Cannabis regulations are often written to promote public health and safety, but unfortunately, mountains of waste have been the natural and unintended consequences.
The cannabis industry uses a tremendous amount of energy and water. Marijuana companies face extensive product packaging requirements. And waste disposal rules significantly contribute to landfill biomass.
Rather than avoid the conversation, industry leaders are beginning a serious dialogue on what needs to be done and how to measure progress. They are pioneering the use of new, environmentally sound energy, water and waste-disposal systems. One of the biggest hurdles cannabis industry professionals face is securing regulatory approval when government regulations don’t keep up with innovation. That’s why industry leaders are engaging with regulatory bodies to improve the legislative environment as it relates to the tremendous amount of waste.
The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division’s Responsible Vendor Program is designed to promote the responsible handling and sales of cannabis and cannabis products through uniform, industry-wide safety, security, integrity and transparency standards.
However, environmentally aware operators routinely complain about the about the growing need for solutions to reduce packaging waste.
Colorado law requires marijuana products to be sold in packaging that is resealable, child-resistant and opaque. Packaging regulations are meant to protect children, teenagers and unsuspecting adults from accidentally ingesting marijuana products.
Additionally, extensive product labeling requirements necessitate that even small quantities of cannabis products be packaged in highly elaborate and often oversized packaging. Although proper packaging and labeling are important safety and storage considerations, it also creates huge waste disposal and industry management concerns. And this says nothing of the packaging waste associated with chemicals, grow media and the many products related to manufacturing marijuana-infused products.
To address these concerns, Denver-based Alpine Waste & Recycling has developed sustainability programs to help facilities divert waste from the landfill. Alpine focuses on ease of collection and more environmentally sound transport to recycling and compost facilities. The company installs compactors to serve as a considerable impediment to potential “dumpster divers.” Compactors reduce the risk of theft, break-ins and destruction of establishment property. They also eliminate the costs and hassles associated with ongoing dumpster vandalism and ensuing repairs.
Flower and trim are rarely wasted, but fan leaves, stems and stalks — which contain only trace amounts of THC — typically end up in landfills and make up a large percentage of the cannabis industry’s waste stream.
However, the use of acidic anaerobic fermentation (bokashi) is creating a paradigm shift in the way the cannabis industry views organic waste.
Depending upon whom you ask, bokashi is either a Japanese or Korean term that loosely translated means, “fermented organic matter.” Bokashi fermentation has been used worldwide for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The technique utilizes air-tight fermentation containers and earth-friendly micro-organisms to quickly break down and effectively “pickle” organic waste. Bokashi is a 100% natural way to reduce, reuse and recycle cannabis waste. It is safe for people, pets and the environment.
The process is simple, fast and effective, and it requires only a very small footprint — enough room to house a few 55-gallon drums.
Waste disposal rules vary from state to state. In Colorado, for example, cannabis waste must be made “unusable and unrecognizable.” This is achieved by grinding the waste on the property of the licensed facility. The waste is collected in 55-gallon drums and inoculated with bokashi compost activator. The drums are then sealed, allowing the waste to ferment for three weeks.
Liquid generated through the fermentation process may be used as a high-quality probiotic plant food to replace petroleum-based chemical nutrients, most of which are damaging to the environment. The remaining biopulp makes wonderful cannabis composts, soil conditioners and recycled cannabis-based soils. And most important, these byproducts have very high nutritional value coupled with relatively low costs.
Generally speaking, composts are produced by allowing organic material to decompose in the open air. This results in a great volumetric reduction of organic material that would otherwise be available for soil conditioning and water retention.
However, with Bokashi compost, because the material is fermented within a closed container, the organic content and virtually 100% of the carbon are sequestered in the process. Therefore, the repurposed plant material remains available for much better soil conditioning and water retention purposes. The fermented waste re-establishes high microbial counts that are found in healthy, well-balanced soils. Bokashi-treated soil helps plants absorb nutrients and antioxidants, thereby promoting vigorous and healthy growth.
Bokashi fermentation is a very earth-friendly disposal method that recycles organic waste and diverts it from landfills. The air-tight fermentation containers virtually eliminate ground water contamination. Plus, they provide leachate control, assist in pathogen reduction and mitigate nuisance conditions such as noise, dust, mud, odors and windblown debris. The containers help reduce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, as well as bad odors such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. A reduction in emissions helps to reduce the cannabis industry’s impact on greenhouse gas formation and global warming.
Growers who embrace bokashi fermentation will also likely reduce their operational costs, potentially improving profitability (all things being equal). Processed marijuana waste will be incorporated back into the cultivation facility’s soil, where plants will benefit from natural nutrients. Using bokashi to naturally rebalance microbial counts found in healthy soil, compared to the common practice of disposing soil after harvest, is a highly cost-effective and sustainable approach. Bokashi may be used as long as there is organic waste — which is to say, a long time. It’s an effort that every soil-based cultivation facility should at least consider.
How To Get Involved
These two examples are truly the “tip of the iceberg.” These grassroots solutions, and others like them, are important. They are good for the environment. They are good for society at large. They help demonstrate that cannabis businesses can be good corporate citizens and can help cities and municipalities meet their recycling and sustainability goals.
With advocacy, innovation and education, everyone wins. Pioneering industry practitioners must work diligently with regulators to improve standards and regulations when warranted. Stakeholders are asked to get involved, join industry workshops, share concerns and spread their expertise.
When necessary we should communicate directly with our cannabis regulators. Marijuana business owners should seek out training programs that address pertinent regulatory matters and best practices for the industry.
Many growers and cannabis businesses are slow to accept new ideas. Given the money at stake, that is understandable. But individuals and businesses should critically review themselves and their operations periodically. We should embrace experimentation, learn from others and liberally share best practices. This is easier said than done. That’s why stating it repeatedly at symposiums and training programs, and noting it in articles, websites and emails is so important.
Finally, cannabis businesses that are interested in waste reduction and limiting their carbon footprint should seek out the advice and services of like-minded individuals and organizations. A handful of these organizations include The Cannabis Certification Council, Denver Relief Consulting, Denver Environmental Health, Colorado Association for Recycling, Certifiably Green Denver, Boulder’s Partners for a Clean Environment and L’Eagle Services. They are ready, willing and very able to help.
Join the revolution.
Dare to make the cannabis industry a pioneering leader in the development of global, sustainable solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle waste.
Ren Gobris is the founder and owner of Cannabis Regulatory Solutions, an approved training provider and certifier for the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division’s Responsible Vendor Program. He is also the co-owner of Kind ReDesigned, a Denver-based cannabis waste disposal company, that has championed the use of bokashi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.