New York regulators recently unveiled proposed cannabis packaging and labeling rules that include provisions to boost sustainability in the state’s adult-use industry.

The regulations, in part, direct licensees to implement an environmental sustainability program that requires businesses to incorporate at least 25% post-recycled consumer content into their packaging and annually report key metrics on the implementation of their sustainability initiatives.

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In more mature markets out West, some cannabis operators have already implemented sustainability standards on their own that could provide a benchmark for newer markets. 

Troy Meadows, co-founder of California-based Legion of Bloom, has taken steps in his own business to transition to more environmentally friendly packaging solutions for the company’s vape cartridges and flower line.

“I feel like, as with all things, sustainability is a journey, not necessarily a destination,” Meadows says. “You definitely have to balance what works best for your systems as an organization.”

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Meadows applauds New York’s proposed packaging regulations and says he would like to see regulators continue to crack down on plastic packaging.

“I think it’s business as a whole’s opportunity in responsibility to do what’s best for the planet,” he says. “I just think it’s one of the things where we could make a big difference on what the global footprint is, the environmental footprint, by removing [plastic] because it’s such a hard thing to actually recycle and reuse. But I would really love to see the industry as a whole come together on this.”

For his part, Meadows has transitioned Legion of Bloom’s vape cartridge packaging to 100% paperboard, which is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an organization that verifies sustainable sourcing.

The manufacturer also produces the vape cartridge packaging using wind power, Meadows says.

“There are a lot of things that are going into how they’re thinking about manufacturing and where they’re sourcing from that creates a really sustainable model, [and] the fact that it’s paper means that it can be recycled,” Meadows says.

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Using its new packaging, Meadows says Legion of Bloom has removed over 300,000 pieces of single-use packaging from its packaging supply chain.

Here, Meadows offers three key steps that cannabis operators can take toward more sustainable packaging.

1. Get creative.

Legion of Bloom’s journey to find sustainable packaging was difficult, Meadows says, but once the team members decided that transitioning to more environmentally friendly solutions was important to them, they got creative to find a way to make it work.

“I think there are viable solutions that are available now for compostable materials that are soft-filled plastic, compostable plastics, that are all made from plants, and then, also, [look] at other form factors like paperboard,” he says. “I think it’s up to business to make the right decisions, and then it’s up to business to educate themselves on, what are the right form factors to use?”

These types of form factors are often more expensive than plastic packaging, Meadows adds, so companies may also have to get creative with their budgets to accommodate the extra cost.

“It’s definitely not the easiest industry to get into, and it’s not the easiest industry to succeed and excel in,” Meadows says. “Most companies are looking at the bottom line hard, and they’re seeing that you can buy a mylar bag for 4 cents, or you can buy a compostable mylar bag for 24 cents. … And there’s only so much that you can pass on to the consumer. In an industry that’s heavily taxed like our industry is, the consumer is already paying a hefty burden for the product.”

2. Vet your packaging partner.

When Meadows and his team ultimately decided to eat the cost and find a more sustainable packaging solution, they first had to build a relationship with a new vendor—a process that began with deciding what features they wanted for their new packaging and which vendors were able to provide those features.

“When we were looking for a new form factor for our [vape cartridge] packaging, we said we don’t want it to contain plastic,” Meadows says. “Plastic is not the most sustainable option when it comes to packaging, both from an environmental standpoint and from a recyclability standpoint. When we found this [paperboard] form factor, it was checking all the boxes and it [was] also checking some of those bottom-line boxes for us, too. So, it was a really easy decision for us to make.”

Legion of Bloom’s new vape cartridge packaging partner is also located in the U.S., so the timelines for procuring product was drastically reduced when compared to overseas vendors, Meadows adds.

For its flower line, Legion of Bloom wanted to use plant-based plastic bags, composed of 100% plant-based, compostable mylar. Meadows also wanted the packaging to be home-compostable certified so consumers could put it in backyard compost piles or bins, which he says are widely available in California. That material would compost within 30 days, he says.

However, Legion of Bloom found it nearly impossible to find a vendor that checked all of these boxes.

“That was really difficult to find,” Meadows says. “So many things came up in the R&D process in terms of moisture barriers. With flower, you don’t want it to dry out, and if you put it in the wrong material that isn’t watertight or isn’t airtight, you’re going to have all these variances.”

Legion of Bloom ultimately tried out multiple iterations of the compostable packaging, from multiple vendors, before the company found a material and a supplier that met most of the requirements for its flower.

“We were able to find something that was 100% plant-based, but that was not made from plastic,” Meadows says. “It wasn’t home-certified compostable, but it was industrial-certified compostable. That would mean that if you want to recycle it, it has to be taken to a specific location that can handle that kind of composting. And currently, there’s not a really good system for composting that material, but it also meant that we weren’t putting microplastic into the environment.”

Legion of Bloom is constantly searching for better packaging solutions for its flower line, Meadows says, but he remains steadfast in his decision to transition away from plastic.

“We made a conscious decision as an organization that we were not going to make that decision,” he says. “We’re going to pay more money to have what we consider most sustainable options.”

3. Find the right solution.

Of course, selecting the right vendor goes hand-in-hand with finding the right packaging solution, and Meadows has several reasons why Legion of Bloom went with the vape cartridge and flower packaging that it did.

For example, Legion of Bloom did not consider glass during its quest to find more sustainable solutions.

“Glass is recyclable, but it takes a lot of energy to recycle,” Meadows says. “That’s one big drawback to glass recycling. And then when you look at a plastic lid, … let’s say you’re buying lids that are made from ocean plastic. There are companies that provide them. I think it’s a good step, but that’s still a single-use piece of plastic that in a week is going to go back into the landfill because it’s not recyclable.”

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And, even if the plastic can technically be recycled, there are additional challenges that go along with that, Meadows says.

“Most material that is able to be recycled has to be larger than a small yogurt cup,” he says. “They have to be able to flatten it and they have to be able to bind it to send if off to recycling centers. All your extract lids, most of your flower lids and flower jars—I’m not 100% sure, but I’m almost positive that most of that stuff’s just going to end up in the landfill because it’s hard to transport it and it’s really hard for them to recycle it.”

The bottom line—cannabis operators looking to take sustainable steps forward must do their research, conduct plenty of R&D and ultimately ensure that their packaging actually works for the product category.

“With flower, if you don’t have something that is 100% airtight, it’s going to lose moisture, which is not good—it’s going to dry out,” Meadows says. “It’s not going to have the best shelf life if you don’t get the right materials. I would say, make sure you get your samples, do your R&D, [and] definitely do your research and a lot of outreach to find what’s going to work best for your specific business model.”