CEO Blair Kralick, whose cannabis company äkta recently launched its products in a recyclable, compostable paper tube, explains why it’s important for cannabis brands to reduce their packaging waste, as well as the challenges involved with selecting sustainable packaging that still meets the industry’s regulatory requirements.
What are some of the challenges facing cannabis brands that want to use more sustainable packaging?
One of the biggest challenges is the requirement for child-resistant (CR) packaging. That’s followed by requirements such as having opaque packaging—so not allowing your products to be seen through the outside of the package. In the beginning stages of the industry, we were very limited on what was child-resistant and what we could use to meet these requirements. A lot of the options were plastic and sometimes glass, things like that, but they always came with some type of plastic lid that was CR certified. It was difficult to find sustainable packaging that met state and local compliance regulations. That became such a big problem; I noticed even in the beginning stages that this was going to be a big deal—how wasteful this industry was going to end up being.
I wasn’t aware of the opaque requirement. Can you expand on that?
Some states, Colorado especially, have jumped on that. A few years ago, we could sell concentrates in a see-through glass jar. That recently changed. Now, it’s got to be opaque. When the industry first had to go opaque, a lot of packaging companies weren’t set up for it. So they were putting paint on the packaging. However, they were having problems where the paint would chip off and would get into the products.
|Read this story on the development of akta's paper tube packaging.|
Since we got into this market in 2014, there have been packaging requirement changes easily at least once a year, so we’re always having to change things on our packaging. We can’t order things in large quantities because you just never know when the state is going to come in and change the rules on you again. It’s been an uphill battle, but I think we’re finally starting to level off and get to a place where it works with the state, it works for us, it works for packaging companies, and everyone’s kind of on the same page.
Why do you think cannabis companies should explore the use of sustainable packaging?
Well, I think for us, we’re seeing the long-term impact with all this packaging being created in all these markets, due to the regulatory requirements that cannabis has been put under.
When we’re having to sell a bunch of products in a bunch of different packaging, it’s all got some type of marketing layer. Because most consumers are going to buy these products, open the package up, and throw the packaging away, we’re creating all this waste. We’re putting out thousands and thousands of units every month—that’s a lot of trash. So for any company, not just cannabis, that’s creating a lot of products, and they’re creating a layer to those products that ultimately is going to be thrown away, they really need to think about what’s being thrown away and how it’s being handled. If a company has the option to make less of an impact when it comes to waste, I think it’s something everyone should look at and invest in.
I understand that refillable packaging for cannabis isn’t really viable today. However, have you heard from the consumers who are buying your products in paper tubes whether they are reusing them?
I know a lot of our consumers don’t necessarily throw our packaging away. They like to collect it because they like the aesthetics of the tube. And so, if they can find a way to reuse it, they will. A lot of cannabis consumers are like that—especially some of the more experienced and heavier users. They have that mindset because they understand that cannabis packaging in general is very wasteful.
I’m currently exploring packaging options for cannabis flower, where all of the packaging can be used for storage long term—so packaging the consumer would buy from us but be able to keep and reuse for any brand’s product.
I think reusability is going to be key in cannabis, but it’s going to take a while to get there, because with regulatory requirements, we can’t take any packaging back. Something I’ve been trying to do is work with the state to allow us to take our packaging back if it’s in good working condition and reuse it for new products.
From a business standpoint, if we can reuse packaging, that’s great. We not only can save money, but we can also set up recycling programs where we’re constantly reusing the material, and it’s not going into the trash. But it requires working with regulators to find a middle ground.
Many startups in the cannabis industry have little to no experience with packaging—either materials or equipment. What can packaging suppliers do to help them?
I think packaging companies are definitely starting to catch up. Over the past probably year and a half, I’ve really started to see them begin to pay attention to cannabis. They’re starting to take notice that we are a big market for the CPG world, and it’s a world that I think for them and for their businesses is smart to get into.
I also believe that more and more packaging companies are investing in innovative sustainable packaging options—and not just for the cannabis industry. This has been helpful because it enables cannabis businesses to explore options. The disconnect at the beginning is that we just didn’t have a lot of options to work with. Most companies had very similar packaging because there were probably only five or six packaging vendors in total that could meet the cannabis industry’s regulatory requirements. So everybody was using the same type of packaging, just different designs and things like that.
|Watch this Take Five video on a cannabis material supplier's journey.|
But now you’re starting to see new and improved packaging that can help not only make brands unique, but also sustainable, because packaging companies are starting to play ball with cannabis and look at it as a real industry. They’re investing time and money into creating sustainable options that we can choose from. Because at the end of the day, we’re at the mercy of what packaging suppliers are providing us.
You chose paper for your product packaging. What other options have you seen that have the potential to bring greater sustainability to cannabis packaging?
We’re seeing a lot more hemp-based plastic options in cannabis, which has been great. Using a cousin of the cannabis plant [hemp] to create sustainable packaging that’s compostable is huge. It also provides a bit of a story. We’re also seeing recycled ocean plastic work its way into the market. But the big thing I’m seeing a lot of is virgin plastic being eliminated, and plant- based or recycled-content plastic being used as a replacement, which is great because we’re not creating more plastic, we’re reusing it, or we’re using a plant-based compostable plastic that is a lot more sustainable. Paper has always been a little bit more sustainable. It’s easier to recycle, and it’s a lot more compostable, even though it takes longer to compost.
From what other markets can cannabis brands find inspiration for new packaging?
It’s weird, the cannabis industry is one of the only industries that overlaps with the pharmaceutical market. We’re one of the only CPG industries that has to have CR certification on its packaging. So it’s tough, because when you look at the pharmaceutical world, the packaging in that industry is not shiny and unique, and it doesn’t pop off the shelf because there isn’t a shelf for it. It’s in a pharmacy. So we’re trying to hybridize something that doesn’t have sustainability and it doesn’t have creative design work and consumer-focused branding on the packaging. It’s just this weird hybrid that resulted from regulation.
As a result, I try find to inspiration from industries such as food, beverage, wine, and alcohol and then try to find options I can mimic with a CR certification. For example, with the paper tube, this was a product where I thought, “This is finally something different, finally something I feel like I could truly hybridize.” Packaging companies need to realize it’s what they’re going to have to do until regulations change; they’re going to have to give people more options.”