Jade Stefano has been trying to eliminate plastic use in her personal life, but the task of merely not adding to humanity’s number one source of pollution gets much harder once cannabis is involved.
“Cannabis packaging does have a huge plastic problem,” writes Stefano, co-founder and CEO of Puffin Farm, a Clean Green Certified cannabis producer near the Yakima River in Washington state.
It’s a problem that cannabis consumers experience firsthand, as well. Some higher-end brands can afford to adopt biodegradable alternatives like Puffin’s glass doob tubes, but regulatory demands and simple economics dictate that the vast majority of products one can legally purchase to get high come packaged in synthetic, single-use plastics.
While plastic’s hardiness may be handy for child-proofing our edibles and keeping sandwiches fresh, it becomes a problem once it’s disposed of in the natural environment — as 91 percent of plastics are — where it can take 500 years or more to degrade. Before then, it enters landfills, suffocates ocean ecosystems and breaks down into carcinogenic microplastics, which have already been found in creatures from the bottom of the ocean to an estimated 93 percent of American humans at the top of the food chain.
“This type of packaging always involves plastic, and there are no good solutions,” Stefano explains, “save extremely expensive [bioplastics], which most operators simply can’t afford.”
Co-founders James Eichner and Ron Basak-Smith of Sana Packaging are trying to change that. In 2018, the Colorado-based startup became the first to market what seems the most obvious and marketable solution to cannabis’s packaging problem imaginable: hemp plastics.
But as conscientious processers like Stefano already know, hemp and other plant-based bioplastics can’t yet compete with conventional plastics when it comes to price, which makes all the difference in a competitive and oversupplied market like the cannabis market in Washington state and elsewhere. This price difference has less to do with the plant itself than its fraught history and the resulting lack of commercial mechanisms necessary to get it to consumers, and then to the appropriate processing facilities.
“Right now, it’s kind of the chicken and the egg thing. There isn’t a preexisting supply chain or a playbook for what we’re doing,” explains Eichner. “When you’re looking at plastics, you have to realize you’re not just competing with the material — you’re competing with crude oil.”
While petroleum long ago became our default source of cellulose, plastic’s basic component, hemp — a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis grown for diverse industrial purposes — is the most concentrated producer of cellulose we can grow — and, like most plants, it removes carbon from the atmosphere. Hemp plastics are also non-toxic, pesticide-free, recyclable and biodegradable within six months, not to mention both lighter and 3.5 times stronger than common polypropylene.
“Hemp plastics are also non-toxic, pesticide-free, recyclable and biodegradable within six months, not to mention both lighter and 3.5 times stronger than common polypropylene.”
But hemp-based plastic has a way to go before it can practically replace its petroleum counterpart. The global supply chain for crude oils used to make conventional plastics is the most sophisticated (not to mention aggressively maintained) on the planet. In contrast, industrial hemp’s federally illegal status only began to shift following the state-by-state normalization of its recreational sibling, finally gaining approval for commercial production in the 2018 Farm Bill — it is an infant industry competing with a mature specimen.
“I think hemp and other bio-based resins can effectively compete today with traditional resins,” writes Corey Kratcha of c2renew, a biomaterial designing company in North Dakota for whom hemp is one of many agricultural inputs. “However I think there needs to be a shift in thinking among molders and manufacturers that bio-based resins can be used in most applications.”
Increased media coverage and legislative efforts like the straw and plastic grocery bag bans have combined to make plastics what Eichner calls a “sexy issue” in recent years. It wasn’t quite as sexy in the early days of the legal cannabis industry, when he and Basak-Smith first developed Sana’s concept as grad students at Boulder in 2016.
“[The cannabis industry] was growing so fast that the main thing people were concerned about with packaging was whether or not it was compliant with regulations,” Eichner explains. “Those regulations were not centered around sustainability.”
Sana Packaging remains a two-man operation today, primarily relying on third parties to stay nimble for the many legal determinations still to come, from the prospect of interstate pot commerce to individual states’ hemp designations and California’s still up-in-the-air packaging regulations.
At present, their 100 percent plant-based plastic products like the Sana Container for flower and Sana Tube for pre-rolls are only 30 percent hemp. The rest comes from corn, America’s cheapest and most common bioplastic component, evidence of the crop’s federal subsidization and research attention rather than any biological advantage over hemp, which requires less than half the water of corn, sequesters more carbon and grows to maturity quicker.
“Industrial hemp will likely go the route of most commodified crops,” says Kratcha. “As the market grows and builds, farmers will likely start to plant more acres and the market will start to go the route of commonly traded inputs.”
As well as looking forward to decreased costs and improved process facilities, Sana’s co-founders also hope regulators can level the playing field for bioplastics by enforcing “negative externalities” on their competitors — essentially attaching a dollar value to the environmental tolls petrol-based plastics extract from governments and taxpayers, remediating their pollution down the line. They also point to a need for better legal and semantic distinctions for bioplastics — currently, any product with more than 25 percent biomass can be labeled as such — or even a seal of authenticity tracing their source.
“To make bioplastic and have it perform the way packaging needs to, it really needs to be a single source of material,” Basak-Smith says. “We’ve gotten it all domesticated, and now we’re honing in on being able to localize it.”
Localizing supply chains is difficult but crucial to Sana’s mission of creating packaging that heals its environment, so they don’t come to rely on the same fossil-fueled transport and shipping systems that they’re trying to subvert.
And therein lies the challenge for all plastic-aware businesses and individuals in the current age — even with Earth’s future at stake, petroleum, plastics and the convenient storage and energy solutions they represent are so embedded in our global economy that the answer isn’t as simple as going cold turkey. It entails collectively reevaluating the way we produce, package, distribute and dispose of most commodities, from the current linear model — take, make, dispose — to a more circular, regenerative one, for which local sourcing and waste recovery are the biggest missing links.
“If you start designing packaging or anything, really, with how it’s going to be recovered in mind,” Eichner says, “that’ll shift the way you think about everything.”
That’s the broader paradigm shift Eichner and Basak-Smith have their eyes on, at least. The cannabis industry — still being built from the ground up and full of competitors seeking novel ways to package and differentiate products — just presents the most opportune and poetic first frontier for the plant they think can wean us off our unsustainable oil dependency.