Instead, Unterman wants to see governments and crown corporations “investing in the reuse infrastructure that we all need to meet our climate goals.”
The industry’s role
For her part, Unterman encourages licensed producers and retailers to think long-term, arguing it’s not only the right thing, it’s also the cost-effective thing to do.
She understands that sustainability programs can seem like added expenses but says that LPs operating in provinces with extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs in place probably aren’t capturing their true packaging costs, anyway.
“Ontario’s EPR will make LPs financially responsible for the waste they put into the market,” she says. The province’s Blue Box program begins transitioning to a new regulatory framework in July. It will soon see manufacturers across industries bearing the costs of municipal recycling programs. However, she says that most LPs bury the costs of EPR within general and administrative expenses, obscuring the cradle-to-grave cost of their packaging.
The way forward
For a functioning model of sustainable packaging, Unterman suggests looking to another well-loved plant-based product: beer. In Canada, a standard refillable beer bottle is reused an average of 15 times before being recycled into a new one, while aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable.
Standardizing cannabis packages would require a high degree of collaboration, both across production, retail and government sectors and within them. “For LPs, the sustainability transition can be costly if they seek to do it all on their own. But they can save money if they collaborate with competitors,” says Unterman, who doesn’t believe standardization poses a risk to sales.
“I understand the importance of having a unique look, but given the current way sales are done – we don’t see the packaging until after purchase – what does a unique jar or tube do for the brand? And what is the good of differentiation if we are literally destroying the planet in the process?”
Darichuk acknowledges that a lot of the changes he’d like to see, such as better government-led sustainability education and tax credits for producers who use local sustainable packaging, are complex. He says he’d love to get in a room with manufacturers and government bodies to work towards shared goals, and offers a quick win that would reduce packaging output and divert sales from illegal markets.
“A simple but successful change that would reduce packaging is to simply allow 100 mg packaging of edibles,” he says, allowing consumers to buy the same amounts of edibles in fewer packages. Indeed, public consultations on proposed amendments to the Cannabis Regulations surfaced back in 2019 and are likely to do so again when the government publishes the results of this year’s public review, but so far expanding the edible THC limit has been a non-starter with Health Canada.
Despite significant setbacks like this and the shuttering of Terracycle’s cannabis recycling program, the industry does have a few good-news stories to draw from: Nova Scotia LP Aqualitas uses ocean waste for its 100 per cent-reclaimed plastic packaging, and Alberta-based [Re] Waste works with companies such as High Tide and Nova Cannabis to collect used packaging and turn it into “reusable and functional products” – including its own collection bins. Darichuk is particularly proud of the work CannaGreen has done to reduce waste. Still, there is much work to do before the industry can call itself sustainable.
“It takes time to do this well,” says Unterman. “I see the industry in a scarcity mindset, fighting tooth and nail to survive. I understand the need to focus on the short term. But doubling down on a sustainable strategy that could reduce costs and make a business viable in the next 18 to 24 months, when others are ignoring the opportunity, is undoubtedly a competitive advantage.”
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