.The Cannabis Industry’s Sustainability Problem

This is part two of a two-part series on vaping. Part one ran last week. — Editor

When J.J. Kaplan was a supervisor for a San Francisco cannabis collective, he saw a lot of trash headed for the garbage bin.

“I would see boxes of plastic and waste everywhere,” he says.

He talked about it with his friend Sam Penny, a garbage-truck driver who had also noticed the problem, and together they decided to launch a new business, Canna Cycle, to reduce waste in the world of weed. 

“People forget our industry was built on old-school hippies and growers who were sustainable on all aspects,” Kaplan says.

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Currently based in Eureka, Canna Cycle launched at the beginning of the year and now has recycling bins in more than a dozen locations throughout the Bay Area. Locally, their 23-gallon bins at Herbal Cruz and both KindPeoples locations collect cannabis packaging, electronic cigarette cartridges and more. The Santa Cruz market is not only important because of the booming cannabis business here, but also because it’s centrally located between Humboldt and Southern California, where Canna Cycle hopes to expand.

Kaplan and Penny plan to repurpose much of the glass back to the industry, and say that the plastic can be turned into things like filament for 3-D printers. 

The company also launched at a time when the recycling industry is in crisis due to rising costs, with some cities across the nation cutting their programs. The cannabis industry, meanwhile, continues to grow—10 states and Washington D.C. have already fully legalized recreational use for adults, with another 27 allowing either medicinal use or use of the non-psychoactive CBD. Only 10 states remain with laws completely criminalizing the plant. 

“The waste that the cannabis industry produces is astronomical,” says KindPeoples Retail Operation Manager Chelsea Burman. “There is certainly more waste now with legalization, even down to the shrink-wrap surrounding packages.” 


“The cannabis industry is a huge source of plastic waste,” says Tim Goncharoff, Santa Cruz County’s zero waste programs manager. “Mostly because of the safety regulations, they are being forced to generate a lot of waste.” 

More and more city and state governments are banning single-use plastic items, from grocery bags to straws, but California regulations require all cannabis products to be sold in child-resistant packaging—some of which has to be reusable for multiple doses—and all edible products must be in opaque packaging. This includes everything from smaller, pre-rolled joints that are usually sold in long, plastic “doob tubes” to jars of cannabis flower.

At the moment, there is no data being collected on just how much waste the cannabis industry is generating. But a stroll along Pacific Avenue or Cowell Beach reveals plenty of empty doob tubes, used vape cartridges and wrappers. 

All of these are contributing to a larger problem of plastic particles contaminating the ocean, and even our bodies. A study released last month in Environmental Science and Technology found that humans eat 39,000 to 52,000 tiny plastics per year. 

KindPeoples, a Santa Cruz Certified Green Businesses, tries to stock as many brands that incorporate eco-friendly production or packaging as possible, Burman says. As part of the Canna Cycle program, both locations accept all forms of cannabis packaging waste, provided it has been emptied first. 

The flower, or bud, is what most people think of when they think about packing a bowl, and those 3.5 grams of dried product, when purchased at a local dispensary, come in plastic or glass jars that can weigh up to 184 grams. A 1-gram joint comes in a plastic doob tube containing 40.5 grams. Edibles come in packaging that weighs up to 22 times the weight of the product. 

On top of that, the product must leave the store in opaque bags, with many Santa Cruz shops recently opting to use paper bags instead of the harder-to-recycle, industry-standard mylar bags. 


An August 2018 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that one in seven Americans had used cannabis in the previous year, with nearly 5% of those using an electronic cigarette, or vape pen, to do so. 

According to another study from the same journal around the same time, 10.8 million Americans—roughly one in 20—were using e-cigarettes, which can also contain nicotine, as a method of weaning themselves off traditional cigarettes. The devices come with heavily toxic lithium batteries and vape cartridges made out of metal and glass, plus combustible heating filaments. While each of these things are theoretically recyclable on their own, when combined they are not. There’s also some leftover residue inside the cartridge, making it a hazardous material by law, and leaving individual e-cigarettes in a sort of after-life limbo. 

“Can you recycle it? No. Can you throw it away? No,” explains Goncharoff. “Right now the only legitimate option is to take it to a Household Hazardous Waste facility, and they are only located at landfills.” 

During the medicinal era of California cannabis, the industry was not as heavily regulated, allowing dispensaries leeway in efforts like reusing old jars. They could also collect, clean and reuse vape pens. 

In Monterey County, the cannabis waste management company Gaiaca is working to reverse that trend. Whereas Cana Cycle serves dispensaries, Gaiaca takes care of waste on the producers’ end, servicing hundreds of growers and product cultivators throughout the state. Co-founder Garrett Rodewald says the company is also spearheading a recycling campaign for vaping. 

Goncharoff theorizes that the government might make the industry confront the bulk of the waste with so-called “extended producer responsibilities,” which put the onus on manufacturers to figure out a way to handle the disposal of their products responsibly.

But talk of increased regulation ignites simmering concerns in a cannabis sector that’s already facing financial burdens.

“From consumers to manufacturers, it’s pretty much the whole industry’s opinion that we’re already taxed too much,” says Kameron Miller, production manager for Santa Cruz-based 3 Bros Grows. “So nobody wants to see that.”

He says there are more innovative ways for cannabis businesses to become more sustainable. For example, 3 Bros recently changed all of its pre-roll packaging to recycled, reclaimed ocean plastic. He says the company also has a contract with GreenWaste to deal with composting its plant material waste post-harvest. 

The federal legalization of hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill could be a positive step toward eliminating plastic waste, and companies are already taking advantage of the powerful natural fiber. Santa Cruz Shredders recently released a 100% hemp-made grinder that sells for $10.

Canna Cycle also teamed up with Humboldt growers to launch a separate company, Sugar Hill, last month. Its first item, the Sugar Stick blunt, comes rolled in hemp wraps with a wooden, biodegradable tip to reduce heat on the user’s lips, and comes in a fully biodegradable, hemp-plastic tube.

“The cost of using biodegradable plastic can be two to three times more expensive,” he admits. “But if these become popular, hopefully other brands will follow suit.” 


  1. We are a Santa Cruz based cannabis packaging business ONLY working with plastic free materials. We have patented and proprietary products for all cannabis packaging solutions and have made it our mission to offer sustainable, ocean safe alternatives. Recycling does not solve the plastic pollution problem. A little too late.We need to start out with less plastic in the consumer packaging steam to begin with. Cannabis products belong in plastic free, environmentally sane packaging. . Time to get a hold of your representative and add to the anti plastic bills already initiated.

  2. Alternative medicine are more accepted now a days due to it’s promising results unlike pharmaceutical medicine, alternative medicine don’t give negative effect such as kidney and liver problems when it comes to long term use. As for my alternative medicine usage, I use medical marijuana. Different strain has a variety of uses and effect depending on your needs. check this one https://www.gyo.green/tga-subcool-seeds-jesus-og-tga-jog-r.html

  3. What is this…Japan? Let’s do better! #montereybaymana

    Monterey based startup Bamboo Magik can provide unique handmade sustainable bamboo cannibis accessories such as pipes in 1/4-3 inch diameters and child resistant safes in 2-5 inches…as well as other custom artifacts. Created from locally grown fair trade bamboo. Dogs love to chew and fetch it too!

    Bamboo is #smokevegan, compostable, and tough….Google ‘bamboo scaffolding’.

    Request Bamboo Magik products from your local shops or contact on IG for more info about custom orders.



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