As more states in the US legalize marijuana for recreational and medicinal use (more than half of the country now allows its medicinal use), it has created a special source of product and packaging waste for solid waste operators to manage.
“We recognize that because of the stigma around cannabis, we need to be in the front of all of this and think it through,” says Amy Andrle, who with her husband John owns L’Eagle, a 20,000-square-foot cultivation facility and dispensary in Denver, CO, that has been operational since 2010.
“Like any agri-business, the cannabis industry generates waste and can benefit from the adoption of sustainable waste management practices,” she adds.
Andrle has worked closely with the Colorado Association for Recycling (CAFR) to have discussions about cannabis waste and take some solutions to the regulators.
“We want to render this product unusable and unrecognizable and there are ways we suggest to do it that are also environmentally-friendly and will encourage more cultivation facilities to compost,” she says.
To date, 30 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form either medicinally or recreationally.
Colorado—where voters approved its medical use in 2000 and its recreational use in 2012—has long had experience in dealing with cannabis waste issues.
Since opening her business, Andrle sought to mitigate concerns about how much waste is created and what could be recycled.
“It’s part of the ethics and responsibility on the part of the business you’re running. Do we have a responsible solid waste program and recycling program? The question is how much we can divert away from the landfill, particularly when we’re growing in a natural medium,” says Andrle, noting that there are components associated with growing a plant that can be composted.
Andrle points out that part of running a responsible cannabis industry is in a tracking process called “seed to sale.”
The terminology describes the timeline from product cultivation to when it gets into consumers’ hands and is not diverted onto the black market, she adds.
“When we cut down a harvest, we’re chopping the stems. They don’t come with radio frequency ID tags that the state mandates, so we have to track that we weigh the plant before we harvest it and cut all of the flowers off of it and then we weigh the plant afterward so that number that we are left with is considered waste,” says Andrle.
“We need to be able to substantiate that waste has been rendered unusable and unrecognizable so that someone couldn’t jump into our Dumpster and take a bunch of product and do maliciously bad things with it. We need to regulate that. “
Part of that entails a thorough mulching process in which the plant waste is mixed with another medium before it can be composted.
Andrle notes that sustainability reaps business benefits, such as being cost-effective.
“We’re growing plants in a soil or soil-less media,” points out Andrle. “It’s something that can be very easily composted. Where is the hesitation to do this more? Why can’t we take better advantage of it?
“We realized it was in part the regulation and we all support the idea—we don’t want there not to be any diversion from the landfill—but diversion in the sense of cannabis, meaning that somebody is going to take our waste and try to reuse it.”
One way of meeting expectations that the cannabis product is unrecognizable and unusable is by mulching or mixing it with other approved products such as sand so an individual could not retrieve it from the trash.
“Much of the cannabis industry has evolved to try to use as much as possible,” she notes. “The flower is sold in the shop as a flower. Everything else on that plant is now being processed, being sent through a solvent or CO2 extraction until you are left with a product that has all of the active ingredients taken out of it. Every time it’s been processed, there is less and less of the product left and you just have to deal with composting the remainder.”
L’Eagle uses solvent-less extraction processes in keeping with its organic best practices.
A key way of addressing cannabis waste is through fermentation, notes Ren Gobris. He operates Cannabis Regulatory Solutions, an approved Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) Responsible Vendor Program training provider.
Company services include dispensary and cultivator training, online record-keeping, auditing and consulting, and green waste recycling.
As for the latter, Gobris is a strong advocate for the use of bokashi fermentation.
Bokashi fermentation is a practice that diverts marijuana waste from waste disposal facilities and, through an anaerobic process, repurposes it into probiotic teas and soil conditioning metabolites for the benefit of future grow operations.
Gobris calls bokashi fermentation the “most environmentally-sound way to dispose of organic waste today. It’s done in sealed containers and therefore does not have the greenhouse gas and groundwater leachate issues associated with composting. The odors and windblown debris associated with composting is completely eliminated.”
According to Gobris, Colorado has approximately 1,400 licensed marijuana cultivation facilities that annually dispose of an estimated 60,000 tons of marijuana wastes—including leaves, stems, root balls, and soil—into the state’s landfills, anaerobic digesters, and composting facilities, with the latter two serving as significant sources of biogas.
“The [cannabis] industry uses a lot of water, a lot of electricity, and generates a lot of waste,” notes Gobris. “We can do better. At the end of the day, this is good for the environment if growers use it and we replace our petrochemical-based nutrients.”
Bokashi probiotic teas are normally diluted with water to a ratio of 50:1 prior to application, says Gobris.
“The teas reduce the demand for chemical nutrients, most of which are harmful to the environment,” he adds. “The use of bokashi bio pulp helps to improve water retention in the soil. Bokashi byproducts greatly improve the soil’s natural carbon sequestration capabilities.”
Bokashi fermentation is well-suited for small outdoor operations in warm climates with long growing seasons, says Gobris. “Fermentation is done onsite and the byproducts are tilled directly into the ground.
“Most indoor facilities don’t have the need for the large amount of organic material they generate,” he adds. “Even small outdoor operations will quickly produce more organic waste and waste byproducts than they can use. To industrialize the process and make bokashi fermentation more mainstream, there is a need for dedicated bokashi fermentation facilities and continuous educational outreach to create a wider pool of end-use markets.”
Many people involved in the cannabis industry are concerned about where their waste is going and how it’s treated “because of the whole situation with getting fined and getting shut down and as more laws come into play and more people fully understand them, there’s a better discussion between the regulators and the regulated to move the industry forward,” notes Gobris. “That will see big improvements on the green waste side.”
The packaging also is a primary waste challenge in the cannabis industry: how to manage the box—be it cardboard or plastic—and whether customers who are taking the packaging with them are able to put them into recycling containers at home.
Like others who operate grow houses and dispensaries, there is much compliance required of the packaging and its waste.
Packaging used in the front-of-the-house dispensary must be child-proof. The dispensary also uses resealable plastic containers and heat-sealed plastic around another container.
The marijuana product has to be individually broken down in terms of the dosages and that can be very plastic-heavy, Andrle says, adding that packaging companies are working on innovative solutions, including the materials they’re using.
Much thought has to go into packaging vendor choices and how the business is sending out its flower products.
As the mother of a young child, Andrle says she understands the concerns about cannabis products and waste getting into the wrong hands.
“As much as the additional childproof packaging may create more waste when we’re selling someone’s flower, now it comes in a plastic container that is recyclable plastic,” says Andrle. “We need to encourage our customers to recycle that when they’re finished with it.”
Andrle credits an evolving packaging industry with coming up with “very sustainable solutions for childproof packaging” that are industry-specific.
“Initially, we were trying to fit a round peg in a square hole,” she adds. “The only packaging that existed was for food or cosmetics. Now, these packaging companies are making specific packaging for the industry and I think that has improved the landfill diversion, the education and knowledge people have. It’s simplified the packaging process while also keeping it safe.”
L’Eagle’s waste is hauled by Alpine Waste & Recycling, a large independent waste and recycling company in Colorado which has answered the call to assist marijuana cultivation facilities and dispensaries in their need to responsibly discard waste.
“We’ve made our focus about sustainability and helping customers divert from the landfill. We recognize the cannabis industry is evolving and growing rapidly. Our industry and the cannabis industry have collided in a good way in helping our customers divert as much as they can,” says Grant Parsons, sales manager. “What we’re really focused on with our cannabis customers are looking for ways to recycle and compost. “
Patrick Conway, account executive for Alpine Waste & Recycling, notes that the profile of materials in the cannabis industry differs between the dispensaries and grow houses.
“A large portion of the wastestream coming out of dispensaries is recyclable—a lot of plastics and cardboard,” he says, adding that his company can accept most of the packaging. “Some plastics are mixed—there will be two types of plastics in one package that can’t be easily split apart and done in the way our facility operates.”
The waste that most often comes from grow houses includes things like 5-gallon buckets or rigid plastics that store fertilizers, he says, adding that those can be recycled.
Alpine Waste & Recycling employees conduct site visits to determine what the facility is generating.
“From there, we come up with a plan on how we can put whatever we’re throwing in the trash and move it to recycle or compost,” says Parsons. “With recycling, we’re talking about a lot of paper, plastic, cardboard, glass, aluminum, and junk mail. Compost is working on products—some of the dirt, leaves, and stems.”
Scales have been installed on all Alpine Waste and Recycling trucks to enable truck operators to weigh the waste.
That enables the company to be able to provide the exact metrics on what sort of waste diversion cannabis industry businesses are generating, Parsons says, adding that his company can also provide an automated sustainability report.
Some Denver-area cannabis dispensaries are recycling more than 80% of their wastestream, which Parsons calls “phenomenal.”
However, “I can’t say that we have a lot of dispensaries and grow houses that are doing all they can,” says Parsons, adding that he sees averages of under 20% for the local cannabis industry as a whole.
That offers a significant diversion opportunity, he adds.
Through the company’s automated sustainability reports, Parsons has determined that the average customer recycles about 12% of their wastestream, with “green” customers recycling close to 60% and the average cannabis customer at 18%.
The sustainability report offers data on how much trash was generated, landfilled, and recycled as well as how much compost was generated and total monthly tonnages. The report also offers a 13-month trend so businesses can track how well their site is doing in any given month.
Alpine Waste and Recycling also codes all of its customers so they can see how their operations compare to others in similar businesses.
Parsons notes that his company is allowed to take the stems and dirt affiliated with the growing process as long as they’re not covered with chemicals. In some operations, chemicals are involved in the marijuana growing process.
“There are certain petroleum-based products that are being used that can’t actually be composted,” he says. “In general, we are moving in that direction where a lot of the hiccups that come with composting and recycling are slowly being resolved and I think this process will be easier going forward.”
“It’s more cost-effective to recycle because you’re not paying the disposal costs of going to a landfill, so the processing costs of our recycling facility are substantially less than driving to a landfill,” he points out. “You’ve got to drive quite a way to the landfill and pay X amount of dollars per ton to dump whatever you are throwing in there. The more we’re able to recycle and help customers recycle, typically it’s better for us all.”
Recycling programs are more successful on the East and West coasts because there is no longer space for landfills; therefore, landfill rates are high, notes Parsons.
Conway points out that landfills have limited lifespans; thus, anything that can be diverted from it extends its useful life, making it good business sense.
The Colorado Department of Health and Environment recently passed statewide landfill diversion goals that will put the state closer to the national average, notes Laurie Johnson, CAFR executive director.
The state has been stuck at a rate ranging from the teens to low 20s from 2007 to 2016 and aims to increase goals to 35% for MSW by 2026. CAFR promotes recycling through waste recovery and diversion, working to advance infrastructure and markets for materials in Colorado.
“In order to reach those numbers, we’re going to see more rules and regulations and where that all starts is we typically look at business first,” says Johnson. “We know they generate a lot of waste. Recycling is at the bottom of the totem pole. We have to reduce, reuse, remanufacture, and repurpose. It’s good to see the cannabis industry getting out ahead of the game because we know we’re going to start seeing this come down the pipeline in Colorado.”
Johnson notes that there is a visible rise in social consciousness with respect to recycling that is being amplified by the cannabis industry.
Andrle is a founding board member of the Cannabis Certification Council, which certifies cannabis products as being organically grown and fairly produced. The Council recently helped sponsor the “Don’t Be Trashy: Waste Diversion Solutions” panel from the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium.
Andrle says that up through 2016, landfilling had been the most common form of waste disposal for cultivators in Denver, with recycling and composting used to a lesser extent.
“As leaders on the cannabis world stage, we should and we can do better,” she told her peers at the conference.
The conference helped the industry identify and explore different waste management practices to reduce an operation’s environmental impact and improve diversion rates to the landfill from marijuana product waste, packaging requirements, and challenges associated with indoor greenhouse growing.
L’Eagle has the Certified Green Business designation by the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. The designation encompasses energy efficiency, water conservation, resource management, alternative transportation, and business management.
“They award it to businesses that are demonstrating that their business management practice is responsible in terms of resource use and cognizant of waste,” says Andrle. “We were the first and we’re still the only cannabis dispensary to have this designation. While it doesn’t designate the products we sell, it designates our business practice. That goes a long way in substantiating that we’re really trying to do right.”
Andrle notes that the regulations governing the industry are evolving with the industry.
“A lot of people are getting involved because the industry has become normalized,” says Andrle. “We’re going to see a very quick move to utilizing sustainable efforts.
“The majority of the people working in the industry now have come up in times where we value the environment, we value science, we want to contribute to making things better for Denver, for our respective communities, and ‘can we do that from a business standpoint and be efficient for our bottom-line?’ When we hit on both of those, it’s a win,” says Andrle.
“We are working in an industry that’s brand new,” notes Andrle. “There is a lot of stigma around this industry. Sustainability is a very easy win for us.”