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The not-so-green side of cannabis

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It's not easy being green. - KIMBERLY HOADLEY
  • Kimberly Hoadley
  • It's not easy being green.
If you’ve purchased anything from a dispensary recently, then you’re familiar with the massive amount of packaging that comes standard with your flower, concentrates and edibles. Removing the layers between the shopping bag and your goodies can feel like opening Russian nesting dolls.

While the final prize is rewarding, nonprofit organizations and the cannabis community are concerned about the immense waste being produced.

As of Jan. 2, the state’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) has recorded 1,014 total marijuana business “centers” (dispensaries), including both the medical and recreational industries. Let’s say each of those facilities sold 20 plastic bottles of product a day; by the end of the year, there’s 7,402,200 bottles floating around somewhere — and that’s being extremely light on the numbers. Yikes!

“That’s why we’ve started working with the marijuana industry,” says Laurie Johnson, executive director of Colorado Association for Recycling Inc. (CAFR). “We’ve had so many dispensaries come to us and say, ‘Hey, the state now has diversion goals. We want to be as responsible as we can with these materials, but what are we supposed to do with all this plastic and plant waste?’”

At first, no one really knew. The last thing the industry heard from the state was that “marijuana is considered hazardous, contaminating, and the MED hasn’t approved [waste recycling].”

On Jan. 11, Michael Bankoff, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s solid waste materials management unit, discussed the compliance bulletin addressing solid and hazardous waste for marijuana and marijuana-related disposal.

Johnson, Bankoff and members of the community gathered to explore prospective recycling. Proper disposal for commercial businesses or residences begins by making the marijuana plant material or infused-product “unusable and unrecognizable.” The waste is first ground, then incorporated with any variety of non-consumable solid waste including paper, plastic, cardboard, food waste, or compostable oil. The resulting mixture must contain at least 50 percent non-marijuana waste. The mixture is then transported to a landfill or composting facility, or managed on-site.

As readers have probably guessed, most marijuana waste ends up in a landfill.

A representative at Bestway Disposal in Colorado Springs said it is a no-brainer to consider working with dispensaries, but didn’t mention if any partnerships have been established or if they had received any inquiries. So there appears to be a gap in communication and possibly some trepidation.

Yes, marijuana waste can be considered hazardous. Marijuana businesses are required to notify CDPHE, obtain an EPA identification number, and dispose of the waste via a registered hazardous waste transporter. Marijuana, by the way, shares a waste category with many types of pesticide, chemicals used in cultivation, and solvents used to extract marijuana for concentrates. Although the extensive regulations are designed to segregate hazardous materials from possible green waste, the industry is still stigmatized.

Bankoff comments on this: “We would like to encourage composting facilities to work with grows and marijuana plant waste. We understand they have concerns for federal involvement, but that’s certainly something we hope doesn’t dissuade them. We want to see the right thing happening.”

While word continues to trickle around and there appears to be momentum building for larger-scale composting, some dispensaries simply compost on-site. Traditional composting methods may be practiced in waste receptacles outdoors, but bokashi fermentation is gaining popularity and acceptance as a low-maintenance process that can be utilized throughout the year and has a small footprint (ReLeaf, Jan. 17).

The bokashi method is an acidic anaerobic fermentation process combining the “unusable and unrecognizable” marijuana waste in a 55-gallon drum or airtight containers with water and bokashi compost activator. After about two weeks, microorganisms have pickled the mixture into a sort of probiotic tea ready to serve as a nutrient-rich fertilizer.

So what about the millions of plastic containers? Since the plastic packaging is neither plant waste nor an infused product, it can be recycled by cleaning out residuals, removing labels, identifying the Resin Identification Code (#1-7) on the bottom of the container, and sending it to the appropriate recycling facility. The same steps can be followed for other recyclable packaging.

Megan Solano, a budtender at CannaBotica in Denver, says they offer incentives to be green. “Whenever a patient brings back 10 of our containers, we give them a pre-roll,” she says. “It’s something small, but makes a big difference.”

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