Much like most of the agricultural industry, cannabis production generates a fair amount of solid waste. The packaging materials used for cannabis products have the same fate as most retail waste, they end up in landfills. The cannabis industry actually produces more waste in comparison to other industries because of the unique strict regulations attached to cannabis retailing. The strict regulations foster the creation of millions of pounds of extra waste.
There is a lot of what is known as “green waste” that comes from cannabis growing operations. This green waste includes damaged, contaminated or spoiled plants as well as cannabis roots and stalks and all the trimmed materials. Cannabis production also creates waste in the form of solvents that are used to make cannabis extract products. In addition, there are tons of plastic child-proof packaging that is necessary for the finished cannabis products as well as sale-ready cannabis flowers. the combination of all the different types of waste builds up to have a significant impact on the environment. Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger, reported that Washington state alone created about 1.7 million pounds worth of cannabis plant waste between the years 2014 and 2017. Since then Washington’s legal cannabis industry has grown exponentially by more than 50%, this has implications for the increase in solid cannabis waste.
Treat the waste like a hazard, but reduce it
Some states such as California are working on reducing the waste problem. In 2016 then-Governor Jerry Brown passed a bill that requires the state to reduce its overall organic waste by 50% by the year 2020, and further reduce it by 75% by the year 2025.
California is predicted to account for almost one-fourth of all cannabis sales growth in the US by 2024. The state has three separate state agencies, each with their own sets of regulations and their unique own cannabis waste management requirements. Massachusetts has issued useful guidance to California’s cannabis companies on waste management best practice as have Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
The mixed waste with more waste rule
As you may know, mixed waste rules can actually double the amount of trash.
Environmental officials working in the state of Colorado do not yet have numbers about the amount of solid cannabis waste that the state generates each year. It is estimated that cannabis plant waste is the most issue in the state.
Kaitlin Urso who is an environmental consultant with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says noted that Colorado has a 50-50 mixed waste rule, this effectively means that all marijuana waste from that state has to be mixed with 50% non-marijuana waste. This mix just before it leaves the marijuana facility to be disposed of. The 50-50 mixed waste rule is intended to keep weed waste, from being diverted and finding its way onto the illegal market. The rule creates a host of challenges for companies in the cannabis industry.
Urso adds that this rule makes composting less accessible for some businesses because if the companies wish to compost the waste they must come up with the 50% organic waste that is not marijuana waste. Coming up with organic waste can be quite difficult unless they have a partnership with another company
Some cannabis businesses in Colorado try to create their own 50-50 mix by adding shredded cardboard to their green cannabis waste.
Make it ‘unrecognizable’
In addition to the above problems, the 50-50 waste rule actually adds a new layer of expense and complexity and for cannabis companies in Colorado.
Amy Andrle, who owns L’Eagle Services (a licensed adult-use cannabis company that operates several retail stores and grow facilities Denver) says that in the city of Denver you need to have your cannabis waste product rendered ‘unusable and unrecognizable. The compostable waste is kept in a secure facility where it is monitored by a camera until it is turned over to the waste management truck. From that point, in the truck, it mixed in.
Andrle adds that composting can be quite expensive because businesses are charged by weight for composting. That poses a serious challenge because it costs significantly more. In fact, across the board, it costs more to do what is right.
The issue of competitive recycling
The cannabis sector’s solid waste problems have not gone unnoticed by the multi-billion-dollar waste management industry. Waste management industry experts state that organic matter from the cannabis industry can be disposed of through four different methods: anaerobic digestion, composting incineration and landfills. The anaerobic digestion method takes place when microorganisms break down biodegradable materials, such as green waste, in the absence of oxygen. The anaerobic digestion process then creates methane, a gas that can be used for C02, fuel and other byproducts.
An environmental services company known as GFL Environmental, claims that its Colorado waste management division currently services 123 cannabis industry accounts. When you look at the proportions, this is a minor amount. The marijuana dispensaries and grow facilities are important to the state. A company spokesperson remarked that they have gone to the extent of setting up a separate cannabis code in their database. The code exists to help them track, as a percentage, the amount of composting and recycling that their marijuana clients are doing. The code is beneficial to some of their customers who like to know how successful they are recycling as compared to their industry rivals.
The take-back program in Colorado
There are some small yet significant signs of progress regarding this issue. The cannabis industry is embarking on steps to reduce its solid waste streams thereby making the businesses much more sustainable. From January 2020, Colorado will open a take-back program specifically for cannabis packaging, vape cartridges and other plastic materials that are taken out the door by customers. Kaitlin Urso says that this is a voluntary program to allow dispensaries to sterilize and then re-label the waste in order for it to be reused. The program is actually the brainchild of Colorado cannabis businesses. They suggested the idea in order to help in evolving the state’s cannabis waste regulations.
During the first year of legal adult-use sales in Colorado, Urso notes that there was a lot of fear and unknown factors. When all of the regulations were set out, they all focused on security and safety and of course reducing diversion to the black market. Environmental concerns were not taken into consideration as a priority at the time. She adds that now that they have an established legal market and they are five years in, they have achieved good compliance rates. Now that they have a good handle on the market, it is an opportune time for cannabis dispensaries to begin sharing feedback about what they feel in terms of what regulations need to be implemented to create an effective compliance environment.
Canada’s efforts to cut down
In Canada, there are concerted efforts to cut back on the quantity of solid waste generated by the cannabis sector. To aid in the reduction of the amount of waste created by cannabis product packaging, Canadian Regulations permit peel back-type labels and wrappers. There is also room for flexibility in terms of packaging materials other than plastics (cardboard for example). Health Canada does a good job of encouraging the use of innovative and environmentally sound packaging materials. This is dependent on the other requirements in the Regulations being satisfied. This is part of a statement on the Canadian federal government’s official website.
Consumers can do the recycling
Consumers have the option of doing their part in terms of recycling cannabis packaging.
Urso says that consumers ought to educate themselves on what is recyclable and what can be reused.
Referring to the industry itself Urso notes that the best thing the industry can do is be open to continued learning. Like with most businesses, the cannabis industry tends to have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to waste management. Cannabis is still an emerging market, for this reason, it ought to be open to exploring different solutions.