Can sustainable weed save the world?

Insights from the sustainability symposium.

Can sustainable weed save the world?
Key Insights from the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium

Photo: by Mel Frank, published in Broccoli Issue 08

I spent most of last week at a conference. Yes, another virtual one, but this packed, five-day schedule was so dense with nuanced takes on sustainable cannabis that I’m kind of glad I was able to take smoke breaks without missing a thing.

The fifth installment of the annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium featured industry executives, advocates, scientists, and thinkers speaking on a sustainable future for the cannabis industry, and, to be candid, it scared the hell out of me. Just estimating my flower intake since Oregon’s legalization, I learned that I’m individually responsible for at least 200 pounds of plastic entering the waste stream. We. Have. To. Change. This is an industry based on a plant that grows in the ground. If we mess up the soil, the water, the climate, this industry has no future. It's not enough for cannabis brands to be environmentally aware; they need to be environmental leaders.

That said, the technological and philosophical advancements discussed last week gave me hope that not only do we have venues for change already in place, but these innovations could have profound effects on other industries outside of cannabis and hemp. 

Here are our most terrifying, inspiring and paradigm-shifting takeaways. 

The Plastic Problem

No surprise—the plastic problem in legal cannabis came up a lot. Propylene plastic (#5) is the most commonly used material in all cannabis packaging, and propylene has one of the worst recycling rates of all plastics. (Did you know it’s not regulated for BPA content? Yep, propylene is too toxic to be used to make water bottles! 🙃 )

The costly, cumbersome requirements of child-resistant packaging have resulted in affordable propylene plastic as the go-to material for cannabis packaging. No one wants products getting into the wrong underage hands, but it begs the question if the opaque “exit bags” required by many dispensaries are really the answer? The average child-resistant pop-top container for an eighth of flower can take up to 184 g of plastic. That means it only takes around 5,000 pop-tops to create a metric ton of plastic. If this industry wants to claim to be good for humans, it cannot be responsible for this much unrecyclable plastic entering the stream of garbage that pollutes our air, soil, and oceans. 

The good news is propylene is no longer our only option. In the Sustainable Cannabis Packaging panel, we heard from Tarek Moharram of Truly Green, a company that feeds glucose derived from plant waste to bacteria that convert it to 100% biodegradable, no-filler-needed plastic material. Adin Alai, the founder and CEO of 9Fiber, Inc., an agro tech company that processes plant stalks and fibrous waste from cannabis and hemp crops into textile-grade fibers, also attended, as did James Eichner, co-founder of Sana Packaging, which makes cannabis packaging from hemp plastic and reclaimed ocean plastic. Sana is responsible for removing over 55 tons of plastic waste from the ocean, and next year they’re closing the cannabis loop with the launch of an option made from recycled propylene plastic.

Cole Gibbs, founder and CEO of Dama Distributing, mentioned how his company’s biodegradable and compostable hemp plastic containers are so safe they’re technically edible.

“They smell like sunflower seeds to me, but my dog—she loves ‘em. They’re FDA-approved, food-grade, nontoxic materials, so it’s safe to eat and won’t leach into your product.“

Gibbs pointed out that without a market for recycled plastic, there is no desire to recycle plastic. It simply doesn’t have a place in a sustainable system anymore. He explains: 

“California’s largest plastic recycler closed last year. Laying off 700 people because it wasn’t making any money. Only 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide, and less than 1% of propylene being recycled in California. We are going to drown ourselves in single-use plastic. The only way to stop this problem is to stop using single-use plastic.”

That’s easier said than done for small companies who have to seriously consider the cost difference between local suppliers or more affordable manufacturers abroad. In the Cannabis Waste Recycling into Sustainable Products panel, Alai pointed out how even Patagonia opts for hemp fabric supply chains overseas or in Mexico. Alai offers an idea:

“If you’re just starting out, it’s very hard to choose anything other than the affordable pop-tops from a Chinese manufacturer. Virgin plastic is significantly cheaper than sustainable packaging. But supply is about meeting demand—we have to demand less if we want to produce less plastic waste.”

Eichner noted that although sustainable packaging materials are more expensive now, they’ll only get more affordable as demand increases. In the meantime, he’s banded together with other indie cannabis packaging companies in Oregon and California to be able to meet minimum orders and help each other cut costs by placing larger orders together. 

Good Food = Good Weed?

Multiple panels compared the concept and strategy underpinning sustainable cannabis efforts to those of the good food movement, looking to certifications like USDA organic as aspirational models for marketing value additions. During the “Stakeholder Capitalism Applied to the Cannabis Industry” panel, Annie Davis of the purpose-driven consultancy Growing Impact discussed the power of established certifications. She says they are important, not only in legitimizing the industry, but also in creating a framework for accurately evaluating all parts of a cannabis business. Davis explains: 

“Job creation; reducing impact on the environment; enhancing our communities; reducing violence; progressing criminal justice reform—these are all things that demonstrate the cannabis industry is much more than what people may have thought it was in years past. To be able to convey that to the general public, we need to be able to measure that impact. There does not yet exist a framework for the cannabis industry to measure and communicate these social and environmental facts.”

While CBD and medical marijuana businesses can be certified as a B-Corp company, a licensed cannabis business cannot. However, anyone can access the assessment criteria, which Davis recommends as a starting point.

“USDA Organic, Fair Trade Organic, and Energy Star all measure the impact of a product. B-Corp measures the impact across an entire company. Not only the products they make, but how they operate their business, ultimately providing a third-party certification that verifies this company does what it says it does. It’s my belief that if we were actually able to measure what people in this industry are doing, this data would support our efforts for legalization and acceptance much more broadly than we are today.”

There’s a lot to be gained by legitimizing sustainable cannabis and making it a stronger narrative for people to get on board with. More pointedly, with modern consumers’ current desire for purpose-driven brands in mind, there’s a lot of money to be made. As Sara Brito, co-founder and president of the Good Food Media Network, Inc., asked the audience during her presentation, “Who will become the Whole Foods of cannabis?” 

Cannabis can learn a lot by avoiding the food movement’s mistakes, too. During Brito’s presentation, titled “What Cannabis Can Learn From Good Food,” she noted how the fractured and siloed realm of good food organizations operates in such isolated, specialized niches that it makes it easier for big, commoditized factory food to divide and conquer. Brito also offered a humbling reminder that people come first: 

“As Pete Wells, restaurant critic for the The New York Times said in 2018, ‘Something has gone grotesquely wrong when chefs brag that the chickens they prepared have lived happy, stress-free lives, but they can’t promise us that the women they employ aren’t being insulted in the storage room.’”

No Sustainability Without Equity

Another truth that rang loudly during the week’s programming: the inextricable link between sustainability and social equity. In her keynote presentation kicking off the Symposium, Dr. Rachel Knox, Endocannabinologist & certified cannabinoid medicine specialist, outlined a new way of thinking about a diverse, just and sustainable industry: health equity. (Sidebar: Broccoli readers will already be familiar with the term, which was explored by Tiara Darrell in Issue 7 and underpins the work of The Floret Coalition.) Knox says:

“The state of our health is a reflection of our ecosystem, which is inextricably tied to ecological sustainability. Health equity is the state of one’s health; or that of a community; or that of a society, as the sum of all the systemic inputs of an ecosystem in which one resides. Yes, one input is the physical, mental, and spiritual fitness of the population, but it’s also the investment in environmental capital—the attention and intention we give to preserving clean air, water, forests, and mineral-dense soil. It’s investment in economic capital—maintaining the value of our currency—and it’s investment in social capital; in the infrastructure and the services required to make everything work. That is health equity.”

Social equity programs, as Dr. Knox (and others) pointed out, are simply not cutting it. 

“No one in no state is getting a pat on the back for their social equity program right now. We don’t need any more of those. If anything, exploited social equity programs have tainted the word. The concept is poorly defined and inconsistently implemented state-to-state, and it fails to consider all that creates and ensures equity across a diverse population. Criminal justice reform, expungements, priority licensing—these things matter, but we must be doing more. We need holistic reform across the board. Let’s wield the cannabis industry to heal the community it was weaponized against.”

During the Restorative Justice in Cannabis panel, Evelyn LaChapelle, community engagement manager at cannabis infusion company Vertosa, discussed her difficulties in finding gainful employment after being incarcerated for a cannabis offense. LaChapelle’s experience showed her that the legal cannabis industry can be transformative by providing good, fulfilling jobs to formerly incarcerated people, and it showed her that she didn’t have to apply to a social equity program focused on dispensary licensees in order to work in legal cannabis. LaChapelle said:

“I love social equity programs. I love the push for ownership in the space, and I hope to have some of that too, eventually. But that’s not everyone’s goal who wants a stake in this industry.  Event coordinating; re-entry coordinating—I found something that I had experience in; I was able to find my own lane within the industry. I would like to see this industry be more inclusive, not just in ownership but also with different kinds of seats at the table.” 

Finding the Future in Hemp’s Past

You want a sustainable, equitable, and profitable industry? According to Winona LaDuke, the solution to all three is merely going back to hemp’s industrial origins. (Sidebar: Broccoli readers will remember LaDuke from her feature in Issue 7.)

“100 years ago, we had a choice between a carbohydrate [hemp] and a hydrocarbon [fossil fuels] economy. We made the wrong choice.”

During LaDuke’s keynote presentation, “The New Green Revolution,” the environmental activist and icon outlined the reason she knows a sustainable, ethical, equitable, and profitable hemp industry is possible: because it existed before. 

LaDuke, who grows cannabis and hemp on and off the White Earth reservation, discussed the history of Minnesota’s hemp mills that produced fabric and textiles up to the 1940s. Stretching further back, LaDuke touched on a community of Iroquois known as “the people of the hemp shirts,” where every family was required to grow their own hemp and linen crop to provide for its textile needs. In her research on Indigenous hemp farming, LaDuke is looking to resurrect traditional methods for processing hemp for textiles and building materials. These methods, used before modern chemicals were invented, hold exciting potential for radically remaking the 21st-century hemp industry. She explains: 

“Polyester is fossil fuels. Cotton represents 4% of world agriculture, and 25% of the world’s pesticides. We must end our reliance on petroleum products, yesterday. Pretty much anything we’ve done with fossil fuels, we could’ve done with hemp. Paper, clothing, building materials, canvas, and plastic. Now, some things can be replaced by hemp, but some things don’t need to be. We need to leave some things behind. We need to move away from single-use anything. We need to leave bias and injustice behind. We need to leave profit-first thinking behind. When you walk out of the other side of this pandemic, just ask yourself, what kind of world do you want to walk out into?”

After this week-long deep dive, I've been looking at my weed in a new way—thinking twice about overpackaged prerolls, and eager to support brands who are really taking the lead on making products that are truly kind to the earth. (If you're inspired, too, check out A Better Source—it's a compendium of eco-friendly packaging and paper resources compiled by JJ Wright, Broccoli's designer.)

On Monday, I’ll be sharing news regarding the upcoming elections and how they relate to cannabis and legalization, plus a long list of news items at a glance (hint: everything from hemp bouquets to new nonprofits to support). Thank you for being a subscriber to Broccoli Report—we couldn’t do it without you.

See you Monday,
Lauren Yoshiko