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James Eichner, Co-Founder & CSO at Sana Packaging – Interview Series

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James is the Co-Founder and CSO of Sana Packaging. He earned his BA at Colorado College and his MBA at CU-Boulder. James has won several pitch competitions on behalf of Sana

Packaging has written op-eds exploring the nuances of sustainable cannabis packaging and has spoken at industry events like the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, NoCo Hemp Expo, and more. Prior to cannabis, James worked in the social and environmental nonprofit sectors.

How big of an issue is waste and single-use plastic in cannabis packaging?

Packaging waste is a huge issue in the cannabis industry. Packaging waste, in general, is a huge issue in the United States. It makes up roughly 30 percent of our total waste and only around 9 percent of plastic is recycled.

There are a lot of factors contributing to the cannabis packaging waste problem, which I'm sure we will get into in this discussion, but it's hard to back it up with concrete numbers because reliable cannabis industry data can be hard to come by — and reliable data about cannabis packaging waste is virtually nonexistent. But it only takes some quick back of the napkin math to realize that the United States is already generating billions of units of cannabis packaging waste per year.

What inspired you to tackle the sustainability challenge?

My business partner, Ron, and I met during grad school at CU-Boulder. We were both pursuing MBAs with an emphasis on sustainability and entrepreneurship so, on some level, we knew we wanted to work for a business that addressed one of the many sustainability challenges we're facing as a species. That said, I don't think either of us ever thought we would end up starting a cannabis packaging company.

Sana Packaging actually started as a class project in a Sustainable Venturing Class during our second year of grad school. We had become friends and one of the things we bonded over was our passion for cannabis. Ron approached me and asked if I wanted to work on a project with him exploring cannabis packaging and cannabis packaging waste.

As cannabis consumers, we were frustrated by the packaging and packaging waste that had become synonymous with legal cannabis.

What type of environmentally friendly or reused material is used in Sana Packaging?

Sana Packaging is a sustainable packaging brand that designs cannabis packaging for a circular economy using plant-based, reclaimed and recycled materials. The primary materials we currently work with are plant-based hemp plastic, ocean-bound plastic, and reclaimed ocean plastic.

Regarding plant-based hemp plastic: plant-based is the direction we need to be moving towards for single-use products, like packaging. It's also important that we use rapidly renewable and regenerative resources, like hemp, to make single-use products.

Regarding ocean-bound plastic and reclaimed ocean plastic: we view ocean-bound plastic and reclaimed ocean plastic as stranded resources and our goal is to remove these materials from the environment and reintroduce them to the marketplace and proper waste streams.

We also work with a number of like-minded partners to provide our customers with a broader portfolio of solutions, including hemp paperboard packaging and high-content recycled glass packaging.

In terms of achieving circularity with cannabis packaging, we have a long ways to go. That said, we are making small but important steps towards circularity.

For example, we recently received a grant in Colorado to pilot a program where we will use locally sourced (Colorado) PCR polypropylene to manufacture cannabis packaging in Colorado. We will be using both recycled cannabis packaging and other PCR polypropylene sources to accomplish this. The idea here is that there is an influx of plastic entering the state of Colorado that is not then leaving the state. Unfortunately, much of this plastic is polypropylene and polypropylene has a very low recycling rate. Our goals are to extend the useful life of this material and help create a secondary market for PCR polypropylene in hopes of bolstering its recycling rate.

What are some regulatory roadblocks to sustainability?

When it comes to cannabis packaging, there are a ton of regulatory requirements that can act as roadblocks to sustainability. For instance, some states require opaque packaging while others do not, and some states require specific wall thicknesses while others do not. These nuances can make it difficult to use more sustainable packaging materials. Child-resistance requirements, which are present in every legal cannabis market, are perhaps the largest hindrance to using more sustainable packaging materials.

Beyond regulatory roadblocks affecting which materials are viable for cannabis packaging, our waste management infrastructure is the largest piece of the puzzle when it comes to reusing, recycling, or composting packaging materials at the end of their useful lives. Single stream recycling has proven to be a disaster in the United States and our industrial composting infrastructure is severely lacking compared to most other developed countries.

What are some of the economic realities behind increased costs with this type of packaging?

“Sustainable” packaging will always be priced at a premium compared to traditional packaging. This is because traditional packaging prices do not take into account the negative externalities associated with resource extraction, end-of-life disposal, etc. In other words, traditional packaging is not accurately priced and the true cost of traditional packaging is much higher than the cost of “sustainable” packaging.

What can stores do to incentivize users to take back packaging to be recycled properly?

This is a tricky question because what can and cannot be done with used cannabis packaging can vary state by state, county by county, etc. A lot of MRFs won't accept cannabis packaging because it is still federally illegal and, for lack of a better term, is contaminated with “drug residue.” Furthermore, cannabis packaging can be hard to recycle because of its size — it literally falls through the cracks.

In terms of incentives for cannabis packaging takeback programs at retail locations, retailers can offer discounts on future purchases along with other incentives. There are some cool organizations out there working on these solutions, like Green for Green in Colorado. They collect used cannabis packaging, clean it, and resell it in a reuse model. This is a great step towards circularity and can go a long way towards extending the useful life of cannabis packaging before it has to be recycled or disposed of.

What are the challenges behind using compostable materials for packaging?

Looking specifically at cannabis packaging, the biggest challenge to using compostable materials is designing child-resistant locking mechanisms that keep the integrity – i.e compostability – of the material intact. Looking at the broader packaging landscape, the biggest challenge to using compostable materials is our industrial composting infrastructure.

Only around 5% of the population in the United States lives in municipalities with access to industrial composting. Furthermore, most industrial composting facilities are only designed to process food and yard waste. So even if you live in a municipality with access to industrial composting, it's likely that your facility is unable to process compostable packaging materials — even if the packaging is “Certified Compostable.”

What are some ways that non-activated versus activated products could be treated differently on a regulatory standpoint that could impact reducing waste and excess packaging?

This is a great question. Even from a health and safety perspective, there is a strong case to be made that activated and non-activated cannabis products should be treated differently when it comes to child-resistance requirements. This is because non-activated products, like flower and pre-rolls, do not pose any danger to a child if ingested. On the other hand, activated products, like edibles, could pose a potential danger to a child if ingested.

Furthermore, a recent study out of McGill University in Montreal concluded that getting rid of child-resistance requirements for non-activated cannabis products, like flower and pre-rolls, could reduce the amount of packaging waste the cannabis industry generates by upwards of 70 percent. This is astonishing.

What is your sustainability vision for the future of the industry?

Sana Packaging's mission is to reduce the impact of single-use packaging by leading the cannabis industry towards a sustainable future. Our ultimate goal is to transition cannabis packaging away from a linear “take-make-dispose” economic model and towards a circular economic model.

The three primary tenets of a circular economy are to (1) minimize waste and pollution, (2) keep products and materials in use, and (3) regenerate our natural systems. This model can — and I think should — be applied to the entire cannabis value chain. I believe the only truly sustainable cannabis industry is a circular cannabis industry. And I believe this is true of any industry.

Thank you for the great interview, packaging waste in the cannabis industry is one of the biggest challenges that we  to overcome, I'm happy to see that you are leading the path forward. Readers who wish to learn more should visit Sana Packaging.