Let’s face it, the marijuana industry may turn out to be one of the most resource intensive enterprises of the 21st century. Energy, soil, water, nutrients, fertilizers, chemicals, labor, and land — the amount of inputs required to produce a gram of marijuana is absurd, and only now being fully understood.

The most visible form of this waste is the packaging marijuana is sold in. Eerily, it’s similar to an environmental problem already too close to home: the water bottle crisis.  

At the turn of the century, Colorado residents passed Amendment 20 legalizing medical marijuana. A crucial part of this framework was rules to protect children from accidentally ingesting it. As for prescriptions, child-resistant packaging is required for everything sold, no matter how small the amount.

Sales later skyrocketed with recreational pot becoming legal in 2012. Like its medical predecessor, Amendment 64 required child-resistant packaging for all cannabis products sold at retail outlets.  

Let's, however, rewind for a second to understand where all this legislation came from. Before 1970, unintentional poisoning deaths by medications or common household products were considered to be the leading cause of death of children aged 5 and under. Against this backdrop, Richard Nixon signed the Poison Prevention and Packaging Act into law.

This legislation required child-resistant packaging for drugs and household chemicals that were hazardous to children. Since then, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, with very few exceptions, have been sold in child-resistant packaging. Interestingly, the same child-resistant designs, like the familiar push-down-and-twist cap for medicine bottles, have been used for over 50 years.    

Now though, child-resistant regulations for marijuana products have led to staggering innovation in packaging design. Indeed, it has become impossibly difficult even for some adult stoners to get their stash open. And although innovation has kept up with the pace of demand, it too much conforms to the bigger is better American ideal. Marijuana packaging is heinously large and mushrooming out of control.

Consider that the standard opaque, plastic container a quarter of flower (7 grams) comes in weighs almost 29 grams, making it four times larger by weight than the content it holds. A standard container for half-eighths of flower (1.75 grams) weighs a whopping 10.10 grams, six times as much as the content it holds.

If that weren’t bad enough, the packaging for a single gram of concentrate can weigh as much as 30 times as the product. And it isn’t biodegradable in the short-term.

Which leads to a grave concern about packaging, the bulk of it isn’t recycled, especially the small stuff. In Denver’s Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices Guide, they note the small packaging for concentrate and pre-rolls, while technically recyclable, is usually sorted out by recyclers and taken to landfills.

And the exit bags (often plastic zippered, heavy weight bags), they’re typically not recyclable due to their mixed materials.

Even compared to single-use plastic shopping bags, cannabis packaging is unnecessarily wasteful.

The reason the packaging is so large has less to do with the contents it holds than what it is required to say about them. Marijuana packaging is required to communicate a great breadth of information. For example, a container of flower must list its harvest batch, weight, ingredients, warnings, and basic cannabinoid profile.

The list of required information continues to get longer. In October of 2018, the Marijuana Enforcement Division again added to this list. From the point of view of bureaucrats charged with public safety, more regulation is better than less.

The problem could be solved one of two ways: through a bill in the Colorado legislature or through the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) rulemaking process. Either way, private industry must take the lead.

In response to this, Green for Green (based out of Boulder, Colorado) has become the first cannabis container recycler in the state. It provides recycling bins to dispensaries all along the Front Range. Dave Drake and Shawn Naughton, cofounders of the company, explain that their model is scalable as the rest of the country writes and passes their own laws.

“We absolutely want to grow nationally but we think it’s got to start in Colorado,” says Naughton.

“Colorado led the movement for recreational marijuana and we want to lead the movement for a greener industry right here as well," adds Drake. "Right now we need to raise awareness and grow the program which happens from consumers asking dispensaries to implement it and dispensaries adopting and advocating the program on a daily basis.”

Their service allows consumers to return and recycle mixed materials, such as glass containers for concentrates, plastic tubes for pre-rolls, and even the heavy mylar bags.

While not everything can be recycled, like the mylar bags, Green for Green are able to sanitize and resell most of the packaging back to dispensaries. Since dispensaries are able to buy these containers back cheaper than at wholesale, it’s a program that works well.

Whatever they can’t sell gets recycled — so Green for Green is a zero waste program.

Innovate efforts like Green for Green’s are being made by others in Colorado as well. One example is Ascend Cannabis Co, a dispensary that encourages its customers to return their containers (as long as they’re 100 percent clean) for reuse by providing them point-of-sale discounts on their purchases.

The cost of inaction is nothing shy of scary. Although it isn’t apples to apples, water bottles are a cautionary tale to the industry’s continued indifference.

Water bottles take over 1,000 years to biodegrade — no big deal if most of them were recycled, but they’re not. It’s estimated over 80 percent of all water bottles become litter. If that sounds familiar, it should. A walk through any of Denver’s public parks is a landmine of marijuana packaging, water bottles and Fireball shooters.

Each with their own specific problems.

Notice, on paper or plastic packaging the recycle symbol will have a number inside of it. That designates the specific kind of material it is, and tells recyclers whether they take it or send it to the landfill.

Many containers used for dispensary purchases bear the number 5. That means the container is made from polypropylene, which according to Green for Green, is the kind of container that ends up in a landfill.

Because polypropylene requires more effort and energy to downgrade than most plastics. Energy also matters in these situations.

Insane amounts of oil are necessary to manufacture plastic. Just to meet the demand for water bottles, the U.S. consumes an estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil annually. That is more energy than is needed to power Boulder for a year, a city of approximately 100,000 people.

The cannabis industry is no stranger to controversy over its energy demands either. A report in February by NPR, based on information provided by Denver’s Department of Health and Public Environment, estimates that marijuana grows account for 4 percent of Denver’s annual electricity use.

The energy used to supply Denver and California legal grows for one year, according to recent research, is enough to power the entire Las Vegas strip for the same year.

More states are poised to legalize recreational and medical marijuana soon, and as its acceptance as a recreational drug and legitimate medicine grows, more waste will pile up in our landfills. The energy new markets require will further strain our grid.

As Colorado continues to lead the national marijuana conversation, it needs to address and put a lid on the Pandora’s Box it opened over a decade ago. Marijuana is a miraculous thing, but it’s a plant, mortal like everyone else, and its life depends on a healthy, sustainable ecosystem. The U.S. may not see the damage of marijuana’s throwaway culture just yet, but it’s coming.

Like the garbage that washes up on the white, sandy beaches.

[originally published March 16, 2018]