Canada's legal cannabis industry is starting to come to grips with its waste problem: an avalanche of pot packaging that's good at meeting regulatory demands, but tricky to recycle.
Federal cannabis regulations don't directly tell producers what materials to use in their packaging, but they do require marijuana containers be opaque or semitransparent, guard against contamination, keep cannabis bud dry, and keep children out. Those requirements make it hard to use biodegradable packaging options, according to Dan Sutton, chief executive officer of Tantalus Labs.
"The first step is certainly nationwide recycling programs, which will make the waste cycle similar to beverage products we consume every day," he wrote by email.
Cannabis industry colossus Canopy Growth Corp. is underwriting such a container recycling program through its Tweed retail brand. The program is administered by New Jersey-based company TerraCycle, and accepts containers collected by any licensed cannabis retailer in Canada, whether or not they're affiliated with Canopy Growth. Individual consumers can also mail used weed vessels directly to TerraCycle for recycling.
Canada's cannabis containers tend to use what TerraCycle's director of brand partnerships, Gina Herrera, described as "complex plastics," which are harder to process than the polyethylene terephtalate and high-density polyethelene often used in consumer goods packaging.
TerraCycle and its subcontractors will take those containers, clean them, and melt them down into plastic pellets, which can then be manufactured into new products. (Herrera gave the examples of picnic tables or park benches, which would usually be made of "virgin" plastic. TerraCycle can also process other materials used in Canadian cannabis packaging, such as metal and foil, she said.)
"Essentially anything that comes in through TerraCycle, through the program, is always recycled and never landfilled," said Herrera.
Although TerraCycle has started collecting cannabis containers at an Ontario facility, Herrera said the actual recycling process has yet to kick off. First, it will need to accumulate enough material to make the process economically feasible — between 10 and 40 tons of weed packaging, according to Herrera.
High Tide Inc., which operates 10 Canna Cabana stores in Alberta, has signed up for TerraCycle's program and installed recycling bins in its stores. Spokesman Jason Kostiw said the company took interest in recycling containers after hearing "lots from customers about the sheer amount of packaging."
"So far, our stores have sent back 18 shipments to TerraCycle, which equals approximately 162 kilograms of recycled product," said Kostiw. "It's been a hugely successful campaign so far."
Some of Canna Cabana's Alberta locations are still waiting for their provincial licence to sell cannabis, which have been placed on hold due to product shortages in that province. In the meantime, those stores are only selling cannabis accessories, such as vaporizers and pipes.
"We're actually really surprised that even our accessory stores that don't sell cannabis, people will just go out of their way to return (empty packaging) to the store," he said.
A smaller Alberta retailer-in-waiting has launched its own homegrown recycling program for cannabis containers. Lake City Cannabis in Chestermere, Alta., is also selling accessories while it awaits its provincial sales licence, and is offering a 10 per cent discount on accessories for shoppers who bring in used containers for recycling.
Owner Ryan Roch likens his discounts-for-recycling campaign to the incentivizing deposit from returning a beer bottle, and said it's already drawing interest from customers. Roch plans to take the containers to the local recycling depot on his own, although he's not yet sure whether they'll accept them.
"In the meantime, if I have to collect it, I'll collect it," he said.
Roch said he understands government regulations on cannabis packaging are trying to balance safety concerns against other issues.
"I'm of the opinion that we can still be in a really great place of having that regulatory control, but finding better ways to do it that are more earth-friendly, green-friendly, and recycling-friendly, so that we're actually doing the right things here," said Roch.
"It feels like we're starting off on the wrong foot in terms of this packaging... I hope there's a future state where that changes soon."
Solomon Israel is the full-time cannabis reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and its national cannabis news website, TheLeafNews.com. He covers the social, legal, medical and scientific aspects of marijuana legalization in Manitoba and the rest of Canada.