Restaurants and retailers in Santa Fe are still selling plastic straws, in spite of a May 30 city resolution encouraging alternatives to the skinny, biosphere-destroying tubes. But there's another plastic source piling up in Santa Fe, with little notice or regulation: single-use packaging for medical cannabis products.
Because regulations for the medical cannabis program say each product or concentrate purchased must come in an opaque, child-resistant package that features detailed information about the product, dispensaries find it convenient to put even small amounts into single-use packages, creating unknown tons of waste.
For example, single cannabis joints are often packaged in their own plastic tubes. Customers who buy only a gram of weed will sometimes receive it in the same plastic canister as if they were buying four grams. It all adds up, but nobody knows the full extent of it: In an email, a spokesman for the Department of Health, which oversees the medical cannabis program, says the department does not track package waste.
Nationwide, some basic back-of-the-napkin math shows that the amount of waste generated by cannabis retail packaging could be approaching epic proportions.
"The cannabis industry is predicted to be worth $20 billion industry in 2020, and if each unit is sold at $20, we're look at at least a billion units of plastic waste per year on an ongoing basis," says Ron Basak-Smith, the CEO of the hemp-based packaging company Sana Packaging in Denver.
Some dispensaries in Santa Fe, like Sacred Garden on Luisa Street, are migrating to plastic alternatives such as kraft paper pouches, which are beige-colored and made from softwood. These are recyclable, but not biodegradable because they're laminated with layers of plastic. Owner Zeke Shortes says much of the packaging is still plastic, however. He blames the regulations.
"I think it's very wasteful this industry, with all the requirements on single-use," Shortes tells SFR. "There has to be better ways to do it. … It would be great if [the DOH] had someone that was spending a little time on something like packaging so they could come out with a better ruling on that and allow us to reuse packaging in some way."
Another dispensary CEO, Duke Rodriguez of Ultra Health, claims that producers have less say in how their products are bundled than he would prefer, because they're packaged by manufacturers approved by the medical cannabis program. These approved manufacturers, he says, weren't envisioned in the original medical cannabis program regulations.
"I would say the majority, 75 percent of licensed producers, take their flower and trim to these manufacturers [who] convert it into a finalized product," Rodriguez tells SFR. Some of those manufacturers include companies like Bhang Chocolate, MountainTop Extracts and Budder Pros, all based in New Mexico. Rodriguez says Ultra Health works with four manufacturers in New Mexico, but doesn't want to name them.
Asking manufacturers to take the extra step of using environmentally friendly packaging is tedious, but not impossible, says Lyra Barron of Fruit of the Earth. Nearly all of the packaging for the dispensary's products are glass (for tinctures) with metal tops, or recyclable or compostable paper. The kraft pouches it uses are lined with bioplastic, which are plastics made from renewable sources such as vegetable oils or corn starch.
Of the manufacturers Barron works with, "I make them go out and find glass and metal" to make vape cartridges. The dispensary even prints out paper containers for holding vape cartridges and gives them to a manufacturer to use. Pre-rolled joints are also placed in tubes made from hemp fiber the dispensary orders, though a DOH crackdown on out-of-state hemp might stop that.
"I'm on an anti-plastic campaign," Barron says.
Recycling plastics became harder in the last year after China announced it would no longer accept recyclable products from other nations. The US was sending 1.42 million tons of scrap plastics annually to the country, including certain kinds of plastics used in the cannabis industry for which there isn't a high reuse demand. Much of it is likely getting landfilled.
"For the cannabis industry to have a pretty low-value plastic material to begin with, and to try to find a market for that, to try to recycle that, it's hard," says Sarah Pierpont, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition. Even if cannabis packaging used the kind of plastic for which there is a relatively high demand, such as plastic water bottles, "it's a pretty hard time to be trying to recycle plastics right now in the whole country."
Randall Kippenbrock, executive director of the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, says facilities in New Mexico like the one in Albuquerque that now covers the waste from the city and and county, aren't equipped to recycle plastic wastes that are small, like the tubes made for single-use cannabis cigarettes.
"If it's small like a pen or a pencil [size], more than likely it will be considered residual, it will get lost in the sorting process, it's too small for the machine or human element to sort out and it'll fall through the cracks, and it'll likely end up in the landfill," Kippenbrock tells SFR.
The idea that dispensaries could use hemp packaging was all but snuffed out by a letter the Health Department sent licensed producers on June 7 demanding they toss CBD and hemp products produced outside the state of New Mexico.
Depending on how the Department of Agriculture designs its regulations for a new stateside hemp industry—which may not be promulgated until mid-October—it's theoretically possible some licensed hemp growers in New Mexico would be able to produce hemp for cannabis packaging.
Rodriguez, of Ultra Health, says the dream is for producers to be able to grow enough cannabis stalk for both cannabis product and hemp packaging, keeping everything in-house. But that would be hard to do with the current 450-plant cap in place, and with plastic options still so cheaply available.
"I think we will gravitate toward those solutions if the industry is encouraged to move in that direction," he says.