Addressing the Looming Waste Problem in the Cannabis Industry


Many industries throughout the world are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and cannabis is no different. As legalization and appreciation for marijuana continue to grow, so does an underlying problem: plastic waste. 

Strict packaging requirements are common in most states, with many placing an emphasis on single-use designs. The U.S. market for cannabis packaging could grow more than tenfold over the next decade, ballooning from $842.7 million in sales in 2021 to an estimated $9.3 billion in 2030, according to a report by Grand View Research.

Michael Markarian, CEO of Contempo Specialty Packaging, agrees that plastic waste is an ongoing problem in the cannabis industry. “While it is a major problem, the bigger issue is the poor reputation the cannabis industry is getting as it relates to sustainability. Something none of us want,” he says. 

While the booming legal weed industry is helping businesses thrive and keep people employed, it’s also increasing plastic waste. From pre-rolls and edibles to cartridges and concentrates, these convenient products pose environmental threats.

Energy and Water Waste a Growing Concern

Michael Markarian, CEO of Contempo Specialty Packaging.

Markarian mentions that energy and water consumption are also growing issues within the cannabis sector. While data on water and energy use are limited, since federal prohibition means that the Department of Energy and other federal agencies can’t fund research to determine it, an article by Britt Erickson states that energy use is one of the biggest environmental impacts of the cannabis industry, particularly when plants are grown indoors. 

In cities, cannabis is often grown in retrofitted industrial warehouses that were not designed for agriculture. In many other places, cannabis is grown in large-scale greenhouses. Regulations in some municipalities, such as Denver, make growing cannabis indoors the only practical option, the article states. 

To help reduce waste, installing light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs can help cannabis growers lower their energy use and meet state regulatory standards. Growers can also implement greenhouses instead of utilizing indoor areas. 

However, while growing cannabis outdoors can help conserve energy, it also means you use more water. Cannabis is grown outdoors primarily in the western U.S., which is facing drought conditions and dwindling water supplies.

But research published in 2021 by New Frontier Data suggests that cannabis is not to blame. The data, collected in partnership with the Oregon-based nonprofit Resource Innovation Institute and the University of California, Berkeley’s Cannabis Research Center, show that California’s cannabis industry uses only a fraction of the water that is used to grow grapes, rice, wheat and other agricultural commodities in the state. The data includes water use by both the legal and illegal cannabis markets. 

Climate Scientist Eloisa Lewis, founder of New Climate Culture, suggests harvesting rainwater for cultivation and extraction can help to reduce waste. This can not only help to replenish groundwater, but it can also decrease costs over time and your business’ dependence on external suppliers.

Reducing Plastic Waste

There are also numerous ways that cannabis businesses can reduce plastic waste, such as by using tin and glass packaging. 

“Tin packaging is infinitely recyclable and reusable,” mentions Markarian. “There is also a rise in compostable packaging, which provides a less harmful end of life from a waste perspective.”

Additionally, there are additives that accelerate the rate of biodegradation of plastics. “Although those are sometimes controversial as some additives can cause plastics to fragment into microplastics,” says Markarian.

Is Sustainable Packaging Affordable?

The question that all cannabis growers are probably thinking right now is if these eco-friendly packaging options are affordable. According to Markarian, while they are definitely an added cost, he notes that it’s important to look at the relationship between margin and market share. 

“Spending an extra $0.25 per unit is not something anyone wants to do, but you are investing in your brand and differentiating yourself,” he says. “You can weigh the possibility of gaining a much larger market share by investing in sustainable packaging. We all know the race to the bottom is not a good race to join, yet so many companies fail to differentiate their packaging, which is one way to separate yourself in a highly competitive market.”

Wherever you want to start in your sustainability journey, whether it be switching to LED lights, harvesting rainwater or choosing non-plastic packaging, there are a variety of ways you can reduce your business’s carbon footprint.