For the final interview in our series on sustainable packaging in the cannabis industry, Jeff chatted with Melissa Green and Al Mo of MM Green Packaging Solutions (https://www.mmgreenpackagingsolution.com/). Formed in 2016, MM Green Packaging Solutions provides earth-friendly alternatives to single use plastic and mylar bags. They were also the first ever winners of the Emerald Cup Most Eco Conscious Packaging award.
Jeff: I’d like to start by asking you what led you to the sustainable packing industry in cannabis?
Al: We got our start because we’re medical marijuana users and patronizers. We looked at some of the packaging that’s been on the market and there’s so much plastic that we felt there’s got to be an alternative to this. So, that’s what we’ve dedicated ourselves to.
Melissa: Especially living here in Santa Cruz and being around the legacy cannabis industry, it’s absolutely, to us, hypocritical to put this lovingly cared for, organically grown plant into a mylar bag or a plastic container. We just felt that that didn’t make sense. So, we spent the last six years or so inventing, and patenting and out trying different methods to try to package various products without using any plastic at all.
Jeff: Can you please tell me what materials you are using if you’re not using plastic and mylar.
Melissa: Recycled paper.
Melissa: We’re starting to embark on…we’re always looking at new materials, and we won’t use anything unless we’ve had it vetted by agencies like The Plastic Pollution Coalition and Plastic Now and Save Our Shores. We want to make sure everything we work with is ocean safe and won’t break down into microplastics. That’s very important to us. So we work with materials that are marine safe only.
Jeff: So if you’re using paper, don’t the walls of the packaging have to have a certain thickness to them?
Al: It depends. We like to use a glassine paper liner for freshness. That’s our vapor and our oil barrier. Glassine paper is very commonly used in bakeries and delis and in food service. It’s been around a long time. There’s no chemicals added to it. It’s just how the paper is processed. It’s rolled and rolled and rolled so that the fibers are lining up, and it creates a very dense surface.
Jeff: How easily would you say that the material breakdown?
Al: Very quickly because there’s nothing added to it. It’s just paper.
Melissa: It’s like when you go to the bakery and they hand you a donut. It’s similar but not as waxy. But everything that we manufacture breaks down and just disintegrates in water or in the garbage or in a landfill. It will never be toxic to the earth at all.
Jeff: So it sounds like your packaging is single-use in design and not multi-use.
Melissa: I will say that we do have…our whole objective is to recycle and reuse. So yes, you can reuse our MM Green canister, the one that won the Emerald Cup, that’s reusable. Not in the cannabis industry because of all the rules around bringing back a package, but you could use it for other things. And our pre-rolls can be used over and over and over again.
Jeff: How do you get around using plastic when the majority of manufacturers use plastic because of the child resistant requirements?
Al: How we get around that is the two primary closures we look at require a tool to open like a key or a spoon. That’s the only way to get around it otherwise it’s very difficult to use paper and come up with a closure that is child resistant.
Melissa: The material that we use for the closure in one of our certified packages is a tin closure like a cocoa can. And what Al is referring to is that you need a spoon to pry open the top. A child can not do it. We’ve had it certified. We try to go old school in some of our materials and thoughts, and we avoid bioplastics at all costs.
Jeff: Thank you for making the comment about the cacao tin. I do a lot of baking so that immediately puts in mind what you have to do. At first I was thinking about the old soda pop tops, you know, Jimmy Buffet, “I stepped on a pop top”.
Al: Yeah, it’s just like the old cocoa tin.
Jeff: What kind of hurdles did you find along the way?
Melissa: Oooh. Let me answer that. When we started the company our first package was made out of recycled Amazon boxes. It was a really, really cool container to hold an eighth of flower. But because in our industry it takes a long time to get prototype tools made… to create something that’s never been created before takes a long time and honestly, by the time we got it out, Prop 64 came and changed the entire climate out here in California. We had to start back at the drawing board again. We’ve been kind of cut off at the knees before because of regulations. Luckly, we’re creative enough to be able to dance around some of that and come up with some more ideas. It has made us more resilient.
Jeff: What percentage of your business would you say are cannabis clients?
Melissa: 60% and about 40% hemp.
Jeff: That leads me to my next question. Do you ever plan on using hemp in any of your packaging?
Jeff: What would it take to get you to start doing that? Is it that the technology isn’t there yet?
Al: In the paper world, hemp is just getting started. It’s available now. It’s a little more expensive but not radically more expensive. It’s just availability. Right now we are in a post Covid situation where a lot of raw materials are…the supply is kind of hit or miss. Not as quite as reliable as it might normally be, but we’re expecting that within the next six months to twelve months it will probably smooth out.
Melissa: I just want to add to that when you talk about hemp, alot of people feel very strongly that hemp bioplastic is going to save the world. But let me just clarify that any kind of bioplastic is plastic. It would be great to use that hemp bioplastic in materials that are used for non-single use things. Like a bumper for a car, a park bench, Trex decking, kids toys like Legos. Those are all wonderful ideas for this hemp bioplastic. But to make a package out of it, what happens is that it doesn’t really ever go away. It needs to be recycled in a special facility of which there are very few. So it ends up going into the recycling stream , clogging up the conveyor belts, stopping the line, causing a lot of time and loss of money. And it ends up in the landfills or the ocean anyway breaking down into microplastic. So, we are doing everything we can to work with hemp in a polyresin format instead of a plastic format. So, that’s a starch based component added to the hemp fibers vs. polymers and all that other stuff that make it a plastic.
Jeff: So what kind of problems do you see with existing cannabis packaging on the market? Even with the ones that are claiming sustainability.
Melissa: That’s a great question. Let’s talk about greenwashing.
Al: There’s a lot of claims being made, but when you really start asking the hard questions to verify, then the answers are fewer and farther between. A lot of people say their degradation studies are still in progress and this and that, so for us, I’m not ready to jump in if they haven’t done that.
Jeff: What about from a design standpoint?
Al: I’m not sure…
Jeff: For example, I spoke with someone from Sana Packaging and they use 100% plant based plastics and reclaimed ocean plastics. But as you said, plastic is plastic.
Melissa: But the thing with what they are doing, and people like them, there’s a lot of people trying to do that, there’s so much to be done, anybody who’s doing anything good is helping. We however feel that if it is a bioplastic, It starts with a plant based vs. petroleum based, but it still ends up like plastic. It still will need industrial composting. It will still make microplastics in the ocean and the land. It starts out great but it doesn’t end up so great, and what MM Green is all about is how it ends up. So we stay away from any bioplastic at all and ocean reclaimed plastic as well.
Jeff: So, how would you describe the differences between being biodegradable and being compostable?
Al: That’s a great question.
Melissa: There’s mixed feelings about that depending on whom you speak with. That’s a really great question that’s waiting for a simpler answer.
Jeff: Do you have an elevator pitch answer?
Melissa: No. Because I keep reading things and I’m still deciding my point of view.
Al: It depends on whoever is defining biodegradable, what’s compostable and those terms. They become vague depending on how you want to define them.
Jeff: Well, then let’s talk about it in terms of your packaging. How would you describe your packaging?
Al: So paper will break down. If that gets left in a natural environment, then paper will just break down. So will tin.
Jeff: Now is that biodegradable or compostable?
Al: So it’s biodegradable. Compostable, I guess you might want to put a time frame on it. It depends on where you want to go with it.
Melissa: Home compostable. Industrial compostable. And that’s the problem. The plastic industry has made all these words very confusing. There’s litigation happening right now where an agency out of California is suing Coca-Cola for greenwashing. No one knows what anything really means. No one knows how their decision to buy or to dispose of a product, where it really is going to go.
Jeff: So what’s driving the consistent use of plastic in cannabis packaging besides the child resistant requirements?
Al: Money and planning.
Jeff: Money and planning. Would you care to expand on that a little bit?
Al: I will. The money part comes in, you buy a mylar bag for pennies. You can’t get anything in paper that’s going to be really really heads up, price competitive with a mylar bag.
Jeff: Is mylar recyclable or compostable?
Al: It’s one of the worst materials on the market right now.
Jeff: But its gotta be one of the cheapest, though.
Melissa: Exactly. Petroleum is so cheap.
Jeff: Does it have any special qualities to it as far as odor trapping abilities or freshness?
Al: Absolutely. It’s common sense. Mylar is probably as good as glass for odor containment, moisture containment. But you’re also going to have some sort of chemical involvement there as well.
Melissa: It’s like we don’t heat our food up in the plastic containers. Why would you want to put your certified cannabis in a plastic container that is going to have chemical output into your weed. Especially after you’ve gotten it tested so stringently.
Jeff: Well, I know lots of people who heat their leftovers up in the plastic containers they put in the fridge the night before. Myself included.
Melissa: I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re aware that it leaches into the food, we are aware that plastic is affecting us all. There’s no one in the world that does not have plastic in their blood right now. It’s in every organism. Our whole feeling is that unless we do something…In a way, we’re doing this for selfish purposes. We really believe in cannabis, and we really believe in the oceans, and love what they both provide. I feel very strongly that unless somebody gets up there and makes the change no one is going to do anything.
Jeff: So, your packaging. It’s paper and tin and that’s it.
Melissa: Yup. We’ve worked with other materials and we’ve patented a vape cart made out of bagasse.
Jeff: What’s bagasse?
Al: It’s a molded sugar cane fiber.
Melissa: We work with hemp, seeded hemp paper. We’re a bespoke manufacturer. Really what we do is creatively solve packaging solutions per their location, per their volume, what they’re trying to do. We don’t warehouse inventory or stock anything. Everything we do is made to order. So, we like to work with unique things. We like to be creative. People don’t give themselves enough time in the planning process. They’re just so used to ordering 5 cases of green doob tubes and getting them shipped the next day.
Jeff: If you had to list the pros to your packaging, what would they be?
Al: It’s not going to last forever. It’s going to go away.
Melissa: If you compare our canisters to a glass jar, they are significantly lighter. So you save a lot of money shipping them. You can get more into your delivery load. They don’t break. They’re reusable.
Al: We can print the exterior of the package so you can eliminate labeling, and other extra handling steps.
Melissa: We can brand them directly. We can custom size them. The same with any of our pre-rolls. Anything we make, we can customize very easily without needing to add a label.