On the third Saturday of each month, my wife, Mikki Norris, and I participate in a community-wide litter cleanup. After Covid-19 hit, we saw the trash situation get worse than ever.
We are happy to know, live and work with people who deeply care about our environment and the beauty of our town. Once immunized, we again started having group cleanups outdoors, with plenty of breathing space. People bring their children. Working together builds a sense of community, and we get to see the direct benefits of our cleanup efforts.
Cannabis litter becoming a problem
So it pains me, as a long-term cannabis consumer and advocate, to pick up discarded vape pen cartridges, joint holders, and other plastic packaging litter from adult and medical marijuana.
For many of us, cannabis legalization came out of a spirit of environmentalism. It’s a natural plant, non-toxic, biodegradable, and good for the air and soil. As an agricultural crop, hemp has tens of thousands of ecologically sound commercial applications. We worked with hemp hero Jack Herer, using the slogan “Hemp Can Save the World.”
Cannabis legalization events were some of the cleanest events ever. We not only picked up after ourselves; we left the venue looking better than when we arrived. Seattle Hempfest epitomized that reputation, ending each year’s event with a massive cleanup that swept from one end of Myrtle Edwards Park to the other. At Hippie Hill in San Francisco, a spontaneous celebration of cannabis popped up every year on April 20 and then disappeared in a puff of smoke, without a trace of trash. That was then.
Sure, we used to find an occasional baggie with green residue in the corners. Now we regularly pull plastic joint holders and extract jars up out of the weeds, pick vape pens out of the stream beds and chase heavy-duty plastic bags emblazoned with corporate cannabis logos down the streets to stick into the nearest trash can.
Packaging industry, paranoia choking the Earth
Cannabis hemp is supposed to be part of the solution, not just another piece of the problem. Fifty years after the first Earth Day warned of the eco-destruction that lay ahead, modern society still founders ever closer to the brink of destruction. More than half the planet’s plastic garbage has been manufactured in the past 15 years.
One can see how the packaging industry got its grip on the cannabis market.
People say that cannabis causes paranoia, but it is typically non-consumers who are frightened that someone may see or touch it. The idea that a completely non-toxic plant that never has killed anyone in history must be exorbitantly taxed and secured in the most durable child-proof packaging in history appears to be a given to lawmakers. It does not provide necessary safety for kids, but it does placate parents and prohibitionists and thus provide cover for policymakers.
The packaging industry can protect children from something that is already safe, as long as it can also continue to choke the planet and threaten our futures. Petrochemicals are right there to seal up and hide that little scrap of nature.
But why? Set aside the relative safety of cannabis compared to anything else — even potatoes are more toxic. Presume that it needs to be securely locked away. Do we really need to poison the planet to do that?
Shopping as if the future depends on it
Paper packaging can be sealed and made tamperproof just as well as plastics. A little tax stamp, plastic sticker, or tear-away seal on the package will show if someone opened it, with or without ill intent. Glass jars for extracts are at least recyclable, and if you have a metal lid instead of plastic, even that can be picked up with residential recycling loads.
However, given that much of the packaging is plastic, buyers should be aware that there are basically four kinds of plastic: Non-recyclable, which is almost all of it. Recyclable, which is now pretty much limited to plastic beverage bottles and the occasional gravity bong (look it up). Theoretically recyclable, which could be recycled, but nobody does it, so consumers feel like they are doing good, and the industry continues to collect profits and add plastic waste. And compostable, which biodegrades.
Obviously, the last category is our favorite and most in keeping with cannabis values. But sometimes, it requires commercial composting: So you can toss it into your green waste bin, but the people who handle it will most likely toss it if they see it because they can’t tell compostable plastic from polluting plastic. And the rare and exotic home compostable plastic.
At least one company, Humidi Naturals, plans to roll out home-compostable containers and joint holders. Smaller companies are using hemp hurds to make compostable containers.
The solution depends on companies, workers, and consumers
To make this work, cannabis companies have to shift from cheap plastic to sustainable packaging. Using paper — preferably hemp paper —eliminates a lot of blight. This is one way a business can set itself apart from the mass of other brands out there. Brag about it. If shops do sell plastic containers, they should be recyclable and compostable, with an on-site collection bin. Then, make sure the waste really is recycled or composted. Simply posting signs reminding customers not to litter is an easy step to get people thinking.
Write to your favorite cannabis brand and let them know what you want, or mention the packaging when you review products. It will take pressure from both customers and staff to shift the corporate mentality to value the survival of the planet over short-term profits. Don’t buy products that are over-packaged, particularly with plastics. Don’t discard your containers onto the ground. Make a point to see that they are properly processed by composting or recycling. Tell the managers that you care about this.
Lastly, let’s return Earth consciousness to the cannabis community. And don’t wait until Earth Day to pick up litter, whether it is cannabis packaging or something else. Get a little grabber and a plastic sack to carry with you when you go walking and pick up the trash that is scattered across the land. Show by example and teach others how to care and take care of nature — particularly young people, who have the most to gain and the most to lose from the way we treat our home planet.
There is more to cannabis than getting high: We should also honor one another, the plant, and the entirety of our natural planet with high honor and respect. Cannamaste.
Chris Conrad has played a pivotal role in cannabis since the late 1980s, including hemp industries, marijuana legalization, medical, personal, commercial and religious use. With his wife, Mikki Norris, Conrad reframed the issue as author, publisher, strategist, organizer, educator, speaker, museum curator and consultant. He co-founded both the Hemp Industries Association and Human Rights and the Drug War, was instrumental in key voter initiatives and shaped California case law as an expert witness in cannabis consumption, cultivation, processing, etc. His latest book is The Newbie’s Guide to Cannabis and the Industry. Conrad teaches at Oaksterdam University and publishes ChrisConrad.com and theLeafOnline.com.