The cannabis industry generates tons of extra waste. Here’s why

Published on November 4, 2019 · Last updated November 16, 2020

Like any agricultural industry, cannabis generates a fair amount of solid waste. And like other retail industries, cannabis creates packaging materials that end up in landfills. But because of the uniquely strict regulations attached to cannabis, the industry ends up producing far more waste than comparative industries.

Overly strict regulations create millions of pounds of extra waste.

Start with the “green waste” that comes from growing operations: cannabis stalks and roots, trimmed materials, along with contaminated, spoiled or damaged plants. Add in the solvents used to make cannabis extracts. Consider the tons of plastic child-resistant packaging needed for those finished cannabis products and for sale-ready cannabis flower.

It adds up. The tonnage is significant.

Several years ago The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative newspaper, reported that Washington state created 1.7 million pounds in cannabis plant waste between 2014 and 2017. Given that Washington’s legal cannabis industry has grown by more than 50% since 2017, the tonnage of solid cannabis waste has likely increased.

Treat it like a hazard, but reduce it

Some states are working to come to grips with the issue.

California, which is expected to account for nearly one-fourth of all cannabis sales growth in the US by 2024, has three different state agencies with their own sets of regulations and their own cannabis waste management requirements. Those regs, which tend to increase the amount of waste, clash with Senate Bill 1383, passed by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, which requires the state to reduce organic waste by 50% (from its 2014 levels) by 2020, and by 75% by 2025.

Massachusetts has issued guidance to that state’s cannabis companies on waste management requirements, as have Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.

Rule: Mix waste with more waste

Mixed waste rules can double the trash.

Environmental officials in Colorado don’t have numbers yet regarding the amount of solid cannabis waste generated each year in the state, but they estimate that cannabis plant waste is the largest issue.

'Colorado has a 50-50 mixed waste rule. All marijuana waste has to be mixed with 50% non-marijuana waste before it exits the grow facility.'

“We have a 50-50 mixed waste rule, meaning that all marijuana waste has to be mixed with 50% non-marijuana waste before it exits the [cannabis] facility to be disposed of,” says Kaitlin Urso, environmental consultant with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

That rule, Urso explains, is meant to keep marijuana waste, which could contain some THC, from being diverted to the illegal market. But it creates challenges for cannabis companies.

“It makes composting a little less accessible for some businesses,” she says, “because if they want to compost they have to come up with 50% organic waste that’s non-marijuana waste. And that’s kind of hard to do unless they have a partnership.”

Some Colorado cannabis businesses try to create their own 50-50 mix by adding shredded cardboard or even Rockwool—a grow medium made from volcanic rock—to their cannabis green waste.

Make it ‘unrecognizable’

The 50-50 waste rule also adds a new layer of complexity and expense for Colorado cannabis companies.

“In the city of Denver you have to have your cannabis waste product rendered ‘unusable and unrecognizable,’” says Amy Andrle, owner of L’Eagle Services, a licensed adult-use cannabis company that operates several grow facilities and retail stores in the Denver area. “We keep compostable waste in a secure facility and under camera until we turn it over to the waste management truck. And then it’s mixed in there in the large truck.”

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Composting can be quite costly, says Andrle, since businesses are charged by weight.

“That’s a real challenge because it costs more,” she tells Leafly. “It costs more to do the right thing, across the board.”

Competitive recycling

America’s multi-billion-dollar waste management industry has taken notice of the cannabis sector’s solid waste issues.

According to waste management industry experts, organic matter from cannabis production can be disposed of via four different methods: incineration, landfill, composting and anaerobic digestion. That last method takes place when microorganisms break down biodegradable materials, like cannabis green waste, in the absence of oxygen. That process creates methane, a gas that can be used for fuel, C02 and other byproducts.

GFL Environmental, an environmental services company, says its waste management division in Colorado currently has 123 cannabis industry accounts.

“Proportionately, it is a minor amount, but the dispensaries and grow facilities are important to us,” a company spokesperson said in an email to Leafly. “We have even set up a separate ‘marijuana’ code in our database to track the amount of recycling and composting that our cannabis clients are doing [as a percentage of waste], because some of those customers like to know how successfully they are recycling in comparison to their industry rivals.”

Colorado’s new take-back program

There are small signs of progress. The cannabis industry is looking to reduce its solid waste streams and make its businesses more sustainable.

Starting in January 2020, Colorado plans to open a take-back program for cannabis packaging, vape cartridges and other plastics that go out the door with customers. According to Kaitlin Urso, the voluntary program will allow dispensaries to sterilize and re-label that waste so that it can be used again.

Urso says the idea for the program came from Colorado cannabis businesses themselves, who are helping the state’s cannabis regulations evolve.

Back in 2014, the first year of legal adult-use sales in Colorado, she says, “there was a lot of fear and a lot of unknowns. So I think the caution was, when all of the regulations were put out, it all focused on safety and security and reducing diversion to the black market. Environmental concerns weren’t really thought of at that moment.”

But now, she says, “now that we have a legal market and we’re five years in, we have good compliance rates, we’ve got a good handle on the market. It’s really a great time for dispensaries to start giving us feedback about what they feel what regulations need to happen, to make a more logical compliance environment.”

Canada trying to cut down

Cannabis industry waste management has become an international issue.

In Canada, which just celebrated the first anniversary of national cannabis legalization, is calling on the country’s cannabis sector to help cut back on the amount of solid waste created by cannabis products.

“To help reduce the amount of waste created by cannabis product packaging, the Regulations permit wrappers and peel back-type labels as well as flexibility for packaging materials other than plastics (e.g., cardboard),” the Canadian federal government recently noted on its web site.

“Health Canada encourages the use of innovative and environmentally sound packaging approaches, provided the requirements in the Regulations are satisfied.”

Consumers can recycle

Consumers can also do their part when it comes to recycling cannabis packaging.

“They need to educate themselves on what is recyclable and what isn’t,” says Urso.

As for the industry itself, “the best thing it can do is be open to learning,” she adds. “Sometimes there’s an industry knee-jerk reaction [to feel like] they’re getting picked on. It’s an emerging market, so it needs to be open to solutions.”

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Bruce Kennedy
Bruce Kennedy
Bruce Kennedy is an award-winning reporter, editor, and producer based in Colorado. He has covered the legal cannabis industry since 2010.
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