Cannabis and Hemp Waste Disposal Requirements for Growers and Manufacturers

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The 2018 Farm Bill passed last December completely legalized hemp production and processing in the U.S. But before you get too excited…

Remember that hemp only contains 0.3 percent or less of tetrahydrocannabinol, aka THC, the stuff found in cannabis that elicits the “marijuana high” some folks might remember from college but—then again—maybe can’t.

So what exactly is hemp?

Hemp used to be cultivated to make rope and textiles. But in the mistaken belief that hemp is the same as marijuana, the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937” levied a tax on anyone in the U.S. who dealt commercially with either—effectively destroying the industry.

Interestingly, the hemp prohibition was briefly suspended during World War II. The USDA encouraged farmers to grow the stuff as other industrial fibers were scarce. (If you see just one USDA movie this year—make it Hemp for Victory!) The prohibition returned after the war.

So why all the fuss?

Aside from rope, textiles, and other useful things, hemp can be processed to yield cannabinoid, widely known as CBD.

Pure CBD is non-euphoric—it won’t make you high—and it’s nowadays proffered as an antidote for almost everything. For example, acne, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, inflammation, chronic pain, and… of course… cancer. So its complete legalization has been a marketing watershed.

Supply creates demand

By now you’ve undoubtedly noticed promotions for CBD products in delis, coffee joints, hair salons, pharmacies, pizza parlors—everywhere but in toy stores (so far).

The market for hemp and/or cannabis products was $7 billion in 2018. It’s projected to be $100 billion by 2030. You can order lattes and vegan brownies laced with CBD; enjoy the austere benefits of a CBD facial; and then there are all those CBD-based lotions that you can use for… whatever.

Obviously, the cultivation and processing of this much hemp and weed is going to generate a lot of waste—much of it deemed hazardous by the EPA, as well as by state and regional authorities.

CBD from hemp vs. pot

Confounding matters, CBD can also be extracted from the cannabis plant, probably more familiar to you by the highly scientific designations of “pot” or “weed.”

A good portion of a pot plant is made up of CBD. But an equally good portion is the aforementioned THC. So CBD uncarefully extracted from pot might inadvertently contain THC. And in 39 states, THC is still illegal or significantly controlled.

What does this mean?

In cases where the CBD was extracted from cannabis rather than from hemp, what you buy might make you high when it isn’t supposed to: not necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, wastes secondary to these products might require hazardous waste management—unbeknownst to the people who produce, manage, and sell them: absolutely a very bad thing.

In fact, the top five cannabis-related EPA violations for 2018 were for improper or inadequate documentation of cannabis waste and/or its removal.

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Local considerations for hazardous waste management of cannabis

Because of the localized nature of hazardous waste enforcement, byproducts from cannabis production and processing (inadvertent or otherwise) must be evaluated against state and regional regulations. Expert advice is crucial.

Where is cannabis legal?

As of this writing, recreational marijuana has been totally legalized by our friends to the North (that would be Canada).

Eleven states in the U.S. along with Washington D.C. have liberalized their laws concerning recreational marijuana:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan, Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington


Typically, jurisdictions within and across states consider marijuana flowers, trim, roots, stalks, leaves, and residue (including wastewater) to require hazardous waste removing. In many jurisdictions, cannabis waste needs to be rendered unrecognizable and unusable, combined with other waste so the resulting mixture is at least 50 percent marijuana free, and secured in a locked container.

As well, for some jurisdictions, any instance of cannabis hazardous waste disposal must be entered into a written log for the current year, citing the specific individual responsible for that instance, along with the weight, time, and date of its occurrence; and the log must be easily accessible for at least three years.

Federal considerations for hazardous waste management of cannabis

Per the EPA, cannabis waste also must be made “unusable and unrecognizable” before disposal, mixed with at least 50 percent non-cannabis waste (such as non-consumable solids), and stored in a “secured” waste receptacle.

Cannabis waste can be disposed of in a permitted landfill, or through composting, incineration, or by means of in-vessel digestion. What exactly are we actually talking about here?

  • Landfills. Most cannabis growers and processors are shipping cannabis waste to landfills, a practice which is under close federal scrutiny, as it can create potential health, safety, and contamination risks for haulers, generators, and processors.
  • Composting. This involves adding hazardous waste to a solid compost mix to provide optimal conditions for microbial metabolism. One impediment, however, is that the waste must be uncontaminated, but for most disposal efforts, bleach or other chemicals are typically added, rendering the waste unsuitable for composting.
  • Incineration. This must occur at temperatures high enough to destroy the toxic organic constituents in the hazardous waste as well as reduce its overall volume: very different from burning leaves in your backyard.
  • In-vessel digestion. This is a more efficient method of composting, wherein the waste is confined within a building, container, or vessel in order to mechanically control airflow, temperature, moisture, and odors: also not your typical backyard endeavor.

The packaging problem

Federal and state regulations require robust (and childproof) packaging for hemp- and cannabis-related products, which can require two layers of plastic packaging, as well as tins, joint tubes, plastic bottles, plastic caps, and flexible plastic bagging.

Perhaps ironically, this causes its own hazardous waste problem. The growing popularity of cannabis products is causing a commensurate increase in the amount of waste plastic finding its way into landfills and (worse) waterways.

People are upset. (You might say it’s killing their high.)

Plastic disposal and recycling is an environmental challenge in and of itself. But things get really complicated when you throw cannabis into the mix. The plastic is contaminated with cannabis, and the cannabis is contaminated with plastic.

As such, the waste management rules for each become conflated, and your best intentions can be a roadmap to perdition.

So at the risk of redundancy, as with all things involving the EPA, expert advice is crucial, and you can get the best of it here.

So are you thinking of starting or buying a hemp- or cannabis-related business?

When it comes to hemp and cannabis, the public’s impression might best be exemplified by Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, wherein comic strip characters Zonker and Zipper enjoy a laid back life growing “weed,” more or less as they have all their lives—but now legally, on a grander scale, and unfettered by government interference.

Be advised: Nothing could be further from reality, especially in matters of when, where, and how you dispose of the inevitable byproducts of your endeavor.


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