HOME GROAN: Cannabis Industry Waste Woes

The burgeoning cannabis industry has been one big flashing green light in terms of its benefits across multiple strands of our social fabric. Ten U.S. states have legalized recreational use, and already 33 states have legalized its use for medical purposes. In Maryland alone, medical marijuana has reached nearly $100 million in sales and the North American market has grown to $16 billion with the U.S. market forecasted to reach $80 billion by the year 2030. A large proportion of this exponential growth can be attributed to the diverse CBD market, which has not only created an exploding job market but has also created an enormous amount of industrial waste.

How much waste? Well, no one has really taken the time to determine those figures but some estimates suggest that there were 1 million tons of what the industry calls “green leftovers” in North America just last year. Since cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 substance, this means we’re talking about 1 million tons of hazardous waste which must be disposed of either by sending it to landfills, composting it, or via in-vessel incineration. Sadly, the most common of these methods is landfilling since it’s cheaper and takes less time and resources than other methods.

Defining green waste can blow the mind, a little. Remnants such as flowers, trims and roots are evergreen examples but the definition is actually much wider, including not only packaging of cannabis-related products but such manufacturing residues like wastewater and—dig it or not—growth media, or soil. A single growing cycle destroys a staggering amount of material like stems and stalks which makes one wonder if there isn’t some way to repurpose all of it.

Some studies raise the possibilities of transforming crop waste into biofuels, while others point to potential uses as natural and sustainable insecticides. Then there are other useful products such as “hempcrete”, plywood, paper, birdseed – the list goes on and on. One marketable example can be found in a start-up company called 9Fiber, which specializes in making raw materials out of green waste that can be incorporated into a number of different products. What may be its most exciting feature is that 9Fiber can transform waste from both cannabis and hemp production as its not purely one or the other but a blend of waste fibers.

Environmentalists, however, happen to think that the biggest selling point of 9Fiber is that producing it involves an eco-friendly chemical transformation that is only as dangerous as the hydrogen peroxide used in the process. The company has also managed to reduce the time required to make textile grade fiber from 16 days to only 90 minutes, with the removal of heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides happening within the first two.

Not only is the transformation of loss circulation material a potentially profitable industrial investment, many companies like 9Fiber believe that the cannabis industry won’t survive unless its practices are rooted in such endeavors. Signs are hopeful, but challenges persist. Every state with a legal market has their own, and no one really knows yet how much marijuana and hemp waste actually exists. This means many cultivators recycle their own waste—in particular their wastewater and soil—so they’re extremely wary about seeking outside vendors to step in and suggest viable and sustainable alternatives. However, there are a few companies now that have found partners who can turn their waste into marketable products, creating its own revenue stream. Industry networking has helped spark interest, but the costs of such major changes continue to slow progress. There may be ways to monetize waste, but garbage is still garbage, so selling is still done at garbage prices. 

Graver will keep an eye on the cannabis waste industry, and continue to provide high-quality products and information on filtration for CBD oil production as well as for a wide range of liquid processing applications.