The growing cannabis market presents tremendous potential for waste management providers. But any waste management companies looking to break into this industry must take the time to familiarize themselves with the enormous regulatory hurdles and requirements.
By Jonathan Lee

Preparing, implementing and maintaining a waste management plan is critical in any commercial industrial operation that generates waste. For commercial cannabis operations, the waste management requirements are especially unique and complex. In addition to distinguishing hazardous from non-hazardous waste, the generator must ensure that all cannabis-containing material is rendered beyond recognition and that all waste is meticulously accounted for.

GAIACA’s compost facility in Northern California.

Because most cannabis operations are ill-equipped to manage these waste streams on their own, the complexity of cannabis disposal presents both challenges and opportunities for waste management providers. The key is understanding the protocols that are unique to the industry.

#1: Identify the Streams of Waste
The first step in preparing any waste management plan is to identify, characterize and profile the particular streams of waste generated at the subject facility (generator facility). Waste streams may be non-hazardous or hazardous. Hazardous waste includes universal waste such as batteries, light bulbs and electronic materials.
It is necessary to understand what types of waste will be generated, and in what quantities or volumes. These factors determine how the waste management plan will be structured, and if any special permitting or notification is required.
Waste can be characterized in one or more of the following ways:
• Generator knowledge of the processes generating the waste
• Safety data sheets (SDS) of the material in the waste
• Laboratory analytical testing
The generator is ultimately responsible for determining whether or not their waste is hazardous. As a rule of thumb, waste is considered hazardous until proven non-hazardous, and most generators will follow this to reduce liability.

Once a waste stream is deemed hazardous, it requires a profile to be disposed of. The waste profile outlines physical and chemical characteristics, i.e. physical state, flashpoint, BTU value, etc. to determine proper disposal methods. Generators often hire third-party consultants or waste service providers to assist with the complexities of waste identification, characterization and profiling.
Proper identification is critical, as treating hazardous waste as non-hazardous is a serious violation with the EPA and local enforcement agencies. It is also a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Common Cannabis Waste Streams
In the commercial cannabis industry, common streams of waste include, but are not limited to:
• Expired or Recalled Product (Flower, Edible, Topical, Tincture, Vape, etc.) – Non-Hazardous
• Plant Material from Cultivation (Flower, Stalk, Leaf, Root Ball) – Non-Hazardous
• Process Liquids from Extraction/Distillation (Ethanol, Acetone, etc.) – Hazardous
• Contaminated Lab Debris (Gloves/Wipes with Solvent Residues) – Hazardous
• Disposable Vape Pens with Internal Lithium-Ion Batteries – Universal
• High-Intensity Discharge (HID) Lamps with Ballasts – Universal
Some businesses choose to manage all waste as hazardous in order to reduce their liability. There are pros and cons to this approach. On one hand, there is less risk of fines and penalties due to regulatory oversights. On the other hand, businesses that take the “all hazardous” approach are subject to higher disposal costs and potentially put themselves into a higher tier of regulation.

GAIACA technician loading secured vehicle with cannabis waste.

#2: Determine Where the Waste Will Be Stored
Once the waste streams have been identified, the generator must determine where these streams will be accumulated and stored. This requires a detailed understanding of the commercial industrial processes that generate the waste, as well as the layout and flow of the facility.

A technical example would be a testing lab that has an automated piece of equipment (i.e. HPLC) that uses small volumes of solvent during analysis. The waste solvent may automatically dispense through a hose into an awaiting drum located beneath the equipment. A much simpler example would be a cultivation facility that has a workroom in which staff brings harvested cannabis plants to manicure and prepare for sale. Large drums may be situated throughout the room to manually collect plant material waste.

Accumulation can either be done in a main waste storage area or in a satellite accumulation area. Satellite areas are oftentimes set up to integrate more conveniently with particular operations and layout. In the example of the testing lab, if the HPLC waste solvent is collected in a 5-gallon carboy and then routinely transferred into a 55-gallon drum, the carboy would be the satellite accumulation and the 55-gallon drum would be the main waste storage area. Selecting the proper container for the type of waste is important. For example, acids may corrode metal drums over time and result in a leak.
Selecting the proper location for the main waste storage area is important. It should be somewhat centrally located, accessible and constructed with durable finishes. The main waste storage area should have a secondary containment in the event of a leak or spill. Specific to the cannabis industry, the main waste storage area should be in a secured, limited access area, on the licensed premises, under video surveillance.

GAIACA technician completing manifest for thorough tracking.

#3: Determine Labeling Requirements
All waste containers must be labeled and closed at all times, except when being emptied or filled. This is especially important for hazardous waste, though the rule is applicable to all commercial-industrial waste that is stored in drums on the premises. For example, a drum may be labeled “hazardous waste” and contain the profile of the specific waste stream.

Labels are intended to communicate hazards to employees and staff as well as to document when waste accumulation starts. There are time limits on how long hazardous waste can be accumulated and stored, so accurate labeling is crucial. In addition to labeling the actual containers, generators must provide labeling at the main and satellite accumulation areas.

Adequate labeling requires more than simply a “hazardous vs. non-hazardous” distinction. Because different forms of hazardous waste have different chemical properties and physical characteristics, they must be distinguished from one another. For example, a retail cannabis business may be required to discard used solvent wipes separately from disposable vape pens.

However, if different hazardous waste streams contain compatible materials or chemicals, they can be stored together. For instance, common solvents like ethanol, acetone, and isopropanol are compatible because they are chemically and physically similar. When creating the waste profile, the generator must identify all of the constituents present.

#4: Identify a Procedure for Handling and Disposing of the Waste
The next step is to identify a procedure for handling, transporting and disposing of the waste. The most common method is for a generator to contract with a licensed third-party waste service provider to routinely collect, document and transport the waste to the proper solid waste facility (non-hazardous) or treatment storage and disposal facility (TSDF) (hazardous).

Managing Hazardous Cannabis Waste
In some jurisdictions, generators are free to manage the treatment and disposal of non-hazardous waste on their own. They can develop a written waste management plan, familiarize themselves with all applicable state regulations, and write an SOP that addresses these regulations and how they intend to follow them. However, this only applies to non-hazardous waste. Generators must contract with a licensed service provider to compliantly manage hazardous waste.

Similar to state cannabis regulation, documentation of hazardous waste disposal is required, however, with tighter restrictions. Chain-of-custody documentation is needed from the time waste leaves the generator facility until it is received at the TSDF facility, which is commonly referred to as “cradle-to-grave” tracking. This documentation must be reported to regulatory agencies.

Unlike state cannabis regulation, applying onsite rendering methods to hazardous waste is considered treatment and may be classified as an unpermitted activity. Self-hauling of hazardous waste could also result in violation, as specific registration is required for entities that transport hazardous waste on public roadways. Penalties vary by state and locality, but they can be severe. In California, for example, the generator may face a maximum penalty of $500,000 and five years in prison.

Ultimately, generators are responsible and liable for their hazardous waste from the cradle to the grave, regardless of the actions provided by their contracted service provider. If a hazardous waste has been improperly documented or disposed of, it falls back on the generator. Even after a hazardous waste has been sent to a landfill, the generator continues to own it indefinitely. For these reasons, it is critically important that the generator properly vet their vendors to ensure compliance with all applicable local, state and federal waste regulations.

Managing General Cannabis Waste
For most commercial businesses, only hazardous waste requires special treatment. But for commercial cannabis businesses, all waste—including non-hazardous waste—is heavily regulated. In California, cannabis waste is regulated by the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) and the Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch (MCSB). Individual municipalities also reserve the right to impose their own rules and regulations. The City of San Jose, for example, has requirements that are more stringent than the State.
The most notable regulations for non-hazardous cannabis waste removal are that:
1. The cannabis waste must be stored in a secure, limited-access area on the licensed premises, preferably under constant video surveillance.
2. The cannabis waste must be weighed and tracked both onsite and at its final destination.
3. The cannabis waste must be rendered “unrecognizable and unusable” prior to disposal.
Unfortunately, there is no set standard for what constitutes unrecognizable and unusable. The BCC judges this standard on a case-by-case basis. While the penalties for improper treatment of cannabis waste are not nearly as severe as for hazardous waste, generators must still be diligent. Improper waste management may result in loss of licensure.

Disposing of Cannabis Waste
After the waste has been weighed and rendered, it must be removed. For most streams of waste, there are several different avenues of disposal that are all acceptable.
Waste companies that choose to be environmentally conscious or sustainable in business practice will choose recycling over landfill disposal. This is often referred to as waste diversion. Although recycling (i.e. composting, fuels blending, waste-to-energy) can be more expensive than landfill removal, it comes with certain benefits:
• It reduces a company’s overall carbon footprint.
• It can have beneficial tax implications, such as IRS depreciation credits, rebates and tax exemptions.
It ends the chain of custody. The generator is no longer responsibl for hazardous waste after its disposal.

#5: Establish a Waste Management Program
It is important to build a team of individuals that will help to implement and maintain the waste management program—or in other words, make sure that it is used and remains relevant with growing operations.
Generators often appoint a Designated Representative or Program Coordinator. This person is responsible for managing the team, assigning duties, coordinating safety training, assigning personal protective equipment and overseeing the program as a whole. It is ideal for the Program Coordinator to have 40-hour OSHA HAZWOPER training.
For hazardous waste, things like routine waste storage area inspections, CERS reporting, recordkeeping and spill response are all required. Personnel that handle or sign off on hazardous waste manifests must have specific training and certification.

Professional Waste Management Services Are Invaluable for Commercial Cannabis Businesses
Even if non-hazardous waste can theoretically be managed in-house, a professional cannabis waste disposal provider is an invaluable asset. The track-and-trace system requires that every pound of cannabis be accounted for, and third-party waste management provides an added level of reassurance for businesses constantly under the watchful eye of regulators.

For example, if a generator records 70 pounds of waste and then renders it unrecognizable and unusable, they will usually be left with a weight that is significantly different from what they started with. They will be unable to prove the original weight of the discarded materials. But if they hire a licensed waste management company, the provider can confirm the weight prior to rendering and then document the destruction of the waste, ensuring an official record from start to finish.

The growing cannabis market presents tremendous potential for waste management providers. But any waste management companies looking to break into this industry must take the time to familiarize themselves with the enormous regulatory hurdles and requirements. | WA

Jonathan Lee is Co-Founder and CEO of GAIACA Waste Revitalization (Gonzales, CA) and is setting the industry standard for the treatment and disposal of cannabis waste. Working alongside local, state and federal agencies, he has provided cannabis operators with a compliant solution in the management of the newly created waste streams. With more than two decades of experience in commercial real estate development and spearheading several entrepreneurial ventures in the tech and hospitality space, Jonathan continues to push the standards of sustainability and waste compliance in the highly regulated, burgeoning cannabis industry. He can be reached at (833) 225-4242, e-mail, or visit