Mika Unterman of Apical Ethical Cannabis Collective is working towards a sustainable solution for cannabis packaging that offers cost savings and convenience for Canada’s cannabis retailers and LPs.
The Masterpack is the first reusable packaging product that has emerged for the cannabis industry and is currently undergoing its pilot within the GTA and surrounding area in Ontario.
Beyond Recycling and Upcycling
“From the beginning, I’ve wanted to reduce waste, which means ensuring things do not become waste. Not recycling, or upcycling,” says Unterman, explaining that recycling programs and repurposing items are effective methods toward environmental sustainability, but not creating any waste at all creates more impact.
A graduate of the University of Toronto’s Corporate Social Responsibility program, and a pioneer of the circular economy in cannabis, Unterman looked for an in-road to an environmentally sustainable solution to cannabis product packaging.
After recognizing that tackling the issue of rigid plastics as a whole would be difficult due to food-grade and child-resistance regulations, Unterman reached out to the company Friendlier. That company offers reusable B2B packaging for food services and grocery, among other industries. “Collection is the driver of cost,” says Unterman. “What if we tackle the B2B packaging, which is not federally regulated and relatively low cost?”
Trying a Few Different Approaches
Apical first started by collecting and returning boxes that would be sent to the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) containing products from a select group of seven top-selling LPs before shifting strategies. “We went from an LP-focused approach to a retailer-focused approach,” explains Unterman. The program collects all cardboard from retailers in Toronto, North York, Kitchener/Waterloo, Guelph, and Hamilton, where brand-specific cardboard is returned to participating LPs or sold to companies outside the industry for reuse.
Apical is selling convenience to retailers as a way to achieve environmental sustainability. “Retailers are seeing the amount of waste in their store and saying ‘This is bad!’ but they don’t know what to do with it,” says Unterman, “I sell convenience, then value, then the cherry on top is sustainability, [but] sustainability doesn’t sell.”
From what was learned during the pilot, the Masterpack program will likely shift to a ‘Product as a Service’ business model. “It’s like how we’d buy MS Word, now we pay for subscriptions to Office 365,” Unterman explains. “Instead of buying your packaging, you rent the packaging.” This model, which will still do the collection from retailers, encourages LPs to subscribe to reusable packaging rather than buy new or “virgin” cardboard B2B packaging.
Importance of Industry Collaboration
In addition to Apical’s plans to expand the Masterpack program through the revised Product as a Service model, Unterman is also applying for a grant for a pilot project from the Province of British Columbia to address the packaging for the products consumers buy. Apical is undertaking this initiative alongside Ethical Growth Consulting, which focuses on social responsibility and impact marketing, headed by long-time cannabis advocate Owen Smith.
“Ultimately, what this is going to require is collaboration throughout the supply chain; where cannabis has really failed as a sector,” says Unterman. “[There’s] a lot of ego, and ‘I’m the best’ and little room for humility and collaboration. In order for a circular economy or a reuse economy to work, I have to have everyone come to the table saying, ‘I want this, and it is valuable to me.’ Collecting everything and sorting everything together is how we achieve economies of scale.”
From Apathy to Action for a Habitable Planet
Unterman recognizes that the Masterpack program is a big ask for retailers when managing their waste. “I’m asking them to change their behaviour a little bit,” Unterman says, explaining that certain habits like not cutting off the flaps of boxes need to be observed to make these programs work, “We all need to take a certain amount of responsibility for our behaviour. Changing routines is hard. All the worthwhile things are hard. They’re going to suck, but then you build routine dedication and focus. You become accustomed, and then you work around it.”
Despite the discomfort of changing processes, Unterman encourages everyone within the cannabis supply to consider their role in environmental sustainability. “There’s a degree of selfishness and apathy. We all need to look internally within to change,” urges Unterman, “If we want a collective goal to make planet Earth a habitable place, we all gotta work together.”