Science·What on Earth?

The cannabis industry has a plastic waste problem — but some are finding solutions

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the plastic waste produced in the cannabis industry and what this week's announcement about nuclear fusion means for the future of clean energy.

Also: Nuclear fusion comes of age

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • The cannabis industry has a plastic waste problem — but some are finding solutions
  • Breaking down the nuclear fusion breakthrough
  • The fight is on to protect urban wildlife in Montreal

The cannabis industry has a plastic waste problem — but some are finding solutions

A series of cannabis-related plastic containers.

Here's a story about how my insomnia turned into a plastic problem.

Back in 2019, I was having serious trouble sleeping. My prescribed pills were no longer working, so I experimented with cannabis. After seeing poor results with edibles, CBD oil and CBD capsules, I decided to try smoking it. After some hits and misses, I found a strain that worked.

You can buy the cannabis flowers or pre-rolled joints, but they both require a plastic receptacle, which can range from a round container to a tube, even a bag. 

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My local store in Toronto suggested that when I was done, I could bring the tubes back, as they could be recycled — so I did. But I recently discovered that my giant bag of "doob tubes" — the nickname for the tubes that store pre-rolled joints — was just going into the trash.

Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the first phase of the federal government's move to ban single-use plastic. But this transition leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the cannabis industry, which very much relies on one-and-done plastic.

To start, Health Canada regulations don't allow consumers to reuse these containers, so they are often tossed into recycling bins. In some jurisdictions, like Toronto, the black containers and doob tubes aren't recyclable because optical sorters are unable to recognize the black plastic. Even the light-coloured plastic is difficult to sort, as some packaging contains up to three types of plastic. And so a lot of it goes in the garbage.

Some of the plastic I was using back in 2019 may have been recyclable, as the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) provided customers with a link to Terracycle's cannabis recycling program. But the program is no longer in operation.

Although cannabis was legalized on Oct. 17, 2018, under the federal Cannabis Act, the Act never addressed environmental concerns.

"The Cannabis Act was written with a preponderance of focus on risk — not environmental risk, not sustainability risk, et cetera, but really risk that that product would fall in the hands of a kid," said George Smitherman, president and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada.

"The Act that we operate under was written blind of the consideration for sustainability, which is rather odd. Because it was an act of a government that is at the same time very focused on these things."

One research study from Toronto Metropolitan University estimates that between October 2018 and August 2019, between 5.8 million and 6.4 million kilograms of plastic cannabis packaging ended up in Canadian landfills.

There are people who are tackling the problem. One of them is Corey Saban, founder and CEO of [Re]waste, an Edmonton-based company that collects and reuses plastic waste, including that from the cannabis industry.

He launched his business in 2020, and started off small: first, by making coasters from compressed plastic bags and other items. That caught the interest of an employee at Value Buds (then called Nova Cannabis). It snowballed from there.

"We're really seeing consumers pushing [recycling/reuse] for the cannabis supply chain," Saban said. "They want better options for recycling." 

As a result, [Re]waste is now providing recycling services for about 250 cannabis retailers across Canada. Among the items [Re]waste makes with the plastic are rolling trays and display tables.

Saban, who is collecting statistics on packaging, notes that cannabis packaging could be a lot smaller. For example, a flower in a round container takes up about eight per cent of the total volume, meaning 92 per cent is wasted space. But labelling regulations have forced the containers to be larger than they need to be.

Nova Scotia-based company Aqualitas is not only a sustainable cannabis grower, but it also uses reclaimed ocean plastic to produce packaging that is 100 per cent recyclable. Products range from containers to bags, even glass products. 

"We were looking to find a Health Canada-compliant package that used reclaimed ocean materials, and we couldn't find any," said Aqualitas co-founder and CEO Myrna Gillis. "So we actually started the project ourselves to manufacture sustainable packaging."

She said the operation has managed to remove 13,600 kilograms of plastic waste from the ocean.

It took Aqualitas two years to get its ocean plastic containers to market, said Gillis. She acknowledges not every company can afford to do that or is as committed to it. 

But things may be changing. On Nov. 23, the Ontario Cannabis Store released a discussion paper that provides recommendations to Health Canada's review of cannabis legislation. One recommendation is that the agency "reconsider product packaging rules to create a more sustainable environmental footprint for the legal cannabis industry." 

Smitherman said he's hopeful.

"I think that the pressure will be there constantly on us as a sector to improve our performance in terms of sustainability."

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

Noreen Smith:

"I understand the concept of Thriftmas and have no problem with recycled or homemade gifts. My big concern is that thrift stores seem to be pricing items out of range for those the shops were initially intended for. Many thrift stores have to limit numbers of items someone purchases or they make the prices higher than expected, as there are people who are using these shops to purchase and resell items for profit as their own personal business.

"I have often depended on my local thrift store for my family's clothing as well as houseware items over the years and am now discouraged by the high prices."

Mark Hambridge:

'Thriftmas' further detracts from the true meaning of Christmas. My wife and I have no family in Canada; we stopped shipping gifts to and from family in other countries many years ago (shipping cost more than the gift!). What is important is a gift of time and love. We have in the past hosted Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving meals for others without family here, and had fabulous multilingual and multicultural events with a variety of foods. We also support several charities supporting Canadians, such as food banks and disaster relief, throughout the year."

Lothar Schindler:

"Sure. Why not Thriftmas? After all, thrift went onto the cross of execution during the rise of wanton excess in our culture."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. This week, we look back at 2022 with our panel of meteorologists and highlight some good news for climate this year. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Nuclear fusion

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, which has exciting potential for clean energy. 

When most people think about nuclear energy, they likely think about the reactors we have today. But those reactors operate using nuclear fission — that is, by separating heavy atoms. Fusion is the exact opposite of fission. In nuclear fusion, two lighter elements combine to make a heavier element. It's the same process that powers the sun, where protons of hydrogen atoms collide violently and at incredibly high temperatures at the core, fusing to produce a helium atom. 

Scientists have been working on nuclear fusion since the 1940s, but they have faced a tough challenge: how to produce more energy than it takes to create it. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge, until now. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California used 192 lasers focused on the inner wall of a cylinder that contained a small capsule (about the size of a BB pellet) of fusion fuel (deuterium and tritium). That generated X-rays from the wall that struck the capsule, squeezing the fuel. It stayed hot, dense and round enough for long enough that it ignited, producing more energy than the lasers used. 

Nuclear fusion produces no harmful carbon dioxide or methane emissions; it doesn't result in byproducts like the spent rods found in nuclear plants; and there's no chance of a nuclear meltdown. The process is also highly efficient. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, fusion "could generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than fission … and nearly four million times more energy than burning oil or coal." 

While scientists have reached an important milestone, it doesn't mean that we're ready to produce energy on a large scale yet. Kim Budil, director of the Livermore lab, said it will be at least a few decades before the underlying technologies are developed enough to build a nuclear fusion power plant. 

The U.S. isn't the only country working on nuclear fusion — it's also preoccupying scientists in France, China, the United Kingdom, Germany and, yes, Canada.

Nicole Mortillaro

Technicians access the target chamber interior of a nuclear fusion research device.
(Philip Saltonstall/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Handout/Reuters)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

The fight is on to protect urban wildlife in Montreal

A man in a toque and sunglasses is seen in a park.
(Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Since he retired last year, Chris Breier has spent five days a week volunteering in Montreal's Falaise St-Jacques, an escarpment sandwiched between St-Jacques Street in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, Highway 20 and a railroad. 

Breier (see photo above) helps maintain the paths that zigzag through the woods, installing logs to outline those paths and cutting vines to prevent them from strangling trees.

"This is the most incredible thing that I could have discovered when I retired," he said. "The health benefits of this forest are incredibly important to the community."

Before volunteers began tending to it in recent years, the forest had become a dumping ground for everything from household garbage and tires to dirty snow that had accumulated in parking lots. 

Volunteers like Breier are vital to Montreal's urban biodiversity, according to local ecologists who hope the attention from the city hosting COP15 this month will lead to the expansion of more green spaces on its territory — and more citizen involvement in maintaining them.

They want officials around the world to understand the importance of supporting wildlife — not just outside cities, but within them as well. 

"It's essential that urban citizens feel connected to nature," said Roger Jochym, a co-ordinator for Sauvons la Falaise, a group that has been fighting to protect and promote the natural beauty of the escarpment, which is a habitat for birds, foxes, butterflies and a significant population of brown snakes.

"Young people … should be able to walk out of their classroom, walk a couple of blocks and be within nature, within a natural setting, and understand what they're learning in the classroom."

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) listed fragmentation of natural areas as one of the key issues COP15 plans to address. 

In its 2023 budget, released last month, the City of Montreal announced plans to spend $180.9 million on natural infrastructure, including parks and green areas to help absorb rainwater and curb heat retention. 

The city says it also plans to increase the connections between natural areas with a network of "green corridors." Corridors linking green spaces can help wildlife get from one area to the next, improving the biodiversity in each.

Ecologists have observed a decrease in species over the years on Mount Royal, with few options of other green spaces for animals to travel to. 

According to Park People, a national charity that collects data on urban parks across Canada, Montreal has a total of 6,446 hectares of parks and green space. In comparison, Toronto has 8,086 hectares and Vancouver has 1,164.

Mount Royal Park represents 200 hectares and the escarpment is about 33. The city announced Monday it would be expanding the park and restricting vehicle access.

Catherine Houbart, the director general of advocacy organization Groupe de recommandations et d'actions pour un meilleur environnement (GRAME), says that while the city under Mayor Valérie Plante has made strides in protecting and promoting biodiversity, barriers remain between different levels of government.

She said varying public land ownership between levels of government can sometimes present bureaucratic barriers to progress.

Jochym and his group have encountered such a hurdle with Falaise St-Jacques. Quebec's Transport Ministry owns the portion of land at the bottom of the escarpment and created a park and bike path roughly 1.5 kilometres long. 

But in 2018, the ministry removed from its plans the creation of a "green" footbridge crossing the railroad and highway that would have connected the Sud-Ouest, Lachine and Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce boroughs for people — and animals.

"There should be a network of continuity for biodiversity through ecological corridors," Jochym said, noting the bridge could act as a wildlife corridor. 

The ministry has said it would reconsider building the bridge. The group is pushing for it to release a plan and funding.

Julien Poisson, a program director at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), which helps manage and restore public and private lands, said there is little left in Montreal to conserve. So the NCC has focused on areas on either end of the island to allow wildlife connections between the land north and south of it. 

"In Montreal, my message is to protect what's left," Poisson said.

He emphasized that biodiversity "is everything that's alive."

"I tell people that you have to open your eyes. It might be small in the city, but it's all around."

Verity Stevenson

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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