New, readily recyclable cannabis packaging options could be a valuable marketing tool, say Canadian cannabis producers who hope unique, sustainable containers will help their bud get noticed amongst the torrent of hard-to-recycle plastic jars on legal cannabis store shelves, some of which come wrapped in extra layers of outer packaging.
"We've been hearing nothing but negative energy (about) the packaging strategies that have a lot of paper and a lot of waste," said Troy Dezwart, executive director and co-founder of Acheson, Alta.-based Freedom Cannabis.
When Freedom's weed hits stores in the coming months, it will be packaged in a completely recyclable steel container roughly the dimensions of a can of tuna. Just like a tuna can, the steel container can be tossed directly into a household blue bin with other recyclables and doesn't need to be returned to a cannabis store to go through a special cannabis package recycling program such as much of the existing packaging in Canada, which tend to use complex plastics or multiple materials that require extra processing before they can be reused.
Dezwart said Freedom's package, called a Nitrotin, has another advantage: the sealing process replaces any oxygen in the container with liquid nitrogen to retain freshness until the consumer unseals it. After the seal is broken, the tin can be closed with a plastic cover that doubles as a child-proofing mechanism.
"It seemed to make a lot of sense," Dezwart said. "Although we pay a little bit more for this product than you would for some of the conventional (packages), based on what we've heard from consumers, and their pushback on some of the waste with packaging, it's kind of a trifecta for us."
On top of easy recyclability and the freshness factor, the third element of that trifecta is brand visibility. Dezwart believes the steel cans will help Freedom's product stand out from the competition despite federal regulations that limit the scope of branding on legal cannabis packages.
Richard Meloff, vice-president of products with licensed cannabis producer 48North Cannabis, cited the same logic for his company's decision to offer pre-rolled joints in a fully recyclable package made of post-consumer recycled paper.
"In this environment where you're not really allowed to use your package as a way to really make a big, bold statement with your brand name or your logo... the actual look and feel of the package was an important differentiator," said Meloff.
Like Freedom Cannabis' steel cans, 48North's packages can be recycled through a regular blue bin without needing to return them to a special collection box at a cannabis store.
Consumer reaction has been positive so far, Meloff said.
"People really appreciate the effort. It's not perfect, nothing is, yet, but we are making a concerted effort to... try things that are different from everyone else in the marketplace because we care about these values and we want to enforce them," he said.
The special, recyclable pre-rolled joint boxes take longer to package than some other options, and also cost more — at least for now, Meloff said.
"Until you achieve staggering (production) scale, you're definitely paying more: you're paying more in labour, and you're paying more in input costs. But again, we believe that in the long run, both for the consistency of the values that we hold dear, that the short-term hit in margin is worth the long-term value creation."
But Meloff points out cannabis growers such as 48North are in the weed business, not the packaging business. In the end, packaging innovation will have to come from the vendors who supply packaging, and those suppliers know the cannabis industry is hungry for sustainable packaging options.
Kevin Kantati, president of Leamington, Ontario-based Tychon Packaging, became aware of the issue in conversations with cannabis consumers after legalization.
"The first thing we heard, over and over and over again, 'There's so much packaging.' So I thought to myself, 'I've got to develop and design something that eliminates secondary packaging or anything like that,'" said Kantati, whose company designs packaging and supplies it to 15 different cannabis producers.
The result is the TyBox, a plastic container made of 100 per cent PET plastic, which is used in many food products and can be recycled through regular municipal recycling programs. Tychon is launching the boxes as multi-packs for pre-rolled joints, and will be available in different shapes and sizes for producers who want custom packaging styles.
"It's not going to be the cheapest (packaging) option, but what we're looking for is this is going to be a product for premium cannabis cultivators," said Kantati.
Reducing the cost of sustainable cannabis packaging options will require a high enough volume of orders to permit bulk purchasing of materials, he added.
Meloff agreed cannabis producers could reduce the costs of sustainable packaging by ordering it in larger batches, but in a fast-changing regulatory environment such as the cannabis industry, what is allowed today or not may be reversed later, he said.
"You don't want to find yourself having half-a-million boxes sitting in a warehouse with no means of application anymore. It's a tough environment in which to make long-term planning decisions," he said.
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.