The Circular Economy of Cannabis: Turning Waste into Resources

The Circular Economy of Cannabis: Turning Waste into Resources

As sustainability grows more attractive to consumers, cannabis companies are beginning to focus on minimizing waste by composting and repurposing the byproducts of cannabis production and adopting mindful packaging.

Since the legalization of cannabis, the industry has become one of the fastest-growing markets in the US — but it’s also become a massive waste source, with farming, manufacturing, and packaging waste involved in this budding industry. Cannabis users can participate in the circular economy of cannabis by buying from manufacturers that reduce their carbon footprint and turn cannabis waste into valuable resources.

A Circular Economy For Cannabis

A circular economy is based on the regeneration and reuse of its products and materials to maximize its output in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner.

Fortunately, as a new industry, cannabis producers can evolve a highly functioning circular economy. Cannabis is a particularly beneficial crop for the soil as it absorbs twice as much CO2 from the atmosphere than trees, keeping the soil nutrient-rich for many years.

If cannabis is a beneficial crop, why is waste such a big deal?

What is Cannabis Waste?

Before discussing ways to minimize cannabis waste, it’s vital to understand what it is. Here’s the gist: cannabis waste is a by-product or product formed during cannabis production that is not hazardous.

The following are several categories of cannabis waste:

  • Leftover Cannabis Material: These include unused parts of the plant, such as the stems, trim and shake leftover after the flower is harvested.
  • Farming Materials: Anything used or left when cultivators harvest the crop, such as failed crops or the stems.
  • Cannabis Packaging and Use Equipment: These mainly include the products that reach the shelves and consumers. Vape pens, cannabis packaging, grinders, and THC or cannabis capsules are all a part of this list.
  • Expired or Untouched Products: Any product that may have passed its expiration date and is no longer suitable for use is also considered cannabis waste. These include tinctures, oils, CBD, or any other unused products.

Minimizing Cannabis Waste

Like many other industries, cannabis is imagining a more sustainable future. Unsurprisingly, most rapidly growing markets face myriad challenges in pursuing sustainability — cannabis included.

Many companies along the cannabis supply chain,  such as CanapaOro and Sana Packaging, have established initiatives to minimize cannabis-related waste.

CanapaOro uses leftover hemp stalks to make animal bedding, and Sana Packaging is dedicated to minimizing plastic packaging waste by using hemp-based plastic or recycled ocean-bound plastic.

Cannabis leaders are securing their future by implementing more environmentally friendly practices, managing risk through cannabis insurance, and maintaining regulatory compliance.

Composting Cannabis

Whether a large- or small-scale business, composting cannabis waste is one of the most cost-friendly, straightforward, and efficient ways to minimize your waste footprint. Plus, cannabis is a particularly beneficial crop for the soil as it sequesters up to 35% of the biomass in the ground. Since it pulls CO2 from the air into its system, all products created also have this CO2 sequestration.

Composting the by-products and waste from the plant — the leaves, roots, and even the final marijuana product — results in a nutrient-rich fertilizer that cultivators can use to grow more cannabis crops. It’s also easy to outsource composting if you lack the space on your premises.

Recycling companies, such as Cannabis Waste Solutions, focus on properly managing and disposing of cannabis waste. These companies send workers to production sites to collect and form your compost. They also correctly dispose of any additional harmful waste.

Alternatively, a cannabis company can use an in-vessel digestion system, a composting type in a tank or reactor. Multiple in-vessel digestion centers do this as a service, but producers can also have an on-site digestion system. Remember that every cannabis producer must have the proper permits for in-vessel digestion.

Recycling Packaging Materials

Reduce, reuse, and recycle is a common phrase and is practiced on at least a smaller scale by cannabis companies.

While composting is mainly to minimize organic waste, recycling cannabis products will help to minimize inorganic by-products. Glass lids, metal containers, and plastic packaging can be recycled in many communities. Vape pens, while they are technically recyclable, are not accepted by most recycling services.

Cannabis consumers can minimize waste by reusing or upcycling cannabis containers, and brands can encourage their patrons to do so. High-quality plastic or malleable containers are easily reusable or can be upcycled for use around the home. Cannabis containers make great spaces for storing spices, tinctures, or other household supplies.

Alternatively, suppose you want to discard the container. Many dispensaries provide take-back programs. Participating dispensaries accept the empty container and ensure that it reaches the appropriate recycling facility. Ask at your dispensary about their take-back policy.

Companies like Sana Packaging are leading the way in sustainable cannabis packaging — by using 100% plant-based hemp plastic or reclaimed ocean-bound plastic to manufacture their cartridges and other products.

Industrial hemp has many surprising uses, after all. Using products made from plant-based hemp plastic or recycled ocean plastics minimizes your carbon footprint.

Repurposing Cannabis By-Products

Apart from recycling, you can also turn cannabis by-products into different items, like animal bedding or construction materials. The THC-free version of cannabis, hemp can be repurposed for various materials and products — you’ve probably used a hemp rope, for example.

Cultivators can use extra hemp stalks to make animal bedding. Companies like CanapaOro have already started taking this step towards sustainable growth.

Another unique way to repurpose cannabis waste is by pressure-compressing it and turning it into construction material. Construction companies can then use this to make houses, buildings, etc. Although this technique is in its infancy, it has much potential.

Choosing Sustainable Cannabis Products

The cannabis industry is rapidly growing and evolving, and the need for more sustainable practices comes with that. One way to reduce waste in the cannabis industry is to embrace a circular economy. By adopting a circular economy, the cannabis industry can reduce waste, conserve resources, and protect the environment.

If you’re in the cannabis business, switching over to plant-based or recyclable plastics for your packaging can help significantly decrease your carbon footprint. Further, cultivators should compost their cannabis farming waste and can even sell the leftover hemp stalks to companies to turn into other by-products.

On an individual basis, you can play your part by asking your local dispensary about their take-back program and recycling techniques. Try to upcycle your cannabis containers whenever you can, and when buying cannabis-related products, ensure that it’s made from recyclable plastic.

All these practices can help the industry move towards becoming a circular economy, reducing cannabis waste, conserving resources, and protecting the environment.

About the Author

Eric is the managing director of Alpharoot, a cannabis business insurance provider.

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