How Cannabis Companies Create Waste [And How to Better Prevent This]


Waste management is an essential step in cannabis production, but it’s a step that rarely gets the attention that it deserves. As you make your way through dispensaries in 2019, you will probably notice your favorite cannabis products have been enhanced with beautifully branded packaging. But, with more packaging comes great responsibility to recycle. So just how do cannabis companies create waste? And more importantly, how can it be prevented?

Cannabis waste is an issue that is becoming increasingly necessary to address in the industry. The whole process is a lot trickier than just throwing your toking remnants into a blue bin. The growing demand for recreational and medical marijuana is going to have major implications for the cannabis industry. More regulations are likely to be put in place to prevent cannabis smoke and residues from affecting the youth and the environment.

There are strict laws in place in recreational states outlining the rules that companies must abide by to stay compliant. These laws range from how cannabis needs to be packaged to how it must be distributed or even “destroyed.” For instance, both California and Washington have strict laws in place for the disposal of used cannabis products. But what about cannabis waste caused by production?

The Growing Problem with Cannabis Waste

A report published by the US News stated that mid-sized cannabis companies produce between 250 to 500 pounds of cannabis waste per day. This includes things like stalks, trimmings, roots, soils, and stems.

Also, according to recent statistics released by the state of Washington, cannabis waste is becoming a major problem for both producers and the regional landfills. Since legalization in 2014, in Washington alone, there has been an accumulation of 1.7 million pounds of cannabis waste.

Although most cannabis byproducts are entirely compostable, various regions have determined that marijuana waste should be treated as medical waste. In other regions, certain industrial composting companies have opted to follow federal law instead of local state laws on cannabis.

In Washington, composters have reported hauling away between 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of waste a week from cannabis clients. For the majority of producers, staying compliant while also upholding high environmental standards is an almost impossible task.

Industry experts in Washington believe that most cannabis waste goes straight to the landfill. Very few producers make any effort to contract it out to an industrial composter. This is pretty much the problem in most states. Cannabis companies invest very little effort into mindful waste management.

How Cannabis Companies Create Waste

Strict regulations shape how legal cannabis businesses in certain states grow, process, and sell cannabis – as well as how they destroy it. But typically, waste disposal is the last thing on a business owners mind.

They’re either packing it up and driving it to another business’s dumpster, or they’re stockpiling it and storing it somewhere until they can determine what to do with it.

According to a calculation done by the United Cannabis Business Association, marijuana companies in California are poised to lose approximately $367 million, by either destroying products or discounting those products that don’t meet new regulation standards.

In some cases, cannabis has to be destroyed because it wasn’t tested for contaminants and chemicals. Or it may have been mislabeled, contains more THC than permitted under state laws, or it’s not placed in child-resistant, tamper-evident packaging.

In California in 2017, there were many goods left over from before the state fully legalized cannabis. In the lead-up to Jan. 1, 2018, companies raced to grow and extract marijuana in anticipation of an increase in sales when the market expanded from medical-use patients to all adults.

However, not all dispensaries were able to sell all their non-compliant marijuana before July 1, which was the mark for the end of a six-month grace period to sell those products that didn’t meet packaging, labeling, and testing criteria.

Cannabis Waste in Washington and California

As we have already mentioned, most states have strict laws in place regarding cannabis product packaging and distribution. For example, both California and Washington require that a long list of warnings be displayed on the childproof-packaging in specific sized font – this forces the packaging to grow in size. Both of these states have strict laws regarding the disposal of used cannabis products.

The majority of these laws focus on building a “safe supply chain” and diversion from the black market. Sadly, they aren’t focused on the consequences of throwing millions of plastic bags and tubes into landfills each year. Making matters worse, many consumers mistakenly attempt to recycle these materials.

The problem is that many of the materials available aren’t recyclable, and this is causing contamination in the recycling system. Consumers assume that they are recyclable and feel that they should be recyclable. But in reality, they’re not.

One possible solution to the cannabis waste problem is to implement more sustainable packaging. The problem with this is that it results in higher costs, which will eventually trickle down to the consumer.

The Hollingsworth Cannabis Co. is a Washington based cannabis company that spoke to The Washington Post about the issue of cannabis waste. Co-owner Joy Hollingsworth explained that even after selling around 40 pounds of cannabis per month, they still can’t afford more sustainable packaging.

The company already uses solar power and composts its plant waste on-site, but they have no solution to the pending packaging issue. But Washington and California aren’t the only ones struggling with the costs and consequences of strict cannabis regulations. Oregon, Colorado, and Canada face the same issues, and the problems don’t stop at the packaging.

Other Ways That Cannabis Companies Create Waste

In addition to the waste that results from collectives and distributors – which includes expired items ranging from raw cannabis flower and oils to edible food products that come in various types of packaging – there’s also the waste from laboratories and manufacturers. This includes chemical waste, extracted plant material, and cannabis products that have undergone extraction and distillation with alcohol solvents and hydrocarbon.

This is waste that now becomes a mix of hazardous and nonhazardous. It’s estimated that, for every pound of a completely cultivated product, there’s at least one pound of waste generated, and this doesn’t include the manufacturing waste.

How to Prevent Cannabis Waste

On-site waste management is a solution that may also be very beneficial to cannabis producers. Initially, it requires a significant financial investment, but it offers massive long-term payoffs for those companies who are willing to invest.

For starters, it reduces disposal costs like dumping fees. It also helps to produce water that is clean enough to use for non-potable applications.

One of the key benefits of on-site waste management is the simplification of bureaucracy associated with cannabis waste disposal. As mentioned, disposing of cannabis by-products isn’t as simple as just dropping them off at the landfill. Most municipal by-laws mean the tracking of waste down to the gram.

Final Thoughts on Cannabis Waste

Cannabis waste management is a task that is not easy to do. It’s a lengthy process and a lot of hard work. However, it’s becoming increasingly necessary, and it’s going to become what regulators look for when it’s time to start enforcing new state regulations.

Some states have stricter laws in place than others when it comes to cannabis waste. But over time we’re likely to see a firmer implementation of these rules. For now, ask your dispensaries if they have recycling programs in place, and keep doing your best to consume cannabis consciously.