The Developing Issue of Waste Production: The Canadian Cannabis Industry

This article written by co-op student Thomas Tinmouth highlights the concerns around unsustainable waste management practices in the rapidly growing Canadian cannabis Industry. 

It is expected that with the implementation of any new industry, there will be challenges. When Canada legalized cannabis on October 17th, 2018, smoke was not the only thing in the air. An uneasy feeling  spread to some Canadians, as historical connotations of cannabis being harmful and associated with illegal activity lingered on their mind. Though the overall consensus was that Canadians were in favour of legalization, the negative association that a minority of people had would not go away overnight. As debates raged on over the place for cannabis as a legal product in society, there was little discussion about the environmental impact created through mass production and distribution of the plant.

The first two years of legalization began with a rocky start. Supply shortages and trouble with government labelling requirements caused an abundance of empty shelves and questions regarding the ability for legal marijuana to succeed in Canada. Since these shaky beginnings, the cannabis market has been slowly growing across the country. Though sales were relatively slow out of the gate, 2020 was a massive year for cannabis in Canada with sales tallying CAD $2.6 billion, a 120% increase from 2019 which brought in CA$1.2 billion. Whether the increase in sales is related to the COVID-19 lockdowns, or the stigma of marijuana being criminal changing, one thing is for sure, Canadians have drastically increased their consumption of government regulated cannabis. With exponential increases in a short period of time, there is another important question to ask, where is all this new waste going? 

Figure 1 – Canadian cannabis production and waste produced between 2018 and 2020.

Between 2018 and 2020 approximately 1,200 metric tonnes of cannabis was produced, resulting in 6,000 tonnes of waste. The challenging part in dealing with this waste is due to the multiple waste streams created, each needing to be dealt with in a different way. There are three main types of waste to focus on in the supply chain of mass produced cannabis:

1. Organic Plant Waste

Organic plant waste comes from cannabis stalks and roots, trimmed materials, along with damaged, spoiled, and contaminated plants. Disposing of this waste is extremely challenging due to the popular “50-50 rule”. This is a common guideline where 50% of the cannabis waste must be mixed with 50% non cannabis waste in order for it to be taken away and disposed of. This makes composting a very challenging task resulting in much of this organic plant waste to enter landfill. When organic waste is put in landfill rather than composting facilities, it is broken down anaerobically (living, active, occurring, or existing in the absence of free oxygen) in non aerated containers producing methane. Methane has a 25 times greater impact than carbon due to its ability to efficiently trap radiation. This shows why it is so important to dispose of organic waste properly as this is a harmful greenhouse gas that has a drastic negative impact on our planet’s climate.

A sustainable way to manage this plant waste, which does not need to contain 50% regular compost, is to use anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion is the process of using plant waste to produce methane that is captured and used as energy. Carbon is also produced which will be used for plant cultivation or extraction, with a byproduct of a nutrient rich fertilizer which can go right back into soils to grow more cannabis. This is an efficient and sustainable way to deal with the organic waste from cannabis facilities as it involves reuse and 100% diversion of plant waste from landfill. This is a costly process as the average anaerobic digester goes for $1.2 million, which is why the practice has not been widely adopted.

2. Packaging Waste

Figure 2: Commonly used plastics in cannabis packaging.

Currently, the primary form of packaging in the Canadian cannabis industry is single use plastics, with the majority of containers being recyclable. Unfortunately, this does not mean they are always recycled. Given the nature of humans, as seen with many other single use plastics, brings the reality that of the 3.3 million tonnes of plastic thrown away by Canadians each year, only 9% is actually recycled. The rules instilled by “The Federal Cannabis Act and Health Canada” do not make it easy for this packaging to be biodegradable or eco-friendly as requirements for child proofing and contamination prevention cause containers to be on the bulkier side. Also because of Federal regulations, you cannot reuse or refill your cannabis container as only licensed producers can seal and deliver cannabis products. Still, most cannabis packaging is recyclable in many areas so be sure to check your local recycling guidelines to ensure it is accepted in your region. Figure 2 displays the most commonly used cannabis packaging and their recycling potential.

To combat the immense amount of packaging waste, reusable materials must be developed that incorporate take back programs. To solve this issue consumers and producers must be on the same page and work together to allow cannabis packaging to go back and forth multiple times before it is recycled. Though there are some sustainable cannabis packaging companies that exist, there is still a lot of work to do in the effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste resulting from mass cannabis production.

Figure 3 – Ocean Cannabis Co. packaging process.

Ocean Cannabis Co. is an example of a cannabis company that has made it their mission to make their packaging environmentally friendly. Figure 3 describes the process they use to turn recycled ocean plastics into packaging. This is an example of an innovative solution within the cannabis industry that can greatly reduce the amount of packaging waste moving forward. This type of package costs 27 cents  which is quite high compared to the regular plastic containers produced overseas costing under 5 cents. High costs answer the question as to why this practice isn’t used more frequently. It is up to the consumers to support these types of green initiatives which will be a driving force in the industry transitioning to more sustainable practices.

3. Hazardous Waste

Select cannabis manufacturers that produce edibles, vape pens, and other cannabis extracts have a third type of waste to be concerned about. Hazardous waste is produced from the extraction of oils as compressed carbon dioxide or other gases are used to extract THC or CBD concentrates from the cannabis plant. Waste resulting from this process is considered hazardous as cannabinoids containing THC and other solvents must be disposed of. Hazardous waste resulting from facility operations is easier to deal with because of the strict regulations put in place. It’s when this hazardous waste is in the hands of the everyday consumer that disposal mistakes commonly happen, particularly with vape pens. Vape pens are another form of hazardous waste as these items contain lithium batteries in which disposal is strictly regulated. Be conscious of disposing vape products containing lithium batteries as they must be recycled at battery recycling drop off locations and e-waste collection facilities.

Cannabis Industry Growth in Canada and Environmental Concerns

Figure 4 – Forecasted growth in Canadian  cannabis market. 

Figure 4 highlights the projected growth in the Canadian cannabis market through 2026. It is evident that as supply chains improve, stigma around cannabis is reduced, and easier access to cannabis stores become available, revenue within the market will inevitably increase. This is a positive sign for the industry, but alarming for the environment. With exponential growth in a short period of time, there are concerns as to whether companies are going to be able to keep up with eco-friendly practices. Growth and innovation go hand in hand, and it is imperative that governments, producers, and consumers work together to innovate sustainable practices as the cannabis market continues to grow.

Being one of the first countries to legalize recreational use of cannabis at the Federal level, Canada has a responsibility to set an example for other countries to follow. Not only is it important to set an example, but Canada also has plans to have zero plastic waste by the year 2030, with select single use plastics beginning to be phased out in 2022. Due to these incoming changes in Canada, the transition to a more sustainable cannabis package is inevitable, so why not start now?

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