A college stint on an Illinois cattle farm gave John Whiteside some stinky inspiration to launch a business in one of the most promising sectors of the marijuana and hemp industries: waste disposal.
Now the cannabis waste sector and entrepreneurs such as Whiteside are exploring ways that cultivators and processors can turn piles of plant waste and post-extraction green goop into revenue.
The waste industry offers entrepreneurs an opportunity to enter an emerging business that generates marketable products ranging from animal bedding to construction materials. Marijuana and hemp growers and processors, for their part, can make a buck by selling leftover plant material.
More broadly, the new sector offers the cannabis industry—long criticized for its heavy use of electricity and water—an opportunity to burnish its green image.
“If we can use this resource on the back end—the (growing) media waste, the fibrous material, everything they might throw away that they can’t use in the growing and processing—we have the opportunity to make the Earth habitable again,” Whiteside noted.
From Cattle to Cannabis
Whiteside’s foray into cannabis waste dates to when he worked on a cattle farm near Carbondale, Illinois. There, he saw how the beef industry dealt with significant waste challenges—not just the obvious manure, but also ammonia runoff, methane emissions and all kinds of other bio-waste that need professional mitigation.
After college, Whiteside was working as a health educator in Denver when Colorado’s medical marijuana industry started growing. Remembering his days on the cattle farm, Whiteside saw an opportunity in all the marijuana biomass that doesn’t end up in a dispensary.
“I felt like the (marijuana) industry is not going to have sustainability unless we take the loss circulation material and we turn it into something,” said Whiteside, who started his waste-removal company, IHR, in 2011.
No Small Problem
Like every business problem in the marijuana and hemp industries, biomass waste reduction comes with unique challenges.
Every state—and, in some cases, every town—with a legal cannabis market has distinct rules for plant disposal, making it a challenge to monetize biomass waste that would be easier to sell if it came from other plants.
No one knows just how much marijuana and hemp waste is out there. Though states commonly tell cultivators how to dispose of waste marijuana biomass, few keep track of how much they’re producing. On the hemp side, state regulations address the destruction of hemp with too much THC, but no state tells farmers how legal hemp byproducts are to be treated.
Many marijuana and cultivators recycle their waste in-house—especially their wastewater and growing media—and are hesitant to invite third-party vendors to participate or suggest alternatives.
The heaviest part of hemp and marijuana plants, the stalks, also has the fewest processing options. The stalks’ weight makes them expensive to haul long distances, meaning many farmers simply plow the stalks rather than bale them.
But the economics of marijuana and hemp recycling could be changing.
Some cultivators and processors say they’ve found buyers to turn waste biomass into marketable products.
Tim Gordon, chief science officer for Functional Remedies, which makes hemp-derived, full-spectrum CBD oil in Superior, Colorado, said his company now gets about $100 a ton for root balls and other hemp waste that can’t be used in extraction.
“There’s definitely a way to monetize cannabis waste,” Gordon explained.
“Folks are making animal bedding with hemp hurd (and) using fibers and stalks for large-scale construction.
“Even for post-extracted biomass, there is still beneficial content in there: proteins and things that could be used in a chain of commerce.”
Make the Sale
Gordon and cannabis-waste haulers shared some tips for making a business out of hemp and marijuana leftovers:
Join a group: Gordon, who heads the Colorado chapter of the Hemp Industries Association, said industry networking is the best way to find out who might be buying something you’d like to sell. “A lot of the buyers are also members of trade organizations. Go to one and say, ‘I have this, and I’m looking to sell that.’ Those connections really work.”
Look outside cannabis: Older industries—especially manufacturing and food companies—have decades of experience finding ways to monetize waste, or at least to get rid of it cheaply.
Adin Alai, CEO of 9Fiber, a Silver Spring, Maryland, company setting up a Colorado factory to recycle cannabis-fiber waste, joined Recycle Colorado, a waste-stream industry and advocacy group to find contacts and learn business strategies.
Keep expectations low: Marijuana and hemp waste may be promising components for other industries, but it’s still garbage. “If you’re selling waste products, you’re selling it cheap,” Gordon said.
Cannabis waste operators say the promise of turning hemp stalks and marijuana waste biomass into eco-friendly industrial components remains elusive.
For all the talk of how many things hemp can produce, the high price of changing manufacturing processes means that even well-wishing industries are slow to adopt new inputs.
And while the cannabis industry may be booming, it’s still so small that hemp and marijuana stalks can’t begin to supply large manufacturers such as an automaker.
But there’s opportunity right now in cannabis waste, even a niche as small as animal bedding.
Arman Zeytounyan, co-founder of EcoWaste Services of Burbank, California, sells cannabis waste as agricultural compost.
“We were trying to figure out ways to repurpose (cannabis) material, looking for brandable ways and getting it back into the system.
“Then we thought, ‘Can we just sell this as a compost?’ So, that’s what we’re doing, putting it back into the ground for agricultural reasons.
“What we want to do is create these materials and repurpose them for something else … and we’re working on it.
“But that’s not to say there’s nothing important about the environmental side of it,” Zeytounyan added. “Getting the education out there for people in the industry that … real cannabis recycling exists, this is not something you should throw away in the dumpster.”
Kristen Nichols covers hemp for Marijuana Business Magazine and can be reached at [email protected]