Garbage from Washington’s booming pot industry clogs gutters, sewers, landfills
SEATTLE — Washington’s penchant for getting high is trashing the place.
Plastic “doob tubes” and small Mylar bags used to package pot are moldering in gutters, bleaching out in landfills and bobbing in waterways.
Concentrated nutrients and fertilizers left over from cannabis growing operations are being dumped in public sewers and making their way past wastewater treatment plants into Puget Sound. And millions of pounds of weed harvest waste that could be composted are instead getting trucked to landfills.
This, in a part of the country that prides itself on being environmentally friendly.
“We’re seeing a lot of marijuana packaging in our public spaces,” said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, which organizes litter cleanups. “Cannabis packaging is adding to our load, which then gets washed into our lakes and Puget Sound.”
It’s all an increasingly big challenge for the state, which collected $315 million in taxes on retail marijuana sales of $1.4 billion in fiscal 2017. But in some ways, the problems start small.
Pre-rolled joints, for example, spiked in popularity by 67 percent in just one year, according to BDS Analytics, a cannabis industry data firm. They are sold for as little as $2 and come in small plastic containers. But doob tubes usually cannot be recycled, even when made of recyclable plastic, because their small size means that they fall through the grates of the recycling machines.
“The historical cannabis community is environmentalist, but green rushers” — as some cannabis entrepreneurs are known — “aren’t, necessarily,” said Danielle Rosellison, president of the Cannabis Alliance, a nonprofit group of cannabis stakeholders dedicated to sustainability. Rosellison, who owns the pot farm Trail Blazin’ Productions in Bellingham, said she “looked high and low for a bag that had a shelf life and was recyclable — and nothing.”
Meanwhile, industrial composters say few of them have received significant business from Washington growers. “We haven’t had any producers sign on,” said Scott Deatherage, an operations manager for Barr-Tech, a large industrial composter in Eastern Washington. “We have the proper permits to accept the materials — we just haven’t had any.”
Every marijuana harvest generates plant matter that cannot be used commercially.
The state requires that landfill-bound harvest leftovers be ground up, mixed with other garbage, bagged and held for days to render it unusable by scavenging smokers. Some rural growers compost their plant waste on site, but Trail Blazin’ Productions is in an urban environment near a methadone clinic. On-site composting is not feasible.
“We keep our garbage in our facility until collection day so the addicts can’t get at it,” Rosellison said. “We grind it up, mix it 50 percent with stuff like our office garbage and pour bleach or contaminant in there, as well.”
When Rosellison first inquired with her local composter, “they didn’t want our waste,” she said. “To some of them, we are selling the devil’s lettuce.”
Initiative 502 legalized marijuana for adults in Washington through a 2012 popular vote. To create an industry easily overseen by existing governmental structures, the initiative’s drafters modeled their regulation of cannabis on the tiered system used to monitor the manufacturing, distribution and sales of liquor.
The state achieves a safe cannabis supply chain by regulating the packaging, with strict controls on labeling, but otherwise has shown little interest in environmental sustainability. “Bottom line, our minimum requirement is meeting goals for public safety and avoiding contamination,” said Joanna Eide, the policy and rules coordinator for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.
That means it is up to individual farmers to decide whether they can afford to go green. The Hollingsworth Cannabis Co. sells about 40 pounds of marijuana per month, whether as flower or oil. While it uses solar power and compost its plant waste on site, it cannot pay more for packaging. Consumers balk at paying the retail markup.
“I am sitting here looking at all the packaging that goes into weed. Put a pound of weed into a jar, break it down into one-gram units — that’s 454 single jars, tubes, bags,” co-owner Joy Hollingsworth said. “I don’t think there is any true way around this problem, the way the laws were produced in Washington” — specifying the weights in which marijuana can be sold.
Alex Cooley is co-founder of cannabis operation Solstice and founding president of the Cannabis Alliance. He said the sustainability focus of many cannabis companies has waned as competition has increased. “I’ve never sold so much cannabis for so little money,” he said. “As a result, we’re focused on pennies, and packaging is a big area that is easy to be cut.”
In Washington, there are more than twice as many producers and processors as retailers, leading to intense competition for shelf space in shops that display marijuana products in glass cases like jewelry.
Consequently, “the packaging is as important to consumers as the product itself,” said Jason McKee, general manager of Ganja Goddess, a retail pot shop in south Seattle.
Therein lies the problem. Many states are studying Washington’s laws to create a safe supply chain. But they, like consumers, are not focused on the combined effect of sending hundreds of millions of plastic tubes and Mylar bags into landfills every year. What’s more, many consumers mistakenly try to recycle that packaging.
“We have all these materials coming online that are not recyclable, and they’re causing contamination in the recycling system,” Trim said. “People assume that they are recyclable and feel that they should be recyclable. But they are not.”
The only viable option, Cooley said, is to make sustainable, recyclable packaging a regulatory requirement for the industry. But some fear that legislating higher production costs could bankrupt cannabis farmers who have difficulty accessing capital.
Jason Lammers is general manager for 420WholesalePack.com, a division of McCallum Packaging. As chair of the Cannabis Alliance’s packaging committee, Lammers is working to develop biodegradable and recyclable options with color printing, clear plastics and bright labels. “The goal is to eliminate single-use plastic from our industry,” Lammers said, noting that hemp-based alternatives are not yet comparably priced.
Alli Kingfisher, Washington state’s lead recycling official, has not had time to consider the cannabis industry’s waste, in part because she is so busy dealing with a bigger problem. China no longer accepts most mixed paper and scrap plastic from the West, because of policies meant to preserve that country’s environment.
Down tumbled the price of paper, whose marketability as a recycled product has sustained the recycling industry for decades. Bales are piling up at many West Coast recycling facilities forced to send that carefully collected and sorted recycling to landfills. In those vast waste fields, decomposing garbage generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that heats the planet.
“It’s incredibly painful,” Kingfisher said, “especially for Washingtonians, who are passionate, avid and committed recyclers.”