The Green Mountain state’s new green industry just got a bit greener, as cannabis regulators in Vermont recently unveiled new rules which prohibit companies from using plastic packaging.
Guidance released by Vermont’s Cannabis Control Board suggests the use of packaging made from glass, tin, cardboard and bamboo instead. The state also clarified that cannabis flower products only need to be sold in “child-deterrent” packaging, a less burdensome requirement than “child-resistant” packaging that usually requires the use of plastic or other hard materials. All of these rules will be in place when adult-use sales begin in Vermont sometime later this year, and regulators from Massachusetts and other legal states will be keeping a keen eye on Vermont to see what kind of impact the plastic ban will have.
It’s refreshing to see a neighboring state that is willing to acknowledge the fact that child-resistant packaging for cannabis flower products makes little sense. Unlike cannabis edibles, cannabis flower will not cause intoxication simply by being eaten, meaning there’s no real risk to the child unless they are old enough to figure out how to roll a joint and operate a lighter. And if a child is old enough to do those things, they are also old enough to open up “child-resistant” packaging, which is generally only rated to stop children under the age of 5 from being able to open it.
It’s the perfect example of security theater, the practice of creating security measures that are intended to provide the feeling of improved security, while doing little or nothing to achieve it. Worse, in the name of protecting children, we’re just creating additional plastic waste that will continue to impact future generations long after we’re all gone.
In my neighborhood in the vicinity of Green Hill Park, cannabis-related litter has become a more frequent sight in the past few years. It’s now fairly common to see a pre-roll tube or empty vape cartridge amongst the nip bottles and other trash that accumulates along the curb. Plastic packaging is seen in almost every state market nowadays, but it seems to be particularly present here in Massachusetts, where regulations generally push companies toward serving pre-weighed buds in child-resistant containers rather than serving cannabis “deli-style” — i.e., serving flower from large bins and packaging it directly in front of the customer. While most dispensaries in the early days of medical cannabis served cannabis deli-style, an increase in regulations in the era of adult-use cannabis has generally pushed the industry toward pre-packaged cannabis, which is now the norm in most states that have recently legalized.
Considering that Massachusetts requires cannabis flower packaging to be opaque and child-resistant, plastic is the cheapest and easiest path for companies to go with. You will often see up to 50 grams of plastic being used to package just a single gram of cannabis. Mylar bags are also fairly prevalent, but they are also nearly impossible for consumers to properly dispose of, as few recycling facilities accept them.
Plastic cannabis packaging often lacks the familiar markers that indicate whether or not it’s recyclable. And even when single-use cannabis containers do end up in the recycle bin, there’s some doubt that they actually end up being recycled; most single-stream recycling facilities are not able to properly sort it due to the nontraditional sizing, according to a 2020 study produced by the National Cannabis Industry Association.
The same study noted that while some states have implemented take-back programs that encourage consumers to return cannabis packaging to stores so that it can be recycled or reused, there are a number of logistical challenges that have hampered the ability of these programs to actually make a difference.
This should come to no surprise, as even though America has been attempting to recycle plastics for over 40 years now, the national recovery rate for recycled plastic still hovers around only 30%. And even when recyclables are properly processed, they often end up getting shipped overseas. Known as bulk & bail recycling, this plastic waste is often thrown in a landfill instead of actually being melted down and reused.
Here in the Worcester area, cannabis waste that is not recycled could end up in the Wheelabrator Millbury trash incinerator, ironically helping create electricity to power the many indoor cannabis grows in the area. I guess you could argue that this is a form of recycling, although I don’t think it’s exactly what environmentalists had in mind when they popularized the term.
One of the benefits of legalizing cannabis state-by-state is that it allows different markets to experiment with different rules and regulations. If the plastic ban works in Vermont, we can expect it to be brought up for debate in Massachusetts and other states with legal weed. Unlike Vermont though, Massachusetts has established cannabis businesses that will likely push back against any regulations that impact their bottom line, making implementation trickier than it would have been if rules prohibiting plastics were in place from the start.
In the meantime, environmentally conscious cannabis consumers in Massachusetts will have to find creative new uses for that pile of plastic containers that are accumulating in their closets.