As cannabis becomes legal across the United States, cannabis businesses must figure out how to handle both the product itself and its waste. Because of the chemical nature of cannabis, the waste is not like other byproducts and must be addressed accordingly with a cannabis waste management plan.
Since disposing of this waste is a relatively new phenomenon, and because more states are legalizing marijuana, we examined how cannabis waste should be handled. So, whether you're currently working with cannabis growers and producers or plan to in the future, here's everything you need to know about cannabis waste disposal.
What is Cannabis Waste?
Cannabis waste is any product or byproduct of cannabis production that is not deemed hazardous. If the waste is hazardous (i.e., it contains chemical(s), radioactive, or biologically harmful compounds), it has to be disposed of differently.
Everything that comes into contact with cannabis can be counted as waste, including (but not limited to):
- Growing Materials - Examples can include dirt, sponges, and items used for cultivation.
- Excess Cannabis Material - This material can include trimmings and unused plant sections (i.e., the roots). Any unused marijuana is also considered organic waste.
- Unused or Expired Cannabis Products - These products can include CBD, and they can be liquids, tinctures, oils, extracts, and other cannabis-infused items.
- Unused Cannabis Paraphernalia - Grinders, vape pens, containers, capsules, or packaging that has touched or been used for cannabis storage and processing.
For these items to be listed as waste, manufacturers must make these items unusable and unrecognizable. This tasks businesses with determining how to destroy cannabis-related products and packaging. For example, a glass CBD container may be crushed so that the contents nor label are recognizable.
The primary reason for this regulation is that lawmakers are worried that improper disposal could result in secondary and black-market cultivation. For example, let's say that a marijuana farm tossed its leftover hemp and cannabis in a dumpster. Thieves could remove the materials and resell them as cannabis to unsuspecting buyers, or they could try to use the materials themselves.
How Do Companies Dispose of Cannabis Waste?
There are four different ways that cannabis operations can go about disposing of grow room waste - in a permitted landfill, composting, in-vessel digestion, or incineration.
Permitted Landfill Waste
Growers and cannabis processing companies must find a landfill that accepts marijuana waste. Landfills follow a class system depending on the amount of refuse they take per day (i.e., 20 tons or more). If the landfill does accept cannabis waste, that means that they have systems in place to prevent theft or misuse.
Here is where the requirement to make this waste "unusable and unrecognizable" comes into play. If companies dispose of their cannabis waste this way, no one will be able to use it or know what it is.
For businesses that want to limit their waste footprint, composting offers a simple and eco-friendly solution. In many cases, growers can recycle their cannabis byproducts to grow more plants. This process provides two benefits:
- First, companies can avoid potentially costly disposal practices, such as rendering the waste inert with secondary products like cat litter or sand.
- Second, the compost offers nutrient-rich soil, saving time and money for growers to find the right dirt for the next batch of marijuana.
- There are recycling programs that help compost the waste generated from cannabis cultivation. Consider searching online for local recycling centers that allow for proper disposal. Try searches such as "dispensary recycling near me", "cannabis waste disposal near me", or "cannabis composting near me".
In this case, a company can use a digester system to break down the cannabis waste to become unusable and unrecognizable. This option only works for organic cannabis byproducts, such as soil and leftover plant parts. The digester uses bacteria and other biological elements to digest the cannabis waste. Afterward, the remaining substance can be reused as compost or disposed of regularly since it no longer contains actual cannabis.
As with the landfill option, companies must work with a permitted in-vessel digestion center. Alternatively, the business may be able to obtain their own digester, but they need to get permission for it first.
The fastest and most cost-effective way to dispose of cannabis waste is to burn it. However, manufacturers can't just toss some gasoline on a waste pile and light it with a match. Instead, they have to work with a licensed incineration company or use a specialized incinerator. Cannabis waste incinerators have two burn chambers to destroy all of the waste. Since burning marijuana can potentially create a biohazard effect (similar to lighting a joint), these machines have to isolate and burn off any remaining THC or CBD. The final result is black ash, which can be disposed of normally.
Challenges That Come from Cannabis Waste
Although the four methods we listed above are relatively straightforward, companies still have to overcome various challenges when disposing of this waste, such as:
- Shifting Regulations - If a cannabis producer operates in multiple states, they have to follow different regulations in each location. Since there are no federal guidelines on how to handle this waste, states, cities, and counties have their own rules. Plus, as legalization expands, these laws are bound to change as scientists can start to study the effects of cannabis waste on the environment.
- Ecological Concerns - Although cannabis is a natural product, it can create hazardous waste. Cultivating and refining the plant can generate various byproducts, not all of which are compostable or recyclable. New research illustrates the various environmental problems that come from a growing marijuana industry, and solutions to managing this waste are not readily available yet.
- Waste Transportation - Since cannabis waste is heavily regulated, companies have to pay close attention to how they can ship it, even if they're staying local. Trucks and drivers have to be licensed and permitted, which takes time and resources.
Opportunities for Cannabis Waste
Fortunately, because most cannabis waste is organic, it can often be reused. Here are a few ways that the cannabis industry can process this waste and potentially make money from it.
- Compost - As we mentioned, composting this waste can help growers and cultivators save money on new soil and waste-mitigation strategies. If a company produces too much waste, it can potentially sell the excess to a farm or other organization that can repurpose it as fertilizer.
- Animal Bedding - Hemp, the non-THC-laden version of cannabis, can be used for a wide array of products and materials. One way that growers can recycle their waste is to use the stalks as animal bedding. From there, they can sell the bedding to pet stores or commercial farms, and other animal operations.
- Construction Material - Modern construction practices are trying to utilize as many "green" materials as possible. Some companies are looking into how they can use compacted cannabis waste as construction material for houses and other buildings. While this technique is still in its early stages, it does show some significant potential.
Best Practices for Cannabis Waste Disposal
Because there are no federal guidelines regarding cannabis waste disposal, companies and local governments have to develop their own best practices. Here are some potential ways to ensure that you dispose of this waste safely and efficiently.
Have the Right Cannabis Disposal PPE
Personal protective equipment is necessary for all workers, regardless of the industry. As a rule, cannabis waste disposal does not require highly specialized gear, but that depends on the specific circumstances and practices of a particular company. Some necessary PPE for disposal might include:
- Gloves - Some cannabis waste may contain toxic elements that should not contact the skin directly.
- Coveralls and Boots - Workers may need to avoid the potential mess of handling this waste that can contain chemicals or other additives. Ensuring the skin is covered with a coverall helps decrease the risk of exposure to these materials. Some organic materials might also have an off-putting smell, so employees likely won't want to contaminate their own clothes.
- Ear Protection - Machines that grind and process the waste can be loud, leading to potential hearing damage and loss.
- Eye Goggles - During the grinding process, tiny bits of cannabis can fly out of the machine, creating an eye hazard.
- Breathing Apparatus or Face Mask - This type of PPE is mostly necessary for incineration to prevent smoke inhalation and irritation.
Know Local Regulations
As a business, you can't afford to get shut down and/or pay hefty fines. Knowing and understanding the local regulations surrounding cannabis waste disposal ensures that you can always stay compliant. Supervisors and workers should also be aware of these laws so that they can follow them to ensure personal safety, public safety, and environmental safety.
Use Organic Materials to Render Waste Unusable
Unfortunately, there are no regulations about how a company can or should render cannabis waste "unusable and unrecognizable." So, businesses can use harsh chemicals like bleach to make the waste unusable. Ideally, you should blend the waste with organic materials like cat litter or sand. This way, you can still potentially recycle the debris afterward.
Safely Handle Cannabis Waste with PPE
As the cannabis industry changes, your business needs to stay up to date with new laws and regulations. When it comes to cannabis PPE, trust International Enviroguard to provide high-quality materials for your employees.