Legal cannabis packaging made from recycled materials should be in Canada by next year, though experts warn some container makers are already boasting broad environmental claims without scientific backing.
Most licenced cannabis producers (LPs) in the country will be using post-consumer resin-based (PCR) containers by mid-2020, according to Mark Finkelstein. The vice-president of sales at PharmaSystems - a family-owned company in Markham, Ont. that makes packaging for most of Canada’s LPs through its CannaSupplies division - says he started having conversations with LPs about switching from so-called “virgin” plastic to PCR only within the past few weeks.
“These are recycled plastics like water bottles being turned into other products [and] within the next six to nine months we are going to see hopefully 50 per cent of our customers transition to PCR,” Mr. Finkelstein said, adding PCR products still do not address the core sustainability issue of using non-biodegradable, fossil fuel-based plastics in the first place. “But at least [PCR] completely removes virgin plastic from the manufacturing stream.”
More environmentally friendly options - such as plastics made from organic materials like cornstarch or sugarcane that can fully biodegrade - are in “accelerated development”, he said, but remain at least a few years from commercial viability. In the meantime, Mr. Finkelstein says he is wary of producers who already seem to be offering more sustainable packaging options today.
“There are a lot of buzzwords being thrown around without any proof behind it, a real dog and pony show,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “The science isn’t even there yet, even the theoretical biodegradability right now, for a lot of this stuff to break down, they’d have to go in a commercial landfill and sit there for seven years.”
“There is accelerated development taking place and stability testing for a variety of new materials is underway, but in my opinion, we are still a little ways away from anything being commercialized,” he said.
Last month, a cannabis packaging distributor based in Vancouver announced it was bringing Calyx Containers to the Canadian market. Boston-based Calyx makes recyclable plastic containers that include an organic enzyme the company says accelerates degradation when their containers end up in landfills.
The Calyx website makes references to its products being “sustainable” and the Vancouver distributor described them as “environmentally conscious”; even making specific reference to the “D5511” testing method that showed Calyx containers degrade in a landfill at an “accelerated” pace compared to other plastics.
Sally Krigstin is not convinced.
The University of Toronto Forestry professor, researches biomaterials, said she “could write a dissertation on what is questionable about the claims,” after reviewing publicly available information on Calyx.
The full details of the D5511 method “even says … results of this test should not be used for unqualified ‘biodegradable’ claims,” Ms. Krigstin said. “The packaging industry is very disingenuous, there are so many certification bodies and so many different test methods that you throw at the public and they don’t have a clue what they mean, which is part of the game I guess.”
The best-case degradation scenario for Calyx containers, Ms. Krigstin said, is for them to break down into smaller pieces called microplastics.
“It doesn’t disappear from the environment,” she said.
Calyx does not boast any specific environmental certifications, nor does the company claim its products are completely biodegradable. However, when presented with Ms. Krigstin’s criticisms of the claims Calyx does make in a recent telephone interview, company president Alex Gonzalez said Calyx was not interested in the Canadian market, had no partnership with the Vancouver distributor and insisted the distributor remove all references to Calyx from its website.
The Aug. 27 press release announcing the alleged partnership remained publicly accessible as of Tuesday afternoon.
Asked to respond specifically to the issues raised by Ms. Krigstin, Mr. Gonzalez would only say “we worked tirelessly to put out this formulation designed to enhance the speed of decomposition.”
Asked whether Calyx developed its formulation in-house or used a third party, or whether the company was planning to do any additional testing or apply for environmental certifications, Mr. Gonzalez declined to answer.
PharmaSystems has been in talks with Calyx to be their Canadian distributor for about a year, Mr. Finkelstein said, “but in all our conversations with Calyx, they never mentioned the sustainable material they were offering.”
Right now, cannabis packaging made from PCR is between 5 and 10 per cent more expensive than less environmental options, Mr. Finkelstein said. While he expects the cost difference to become only “marginal” once PCR volumes rise, Mr. Finkelstein said the cannabis industry still being in its relative infancy will slow adoption of even more sustainable options, which he estimates will carry a 20-to-25 per cent cost premium, even after they become available.
“I think what is really the inhibitor right now is simply the fact that everyone is racing to get everything done and once you’ve got a problem solved, you don’t necessarily want to go revisit it tomorrow,” he said. “So if you’ve just figured out your packaging and got all your equipment and put that to bed and moved on to project number two, then I have to wait until the dust settles and people can catch their breath, but then it is a very easy sell.”