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How important are sustainable packaging solutions for the cannabis industry?

The pace of legalization of cannabis for both medicinal and adult use continues to accelerate in the United States. Ten more states are due to introduce the legalized sale of cannabis in 2021 or 2022 leading analysts to project that the market will pull in $43 billion by 2025 

This level of growth is proving a catalyst for innovation and rapid development of sustainable practices in the industry. Packaging of cannabis products is the most visible of these practices to consumers. As a result packaging of Cannabis prerolls, edibles, and other consumables offers brands the ideal opportunity to communicate their values and credentials.

Sustainability in the cannabis industry 

Although cannabis is viewed as a natural product, the energy and water intensive growing process, the use of artificial pesticides and the issue of waste disposal presentsignificant obstacles to companies hoping to meet both their own, and their customer’s, commitments and expectations.  

But, unlike many more traditional and established industries struggling with similar challenges, the rapid growth and youth of the cannabis industry has given it the agility, ability and desire to develop and adopt more sustainable methods. These include: 

  • Regenerative farming – maintaining and improving soil quality and biodiversity though sustainable cannabis planting and harvesting methods 
  • Outdoor growing – allowing growers to harness the power of the sun rather than using electricity 
  • Solar energy – using solar power to produce the electricity needed for indoor facilities 
  • Waste reuse and disposal – finding alternative uses, for instance, as a building material, for the cannabis or hemp plant waste 
  • Sustainable packaging 
  • Supply chain accountability – ensuring that each link in the chain of custody lives up to a defined principles regarding sustainability.  

Customer expectations of sustainability 

The growth of the cannabis market continues against the backdrop of increasing consumer awareness of, and demand for, better sustainability.  

A recent report on consumer behavior by IBM found that nearly six in ten consumers surveyed were willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Nearly eight in ten indicated that sustainability is important to them and of those over 70 percent suggested they would pay a premium for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.  

It’s clear that meeting these expectations offers brands a huge opportunity to grow their sales and improve their brand reputation. It’s also an opportunity to drive real change throughout supply chains, encouraging all involved to improve their environmental credentials.  

The importance of packaging  

Packaging represents the most tangible representation of a brand’s values. From materials, to design, to labelling, nailing the packaging can make or break a brand’s marketing strategy.  

As a physical manifestation of a brand’s identity, packaging gives them the opportunity to convey, at a glance, their market position and level of commitment to sustainability principles. Using innovative design to cut waste, recycled or recyclable materials, sustainable inks, varnishes and other finishes, brands can demonstrate their efforts to match their eco credentials against consumer expectation.  

How can cannabis packaging meet sustainability goals? 

As cannabis growers, manufacturers, and distributers rush to capitalize on the growth of the market, they are driving innovation in the supply chain and in packaging development.  

Although there is no formal definition of what constitutes sustainable packaging, some of the ways brands can ensure their packs meet consumer expectations are: 

  • Using sustainable resources – such as sourcing paper and cardboard from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) 
  • Using recycled materials 
  • Creating packaging with options for reuse or repurposing 
  • Designing simplified and lightweight packages  
  • Using eco-friendly inks and adhesives 
  • Avoiding plastics or using recycled plastics where possible 

Additionally, cannabis brands must consider the child resistant features of their packaging, particularly for cannabis edibles. Compliance with regulations governing packaging used for food stuffs is also essential.   

Underpinning packaging decisions should be a consideration of the carbon footprint of the delivery of products. Seeking out manufacturing facilities at suitable locations within the home market can play a significant role in shoring up sustainability credentials. GPA Global has recognized the importance of this and established state-of-the-art print and packaging HUBs on both east and west coasts, ensuring clients can reduce the carbon footprint associated with distribution.  

What materials are best for sustainable cannabis packaging? 

Cannabis products include everything from flower to edibles such as gummies, to vapes and disposables, pre rolls, THC/CBD tinctures, oils and concentrate. Packing must be selected that will both protect the product from damage and deliver the intended shelf life.   

Paper products 

FSC certified paper and cardboard is one of the first things people think of for sustainable packing, its versatility lends itself to packaging for cannabis vapes, disposables and pre rolls and protective secondary packaging for glass jars or vials whilst also providing brands with the canvas to create a distinctive visual identity. GPA Global uses paper in its Barron, Soref, and Banham ranges in innovative designs that deliver unique user experiences.   

Tin  

Easily manufactured into multiple sizes, durable and 100% recyclable due to the ease with which it can be melted down and reused, tin is a popular choice for cannabis edibles, vape cartridges and concentrates. Push and lock mechanisms ensure tins meets child resistance criteria. They also provide plenty of opportunity for users to reuse or repurpose them themselves ensuring that the packaging has longevity in its existing form.  

Child resistant bags 

Bags, with their wide range of sizes and materials, represent an excellent solution for cannabis vape cartridges, gummies or high quantities of flower. Child resistant seal and zip mechanisms keep cannabis edibles and products away from inquisitive fingers. The range of materials and higher surface area for branding make bags a particularly impactful packaging option.  

Glass 

A 2020 European survey showed that nine in ten consumers would recommend glass as the best packaging, listing its recyclability as the most given reason behind the choice. This is echoed in a US survey of 2,000 respondents. Seventy percent of these identified glass as a top choice for healthy food and beverages with its reduced environmental impact a key factor in their decision. Glass jars and bottles are a strong choice for cannabis flower, oils, tinctures (usually using amber glass to reduce degradation in sunlight), concentrates, edibles and cosmetic and beauty products.  

Recyclable PET 

A viable alternative to glass, recyclable PET can offer a lightweight option for a similar product range and can be certified child resistant with push and turn lids. The potential for user reuse contributes to the sustainability of this choice.  

Labelling 

Whether labels are affixed to jars, tins or bottles or details printed directly on to paper packaging or bags, brands must also consider sustainability in their choice of printing, finishing and adhesives. Selecting soy or other naturally based inks can support this, as can the use of biodegradable adhesives, recyclable foils and laminates and choosing UV varnishes over traditional petrochemical-based ones.   

Material innovation 

There are plenty of exciting new materials making their mark on the packaging market. Materials made from bamboo, mushrooms, sugarcane or even hemp itself could have an impact on the way cannabis is packaged. GPA Global’s in-house innovation team is at the leading edge of these developments, driving forward research and the introduction of these materials. 

Is sustainable packaging more expensive than traditional?  

Ultimately the choice of packaging must be a balance, a consideration of the reputational benefits and importance of sustainability values offset against the cost of adopting a more sustainable approach.  

Whilst the move to sustainable packaging can be costly, many cannabis brands are in the lucky position of being able to start as they mean to go on. Setting achievable and relevant sustainability goals from the outset can ensure the brand is able to marry these goals with the business decisions concerning supply chain, suppliers and packaging.   

Extra costs associated with sustainable packaging can often be offset by savings in other areas – for instance, by right-sizing and light-weighting packaging, costs of transportation, shipping and storge can be reduced.  

Brands should also bear in mind that a 2020 McKinsey survey into sustainability in packaging, found that 60 to 70 percent of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging. Meaning that brands can afford to make a more sustainable choice.  

Where to find sustainable packaging for cannabis? 

GPA Global’s cannabis division is backed by 20-years of experience in producing innovative and leading-edge packaging solutions. Starting life as Green Packaging Asia, sustainably is part of the company’s DNA.  

For information on our latest cannabis packaging solutions take a look at our portfolio or get in touch to speak to one of the team.  

1 October 2021
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