Since cannabis waste – including leaves, trim, stalks, stems and root balls – was confirmed as organic instead of hazardous waste in the state’s recently approved industry regulations, cannabis greens are a component of California’s organic waste pileup – and subject to the state’s efforts since 2014 to cut its volume in landfills by 50 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025. “Because (cannabis) has been illegal and in this gray area, people have a hard time understanding how much biomass is there,” says Isaac Nichelson, CEO of Circular Systems, a Los Angeles-based company that’s working to reduce organic waste.
There are no official numbers on how much waste cannabis businesses generate from what industry members estimate to be 50,000 to 70,000 licensed and unlicensed cultivators in California, but Garrett Rodewald, co-founder of Gaiaca, a cannabis waste management company with clients throughout the state, says a typical, mid-sized manufacturer will produce 250 to 500 pounds of waste a day.
Rodewald started his company in 2016 as a result of cultivators not understanding how or having the time to correctly dispose of their waste, he says. Since inception, he’s collected a million pounds of waste from his clients.
Agricultural experts agree that the current mass of waste from the cannabis industry isn’t as significant as what is generated by more mainstream crops, such as broccoli or lettuce, but the growth estimates could easily play catch-up. The California legal market alone is estimated to increase by 87 percent in the next four years, according to BDS Analytics, a market research firm. “It’s such a massive and rapidly growing sector,” says Nichelson, from Circular Systems. “This will be far and away the largest agricultural commodity in the next couple of years.”
Organic waste makes up two-thirds of California’s landfills, with 40 million tons being disposed of each year. When organic matter decomposes, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more potent than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to global warming, according to California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).
California recycles roughly 5 million to 6 million tons of organic waste through composting and anaerobic digestion. Currently, the state doesn’t have the infrastructure – a $2 billion to $3 billion cost that will require partnerships with the private sector – to accommodate the 20 million tons of incoming green waste needed to hit the state’s recycling targets, says Lance Klug, spokesman for CalRecycle, the agency responsible for cooperation in the statewide effort.
On Jan. 1, CalRecycle phased in regulations for business that generate weekly more than four cubic yards of organic waste, roughly the size of 48 kitchen-sized trash bags, to compost or practice another recycling method such as anaerobic digestion, which uses organic matter to produce renewable energy and fuel.
The regulations are part of the mandatory Commercial Organic Waste Recycling Law, which was put into place by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 to help the state meet its aggressive waste diversion goals. Current reduction targets are based on the 2014 levels, when an in-depth assessment was conducted to show how much and what kind of waste is dumped into landfills.
This year, CalRecycle is collecting updated numbers from waste collection sites to determine where levels stand. If the 2020 reduction target isn’t met, a larger range of businesses will be required to recycle.