CALIFORNIA’S RECYCLING department is tackling the state’s organic waste buildup in landfills one food scrap, tree branch and cannabis leaf at a time.
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 more than 20 million tons being disposed of each year, according to CalRecycle.
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 solid 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.
“We’re on the front end of all of this,” Klug says. “It’s going to require actions from every resident, business and municipality in the state.”
To monitor the state’s progress, CalRecycle will conduct reviews of local jurisdictions every two to four years. Those jurisdictions are also required to submit an annual report on recycling progress. If necessary, CalRecycle will step in to assist with the waste diversion process, Klug says.
When the goals are met, the existing landfills will be able to last an additional 40 to 80 years, he says.
Since 2014, CalRecycle has awarded more than $100 million through its Organics Grant Program to jurisdictions and businesses to further organic recycling projects, mostly targeting food waste reduction and building infrastructure.
Now, the cannabis industry is looking to the state for funding.
Circular Systems and its partner, Restalk, a California company that repurposes cannabis plant waste into paper and packaging, are applying for several waste reduction state grants to build a biorefinery that converts varied cannabis and hemp byproducts into high-value fiber.
The companies are working with the University of California—Davis Division of Agriculture and Nature Resources to configure the logistics of the Sacramento-area biorefinery, Nichelson says. The project would require $3 million to $5 million in startup costs and would be community owned and operated.
CalRecycle wouldn’t give any details on this project at this time, but Klug says a project like this that promotes a closed-loop economy where waste is regenerated, is the ultimate goal of the state’s recycling efforts.
“(It’s about) turning our waste stream into a supply stream,” he says.
Currently, the cannabis industry has a few options for recycling waste as long as it isn’t combined with any hazardous or toxic material: composting on-site, hauling it to a composting facility or having a cannabis waste management company, such as Gaiaca, dispose of it.
However, because of the various compliance rules – for example, making the cannabis waste unrecognizable and unusable by mixing it with other organic materials – from three different licensing authorities that oversee California’s cannabis industry, cultivators, processors and some composting facilities want the responsibility off their hands, says Rodewald, from Gaiaca.
“The people in the waste industry are nervous and the growers are nervous,” says Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing pollution and conserving resources. “Almost all of them have a different policy from each other,” he says of the varying levels of regulations, ranging from waste collection sites, the cannabis licensing agencies and each municipality’s recycling standards.
Autumn Shelton, CFO of Autumn Brands, a 4-acre cannabis farm in Santa Barbara County – which holds the largest number of licensed cannabis cultivators in the state – sends her organic waste out through two separate companies: Restalk, the cannabis repurposing company that also offers free pickup services, and a local green waste company.
“We are all just trying to follow what the regulations are stating,” says Shelton, who notes that the amount of labor involved and space needed to compost onsite isn’t economical for her business.
When Southern California-based EcoWaste Services added cannabis to its organic waste management business last year, the waste was rejected by eight of 10 compositing facilities throughout the Pasadena and Burbank areas, says co-founder Arman Zeytounyan.
Now, Zeytounyan and his team are building an internal system to recycle the 30 thousand pounds of waste the company picks up a month and circle the regenerated waste back into the cannabis industry.
Zeytounyan says education is the key to managing the organic waste of any industry, and a good place to start is by setting a trend.
People will ask, he says, “If the cannabis industry is doing this, why isn’t the restaurant industry doing this?”