SEATTLE — Washington state’s penchant for getting high is trashing the place.
Plastic “doob tubes” and small Mylar bags used to package pot are moldering in gutters, bleaching out in landfills and bobbing in waterways.
Concentrated nutrients and fertilizers left over from cannabis growing operations are being dumped in public sewers and making their way past wastewater treatment plants into Puget Sound. And millions of pounds of weed harvest waste that could be composted are instead getting trucked to landfills.
“We’re seeing a lot of marijuana packaging in our public spaces,” said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, which organizes litter cleanups.
“Cannabis packaging is adding to our load, which then gets washed into our lakes and Puget Sound.”
It’s an increasingly big challenge for the state, which collected $315 million in taxes on retail marijuana sales of $1.4 billion in fiscal 2017. In some ways, the problems start small.
Pre-rolled joints, for example, spiked in popularity by 67 percent in just one year, according to BDS Analytics, a cannabis industry data firm. They are sold for as little as $2 and come in small plastic containers. But doob tubes usually cannot be recycled, even when made of recyclable plastic, because their small size means that they fall through the grates of the recycling machines.
“The historical cannabis community is environmentalist, but green rushers” — as some cannabis entrepreneurs are known — “aren’t, necessarily,” said Danielle Rosellison, president of the Cannabis Alliance, a nonprofit group of cannabis stakeholders dedicated to sustainability. Rosellison said she “looked high and low for a bag that had a shelf life and was recyclable — and nothing.”
Initiative 502 legalized marijuana in Washington state through a 2012 popular vote. The state achieves a safe cannabis supply chain by regulating the packaging, with strict controls on labeling, but otherwise has shown little interest in environmental sustainability. “Bottom line, our minimum requirement is meeting goals for public safety and avoiding contamination,” said Joanna Eide, the policy and rules coordinator for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. That means it is up to individual farmers to decide whether they can afford to go green.
Alex Cooley is co-founder of cannabis operation Solstice and founding president of the Cannabis Alliance. He said the sustainability focus of many cannabis companies has waned as competition has increased. “I’ve never sold so much cannabis for so little money,” he said. “As a result, we’re focused on pennies, and packaging is a big area that is easy to be cut.”
Many states are studying Washington’s laws to create a safe supply chain. But they, like consumers, are not focused on the combined effect of sending hundreds of millions of plastic tubes and Mylar bags into landfills every year. What’s more, many consumers mistakenly try to recycle that packaging.
“We have all these materials coming online that are not recyclable, and they’re causing contamination in the recycling system,” Trim said. “People assume that they are recyclable and feel that they should be recyclable. But they are not.”
The only viable option, Cooley said, is to make sustainable, recyclable packaging a regulatory requirement. But some fear that legislating higher production costs could bankrupt cannabis farmers who have difficulty accessing capital.