Beyond the high: Putting cannabis waste to work

A panel discusses opportunity in the budding cannabis industry at the CWCBExpo in Boston on Oct. 27, 2019. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service.

By Caitlin Faulds
BU News Service

BOSTON — The burgeoning cannabis industry is generating billions of dollars, but it is also creating massive amounts of plant waste that could be used as food, clothing, paper or building material, argued several speakers at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition (CWCBExpo) in Boston this weekend.  

“While CBD is important and we need to make a whole lot of it, it’s not the only thing that we need to do with hemp,” said Guy Rocourt, co-founder of California cannabis wellness company Papa & Barkley.

The CWCBExpo ran Thursday through Saturday, providing a space for dispensary owners, growers, suppliers, researchers and regulators to build networks in the midst of the so-called “green rush,” which has exploded in the past five years due to decriminalization and legalization of marijuana throughout the United States.

Vendors chat with a visitor on the exhibit floor at the CWCBExpo in Boston on Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/ BU News Service.

In Colorado, medical and retail marijuana sales have steadily increased since legalization in 2014, generating over $7 billion to date, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Most profit comes from selling the high-inducing, THC-laden flowers, or isolating cannabinoids, the plant’s psychoactive chemicals, to create more mild cannabis products like CBD oil, according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

But according to Rocourt, this cannabinoid-focused extraction results in huge amounts of unused plant material called biomass.

“Nobody’s even asking what happens to the biomass after that,” Rocourt said. “You got the money out of it, now it’s going to – waste? Or going hopefully to a proper landfill or something? I don’t know.”

This versatility is left untapped, though, due to a lack of in-state hemp and cannabis processors, and strict federal laws outlawing interstate cannabis trade, according to Mass. Hemp Coalition organizer Julia Agron.

“We really lack a lot of the infrastructure,” Agron said. “This space needs engineers, it needs technology.”

John Dvorak, a self-proclaimed “hempologist” who has been studying the plant for 25 years and shares hemp history on his website Hempology.org, is a staunch believer that the opportunities for this waste are endless. 

Dvorak said oils and fibers from leftover biomass can be made into milks, soaps, t-shirts, paper, packaging and even “hempcrete” – a hemp-based building material similar to concrete.

There are over 1,000 cannabis growers in Massachusetts, but only two processing plants that are unable to keep up with the massive amounts of waste being produced, said Adam Souza, co-founder of hemp farm Herban Acres.

But building infrastructure from the ground up takes investments of time and money that not many growers can afford, especially in a legislative environment that is notably unstable, Souza said.

“It’s what I call a catch-422,” Dvorak said of the constant regulatory tug-of-war.

The tug-of-war is a roadblock to productivity, Argon said, but the resulting infrastructural delay does have a positive side. The lag time could give the cannabis industry time to think sustainably, build intentionally and avoid the pitfalls of other agricultural industries.

“Hemp can save the planet, but it doesn’t have to,” Agron said. “It can still be grown as a mono-crop, it can still be sprayed with pesticides. It can still denude our topsoil just like corn and just like wheat, and it can still end up a subsidized crop in the U.S. just like all of those are.”

To avoid that future, the industry needs to preserve its home-grown, eco-friendly roots Rocourt said.

“What got this movement here was things that were made in a garage and formulated in a kitchen,” Rocourt said.

The industry should consider the needs of the farmer and the environment, Rocourt said, and hold itself accountable. If done well, it could stand as a model for sustainable agriculture practice.

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