Hawaiian Ethos, one of the two state-licensed, vertically integrated medical cannabis operators on the Big Island of Hawaii, has woven sustainable practices into every aspect of its business model, particularly when it comes to packaging.
Rather than opting for traditional indoor cultivation, Hawaiian Ethos installed translucent panels on the roof of its facility to grow its plants under natural sunlight, Community Relations Coordinator Kea Keolanui tells Cannabis Business Times. The company also uses recycled water throughout its cultivation facility. In addition to reducing the company’s environmental footprint, these initiatives have also helped Hawaiian Ethos cut utility costs, which allows them to invest in sustainable packaging solutions.
“It’s often driven by cost, and out here, especially because of our overall approach to sustainability, we were able to prioritize sustainable packaging,” says Amelia Sandy, the company’s product manager. “It is more expensive, but because we’re not paying giant electricity bills to support our grow, it’s something that we have a little bit more leeway for.”
Almost every one of the company’s products has at least two vendors providing its packaging, Sandy says, which is more costly than other packaging solutions, but prioritizing sustainability was a conscious decision for the Hawaiian Ethos team. “That’s something the industry overall can do better because if we all shift towards sustainable solutions, there will be more available at a lower cost at scale.”
The issue of plastic waste is often magnified in Hawaii, Sandy says, due to its geographical location. “We have ocean waste washing up on our shores every day. Discarded fishing nets are the largest waste item, but also plastic. Microplastic that’s been floating around for decades just keeps washing up here.”
This led the Hawaiian Ethos team to consider how to implement compliant packaging while also minimizing its environmental impact.
All cannabis products in Hawaii must be in compliant packaging before being delivered to the dispensaries. Packaging must be child-resistant, opaque and able to protect the protect against degradation, according to Hawaii’s regulations. Meeting these standards can be challenging in itself without factoring in the sustainability of the packaging.
“For instance, our tincture bottles are solid jars,” Sandy says. “We use cobalt blue glass, but they’re technically a touch transparent, so … we use an outer paper bag. It’s pretty simple, but it helps us meet our opaque requirement and also allows more space for labeling.”
Labeling regulations in Hawaii mandate that products bear black-and-white labels—no color is allowed. To meet this requirement, Hawaiian Ethos applies white compostable, post-consumer recycled paper labels to its unbleached paper bags and cardboard boxes.
Adequately protecting products against degradation is another matter, Sandy adds. “That was the other challenge because you can find a solution, but it has to perform.”
While many of the company’s products are packaged in child-resistant cardboard boxes, Hawaiian Ethos had to find a different solution for flower in order to keep it fresh. The company landed on compostable zipper pouches made with high-barrier materials that have very low oxygen and moisture transmission rates.
“We package flower into those compostable packages with zippers, we heat-seal them, throw them in our cardboard boxes, label those with recycled paper labels, and there we go,” Sandy says. “You need to be able to depend on your packaging because the last thing you want is to invest in a packaging solution and have it fail you. Our products are really precious to us. We pour so much into creating really good medicine, and if we couldn’t depend on [the packaging] to keep our products fresh [and] shelf-stable, or if it didn’t prevent contamination or degradation, we couldn’t move forward with it. The pouches are a really great solution. That’s our direct outer layer for our flower, and they do a great job keeping it fresh. You actually can’t smell anything from the outside, either, so they’re pretty odor-proof, in addition to keeping our flower exactly the way it is when we package it.”
Some of the company’s other items are packaged in glass, she adds, which also protects against product degradation. “We wouldn’t want anything, especially anything that had a high terpene content, to be in contact with plastic just because of potential leaching or degradation concerns.”
Meeting all of these requirements meant vetting and partnering with many different vendors.
“We did have to piecemeal together solutions from several suppliers because … there’s not off-the-shelf fully compliant and sustainable packaging in one go always,” Sandy says. “For example, our flower packaging. There could be child-resistant boxes, but you can’t put flower right in them, or you can find packaging that seals the flower well, but then it’s not child-resistant or it’s not sustainable in other ways that we’re identifying.”
Hawaiian Ethos has identified three main priorities for its compliant and sustainable packaging: compostable materials, recyclable materials and glass.
Since packaging must have a minimal impact on the local environment, the company first identified which recyclable materials are actually recyclable in Hawaii.
“For example, we could offer a plastic weed tube—they’re technically recyclable, but they’re not out here,” Sandy says. “Our county only takes beverage containers that have … the five-cent deposit on it. They take jars, jugs and bottles, [but] only number two plastic. That’s it. They don’t take any other type of plastic out here. So, even though we could have items that are considered recyclable, … there’s no real home for them here on island other than the landfill.”
Therefore, Hawaiian Ethos chooses compostable packaging materials as its first priority, even over recyclable materials, when possible. When it must use recyclable materials, the company analyzes local return rates to decide which materials to use.
“Various materials have different rates of how likely people are to return it back to recycling streams, so that was another lens that we were selecting our packaging through,” Sandy says. “When we could, we stuck with paper and cardboard because those tend to have high return rates. I think 70 percent of cardboard in the world is recycled, whereas plastic is a 7- to10-percent return rate. These are all items that are technically recyclable, but we wanted to look at real-world road testing—what is actually happening with this?”
Glass is Hawaiian Ethos’ third packaging of choice.
“Glass is recyclable, and if it escapes the waste stream and is just thrown outside, turtles aren’t going to eat it, it’s not going to release microplastics into the environment, but it’s heavy, and that increases shipping costs and carbon footprint,” Sandy says. “It’s something we try to use sparingly, but we still try to use it over plastic.”
If a packaging solution is not available in any of the above materials, only then does Hawaiian Ethos turn to plastic.
“Our only plastic items are our child-resistant caps for our glass containers because there isn’t a compostable, compliant solution for those yet,” Sandy says. “We have to triangulate so many factors, and our primary goal is to offer good products to our patients. For instance, tinctures—the standard offering is you have a bottle and then you have a plastic dropper cap, and there really isn’t another way to offer that one.”
Sandy hopes Hawaiian Ethos can set a new industry standard through its practices, and that more cannabis operators across the country will start taking these extra steps toward sustainability. “We’ve shown that you can hold on to your values and deliver on them and make it work, and if the whole industry bands together on this, we can make it accessible to industries in every state."