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Cannabis Industry Moves to Hemp, But It's Slow-Going

Pot companies show interest in hemp-based packaging materials, but it will be a while before using hemp becomes standard practice.

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If any industry opts into using hemp-based packaging materials, it should be the cannabis industry, right? And as it turns out, that's exactly the case. "Cannabis is the most enthusiastic customer in the market right now," said Kevin Tubbs, founder of The Hemp Plastic Company, based in Denver.

But enthusiasm only means so much. While cannabis might be better than most other industries on this score, the vast majority of cannabis vendors still package their wares in "traditional" materials, including petroleum-derived plastic.

This is particularly problematic when it comes to the cannabis business, which is about as resource-intensive as a consumer-products industry can be. Retail shelves are packed with single-use products. And there is little in the way of uniformity, as there is in, for example, the beer industry. Every company uses different configurations of materials, adding to the waste generated by both production and disposal.

Meanwhile, the need for security mandates things like child-proof packaging. Odor control adds another layer of concern, and packaging. And not many other industries, other than maybe the adult-novelty business, require functional "exit bags," but cannabis does.

Of the gigantic mountain of materials used by the industry each year, plastic is by far the most problematic. Nobody likes having to use it, but everyone must. "You just can't get around the utility of plastic," said Shareef El-Sissi, head of business development for The Garden of Eden dispensary, based in Hayward, and co-founder of Treez, which makes a cannabis software platform. While great strides have been made in making hemp-derived plastic a viable option, it isn't yet one for most vendors. It's considerably more expensive than regular plastic, and it's nowhere near as adaptable to the array of uses to which plastic is put for cannabis products: everything from tubes for pre-rolls, to exit bags, to the nearly impenetrable shells that gummies and vape pens and cartridges often come in.

On top of that, hemp plastic often isn't pure hemp. To make it work (for rigidity or flexibility, say) other elements — sometimes including regular plastic polymers — often have to be incorporated into it. That means it's usually not compostable in its finished form, despite it being mostly plant-derived. It's not usually that the desired products aren't available, it's that they're too expensive — for now.

El-Sissi said he packages in hemp as much as possible, but it doesn't always make the most sense. Most of the plastic packaging sold by The Garden of Eden is recyclable. But the company's stores do contract for hemp-based paper, another material the cannabis industry makes heavy use of. But his aim isn't to use hemp, it's to be sustainable. El-Sissi's preferred solution is "looping," which just means re-using containers, as most of America once did with milk deliveries and returnable glass soda and beer bottles. But looping in the cannabis industry is still in its infancy (as are, to be fair, pretty much all products and processes in this still freshly-legal business).

And hemp itself is still brand new, in terms of its use in America's product-supply chain. Cultivation was only fully legalized early this year as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. Of course, hemp has been used in manufacturing for thousands of years, and was even made into plastic early in the last century. Henry Ford famously made a car composed partly of hemp.

For now, hemp is "still a specialty material," according to James Eichner, who has a vested interest in changing that situation. Eichner is the co-founder of the Colorado-based Sana Packaging, which serves the cannabis market exclusively. The company sells cannabis vendors other kinds of sustainable materials, including reclaimed ocean plastic and recycled glass. "We're material-agnostic," he said. The point is sustainability, however that might be achieved.

The move to hemp since the Farm Bill passed, he said, has been "slow and clunky," Eichner said. Much of that has to do with supply chains not yet being fully established. But it also has to do with the fact that, for example, while hemp gets essentially zero federal support, corn — by far the biggest source of bio-plastics — is subsidized up the wazoo. "Corn shouldn't be subsidized, and hemp should be," Eichner said.

Then there are the consumers, who are largely indifferent. As is the case in the food industry and the consumer-products industry in general, very few cannabis consumers care very much about the sustainability of packaging. Or rather, they care, but they don't tend to base their buying decisions on it. "Consumer demand doesn't exist," El-Sissi declared.

It's not quite that simple, as El-Sissi acknowledged. Some consumers care very deeply, but for most, it's just one more product attribute. "They like hearing that a package is sustainable," he said. "But it's not real to them" in the same way that things like product freshness or CBD-to-THC ratios are.

None of this is to say that hemp-derived packaging, including plastic, isn't going to be huge. It's gigantic in places China, and in several European countries, where hemp has been legal for a long time. "The biggest hurdle now is just the lack of a robust industry," Eichner said. "But that's coming." 

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