If you cultivate, manufacture, or sell cannabis, you’re probably subject to special waste requirements. In other words, you can’t simply toss your cannabis waste in the garbage and forget about it. You need to store it, treat it, and remove it according to strict guidelines, otherwise you may face serious consequences.

What Is Special Waste?

Special waste is generally defined as a type of solid or semi-solid waste that is subject to special handling and management requirements. The term is distinct from hazardous waste, which also has special management requirements but must specifically be sent to a hazardous waste disposal or recycling facility.

Special vs Hazardous Waste

A hazardous waste is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as any common waste that meets any of the following criteria:

  • Ignitability
  • Corrosivity
  • Toxicity
  • Reactivity

Examples of common hazardous wastes include discarded solvents, antifreeze, paint products, fertilizers, pesticides, and fluorescent light bulbs.

Special waste is waste that doesn’t satisfy any of the four qualities listed above but is nevertheless subject to special treatment for the purposes of protecting the environment or public health.

For example, asbestos is not flammable or corrosive and therefore doesn’t fit the definition of a hazardous waste. Nevertheless, it has been deemed a potential public health hazard due to its carcinogenic qualities and is therefore categorized as a special waste with unique disposal requirements.

Other examples of special waste include petroleum-contaminated soil, biosolids, dried paint filters, baghouse dusts, absorbent booms, and pit sludge.

Classifications of Special Waste

Though different jurisdictions have their own classifications of special waste, here are some examples of common categories:

  • Commercial or Industrial Waste. This includes industrial process waste (e.g. bromides, carbonates, sandblast media, and the aforementioned asbestos), infectious waste (e.g. discarded blood samples, infectious laboratory waste), and other potentially harmful industrial waste streams that don’t meet the characteristics of traditional hazardous waste.
  • Semi-Solid Waste. Semi-solid waste streams—such as food production waste, municipal waste, sludges, and drilling waste—are typically mixed with absorbent materials prior to disposal, thus minimizing disruption to the landfill where these wastes are ultimately discarded.
  • Contaminated Soils. If nearby soil is contaminated by petroleum or another potentially toxic agent that doesn’t fit the EPA definition of hazardous waste, that soil qualifies as special waste. It would generally be treated by aeration prior to removal.
  • Other (Non-Categorized) Special Waste. In some cases, a waste stream won’t fall under the umbrella of a specific waste classification but is nevertheless subject to special treatment due to potential harm to the environment or public health. Examples include pressurized containers and spill cleanup materials.

Qualifying Requirements

To be deemed special, waste often requires:

  • Administrative assessment
  • On-site processing
  • Special transportation
  • Treatment or rendering prior to removal
  • Disposal at a specialized facility

Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all recommendations for managing special waste. The requirements will vary depending on the type of special waste as well as local law. You’ll need to consult your local regulatory agencies if your organization handles special waste on site.

Is Cannabis Waste Categorized as Special Waste?

Cannabis waste is a type of special waste. This is primarily due to public health and safety concerns, as discarded whole cannabis can easily be consumed by children, animals, or others for whom consumption is not advised or legal.

Another possible reason for the special waste classification is the disparity between state and federal law. Although the federal government has largely stayed out of legal state markets, states must still tread lightly to avoid the ire of federal authorities. This means going above and beyond to minimize the industry’s disruption to the general public. Ensuring the rendering and destruction of cannabis waste is just one part of this commitment.

If your business produces cannabis waste, you’ll need to follow strict disposal requirements. This usually requires the assistance of a specialized cannabis waste disposal provider.

General Requirements of Cannabis Waste

The requirements for cannabis disposal can vary based on the location and the type of business, but common guidelines dictate that all cannabis waste:

  • Must be kept separate from hazardous waste. Most cannabis businesses will also generate a certain amount of hazardous and universal waste, including lighting equipment, chemical solvents, or unused/discarded vape batteries. Hazardous material has its own separate waste requirements and should never be mixed with cannabis plant waste.
  • Must be stored and secured in special drums. Cannabis waste should always be placed in specialized drums that are labeled, monitored (preferably by video surveillance), and accessible to authorized personnel only. No other types of waste should be discarded in these drums.
  • Must be weighed on site and again at the final destination. This information is recorded into your state’s track-and-trace system, ensuring that all cannabis in your possession is properly accounted for even if it isn’t sold to the public. This is where a cannabis waste management provider can prove especially useful, as you have confirmation that the weighing is done by a licensed third party.
  • Must be rendered unusable and unrecognizable. The specific rules for rendering aren’t always clear (California doesn’t even have specific guidelines for what constitutes “unusable and unrecognizable”), but in general, you would remove any product packaging, grind down the cannabis, and mix it with at least a comparable amount of other solid and liquid waste. For more information, refer to our comprehensive guide, What Does Unusable and Unrecognizable Mean?
  • Must be discarded or recycled at an appropriate facility. Not all landfills will accept cannabis waste. Your waste management provider will know the optimal location for disposal and can handle the post-disposal processing on your behalf.

One important thing to note is that, when it comes to cannabis waste, the generator is responsible for the waste from cradle to grave. Even after the cannabis is discarded at the landfill, it’s still legally your responsibility (the one exception is if you opt for cannabis recycling). That’s why it’s so important to follow the legal protocols to the letter.

Are Cannabis Consumers Required to Follow Special Waste Protocols

If you’re discarding unused cannabis as a consumer and not as a cannabis business owner, you are not subject to all of the same regulations and requirements outlined above. With that said, however, you still need to be mindful of how you discard your waste.

As a general rule, it’s recommended that you remove any packaging and mix your unused cannabis waste with other solid and liquid waste. This is the basic rendering process, but on a much smaller scale. Some states and local jurisdictions may also have specific consumer guidelines for discarding cannabis, so be sure to refer to your local laws.

How to Handle Special Waste as a Cannabis Business

If this information sounds overwhelming, the most important thing is to remember the basics:

  • Research your local laws and licensing requirements
  • Keep your cannabis waste in its own secured containers
  • Weigh your cannabis waste prior to removal
  • Render your cannabis waste unusable and unrecognizable prior to removal
  • Discard your cannabis at an approved landfill or recycling facility
  • Weigh your cannabis waste a second time for the official record
  • For best results, contract with a cannabis waste management provider

When it comes to special waste, cannabis is one of the most complex and labor-intensive waste streams out there. However, once you lay the groundwork and get into a consistent routine, it’s relatively easy to remain in compliance.