As time progresses, and the industry moves towards Federal legalization, cannabis waste regulations will undoubtedly change. Until that point, operators should create and implement a waste management program that fits with their business model.
By Garrett Rodewald
Like other highly regulated industries, the cannabis industry has created requirements for properly handling and disposing of waste material. However, unlike most other industries, the burden of waste treatment falls upon the generator—in this case, the commercial cannabis operator.
We will use California as our example. Of the three regulatory agencies that oversee commercial cannabis operations in the Golden State, only two have created unique waste requirements in an attempt to halt diversion and the growth of the illicit (gray) cannabis market. Those two agencies are the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) and the Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch (MCSB) of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).
Commercial business types that are governed by the BCC and MCSB include manufacturers, distributors, retailers, testing labs and microbusinesses (vertically integrated operations). These agencies have specified that cannabis-containing material intended for disposal is considered “cannabis goods/product” until it has been rendered unrecognizable and unusable, at which point it becomes “cannabis waste.”
Cannabis Disposal Requirements in California
The BCC mandates that:
a. Licensees shall not dispose of cannabis goods, unless disposed of as cannabis waste, defined under section 5000(g) of this division.
b. Cannabis goods intended for disposal shall remain on the licensed premises until rendered into cannabis waste.
d. To be rendered as cannabis waste for proper disposal, including disposal as defined under Public Resources Code section 40192, cannabis goods shall first be destroyed on the licensed premises. This includes, at a minimum, removing or separating the cannabis goods from any packaging or container and rendering it unrecognizable and unusable (Title 16 CCR, Division 42, § 5054. Destruction of Cannabis Goods Prior to Disposal).
Likewise, the MCSB dictates that:
c. No cannabis product shall be disposed of in its packaging, and all cannabis waste shall be unrecognizable and unusable as cannabis or a cannabis product at the time of disposal. (Title 17 CCR, Division 1, Chapter 12 (MCSB), § 40290. Waste Management)
In other words, cannabis waste requires further treatment prior to disposal. An operator cannot simply throw their unwanted cannabis waste into the municipal trash. And for good reason:
Cannabis is still a Schedule 1 federally controlled substance.
It is intended for adult and/or medical use only, and if it were to end up in the wrong hands, it could have very detrimental effects.
At roughly one-quarter of the price of gold by weight, cannabis is highly desired.
Due to tight and costly oversight and taxes, the potential for illicit business is very strong.
Little is known about the environmental impact of large volumes of cannabis-containing material.
Once again, these rules only apply to businesses governed by the BCC and MCSB. Cannabis cultivators are not subject to these requirements.
Disposal Requirements for Cannabis Cultivators
Commercial cannabis cultivation is regulated by CalCannabis, a branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). CalCannabis has not specified any particular method for handling waste beyond what is outlined in the Public Resources Code (PRC) governing regular garbage/trash.
Cultivation waste (cannabis plant material) is considered green material (organic waste) and falls under regional waste franchise authority. This means that a commercial cannabis cultivator can throw their unwanted cannabis waste into their municipal trash bin.
The disparity between BCC/MCSB and CalCannabis waste requirements is not only evident but peculiar. Cannabis is a plant; it originates at the cultivation level. Why is a wasted cannabis flower regulated at the distribution level but not at the cultivation level? Once that flower has reached distribution, it has already been packaged and entered into track-and-trace. Its whereabouts are very well-documented.
Rewind back in time, and that same flower was just picked off of a plant, manicured and thrown into a tray with 1,000 other flowers. This would seem to be the point in time with the highest risk of diversion to illicit market, and surprisingly it is the point in time where it is least regulated by the State.
With that said, this article will focus on rendering requirements set forth by the BCC and MCSB collectively referred to as (the “State”).
Why It Is So Difficult to Render Cannabis Waste
Besides providing the description “unrecognizable and unusable,” the State has not given any procedural guidance on the means and methods of rendering. “Unrecognizable and unusable” is an end state, or a final result, whereas the process is open and up to generator determination. The State does not advise on or judge the process but only assesses the end result on a case-by-case basis.
A similarity we like to draw upon is in the pharmaceutical industry, however, with some fundamental differences. It is common practice at pharmacies that wasted medications (i.e. pills and tablets) are destroyed onsite prior to disposal. This involves mixing the pills/tablets with a neutralizing liquid—a fairly easy process since they are small and water-soluble. This is typically done by a third-party service provider.
Compare that with the cannabis industry, which generates a wide variety of waste streams in very large quantities, including, but not limited to:
These complex waste streams can be very difficult to properly render, all requiring vastly different means and methods. Although they all contain cannabis, they are not all solely regulated by the BCC/MCSB. There is often overlap with other regulatory agencies like the DTSC and EPA.
Even the term “unrecognizable and unusable” is a bit vague. Unrecognizable to the sight, touch, or smell? Unusable, meaning its immediate use? Un-consumable? Un-manufacturable? This ambiguity provides the generator with a lot of freedom, which may not always be a good thing.
How to Render Cannabis Waste
There are no universally recognized protocols for rendering cannabis waste. There are only general guidelines and common industry practices. For instance, a common industry standard looks something like this:
If applicable, separate wasted goods from container/packaging and accumulate in rigid container
Grind waste material to a particle size of approximately ½-inch
Blend material with at least 50 percent other—non-cannabis-containing—solid, by weight*
Saturate material with approximately 20 percent liquid, by volume
Compress or compact material to at least 50 percent original volume
*The 50 percent blend protocol was described in early 2018 Emergency Regulations. This step has since been removed from Final Regulations as of January 2019.
Again, the above suggestion is not a regulation, just an industry standard—one that the industry has adopted, not because it is a requirement, but because it will consistently yield a desired outcome. With that said, there are many ways to render cannabis waste. One might use hand tools such as pickaxes and shovels, or they might use heavy equipment such as grinders, shredders and compactors. Cannabis can be altered physically or chemically.
An example of a physical alteration would be grinding, compacting and blending, changing its physical form. This would serve to make the cannabis unrecognizable.
An example of chemical alteration would be heating, dissolving and mixing with neutralizing chemicals. By adding a strong acid or oxidizer to the cannabis, it is possible to strip apart the THC molecules. This would serve to make the cannabis unusable.
There are safe ways of rendering and, of course, there are not-so-safe ways. Using hazardous materials and chemicals is an example of the latter. Industry folklore tells the story of a generator mixing their wasted cannabis flower with hydrochloric acid in a steel drum. The acid ate through the drum, contaminating the facility and becoming a hazard to the employees. The majority of generators have good intentions. They are simply trying to abide by vague State requirements, but sometimes they inadvertently create other hazards and break other rules.
Waste Rendering vs. Treatment
Treatment means any method, technique or process, including neutralization, designed to change the physical, chemical, or biological character or composition of any hazardous waste so as to neutralize such wastes, or so as to recover energy or material resources from the waste, or so as to render such waste non-hazardous, or less hazardous; safer to transport, store, or dispose of; or amenable for recovery, amenable for storage, or reduced in volume (40 CFR § 270.2 – Definitions).
It is very important that, prior to rendering their waste, the generator makes a solid effort to determine whether or not the waste is hazardous. If the waste is hazardous, and the generator decides to render it according to State cannabis regulation, they may be in violation of Federal waste regulation. Waste “rendering” would be viewed as waste “treatment,” and the unpermitted treatment of hazardous waste can result in hefty fines and even jail time.
Industry folklore tells of another story where a generator wanted to dispose of single-use vaporizer pens with internal batteries. The “all-in-one” pens carried a cannabis-containing oil cartridge, so the generator assumed they needed to follow State rendering requirements. However, the pens were not easy to disassemble.
Without any guidance, the generator decided to saw the pens apart one-by-one, isolating the oil cartridge. The high-speed saw cut the end off of a battery and discharged, igniting the other batteries in the drum. The smoke and fire resulted in emergency response. By saw-cutting the pens, the generator was in violation of federal waste regulation—treating of universal waste without a permit.
Industry folklore tells of a another story where a generator needed to dispose of wasted cannabis gummies. The gummies were removed from their packaging and consolidated in a small drum. The generator wanted to make the gummies unusable, so they saturated them in bleach. The gummies were then thrown into the outside trash receptacle where they were discovered a couple of days later by another employee. The gummies had dried out, and the smell of bleach was nonexistent. Had someone else found the gummies and eaten them not knowing of their prior treatment, they could have become very ill.
Why Businesses Should Avoid Rendering Their Own Waste
As described above, generators face numerous pitfalls as they attempt to properly manage their waste. Commercial cannabis businesses are not experts in waste treatment, and they should not be expected to be. Their primary business is the manufacture, distribution and sale of cannabis. They do not have the necessary knowledge, personnel, equipment or facility to properly render all of the potential streams of waste they generate.
This is why many generators choose to hire cannabis waste management consultants or service providers to assist with the process. These providers have developed safe, secure and efficient methods of onsite rendering. Some providers use heavy equipment where they can process 10,000+ pounds of material in a single eight-hour shift. They capture video documentation and provide final signed certification.
This third-party service and oversight removes both burden and liability and is very valuable to generators who would rather focus their time and efforts on their business. Rather than relying on guesswork and a loose interpretation of vague regulatory guidelines, it is always in a company’s best interest to defer to the professionals.
A Critical Step
In summary, proper waste disposal is a critical final step in the commercial cannabis business. As time progresses, and the industry moves towards Federal legalization, cannabis waste regulations will undoubtedly change. Until that point, operators should create and implement a waste management program that fits with their business model. If you sell boutique cannabis products, do that; do not attempt to also become an expert in waste treatment. As outlined above, it can be a very tricky landscape to navigate on your own. There are some things that are simply better left up to the professionals.
Garrett Rodewald is Chief Operating Officer of GAIACA (Gonzales, CA). He has built a career in the Industrial Hygiene realm, with more than a decade of experience and training in EPA and OSHA compliance, environmental health and safety, and hazardous materials management. Garrett is a dedicated industry professional, maintaining various certifications and actively attending association events and conferences. He is equal parts scientist, outdoorsman and entrepreneur, bringing to the GAIACA family a level of knowledge and experience matched with passion and sheer determination. Garrett can be reached at (831) 264-4242 or e-mail email@example.com.