Taking a Holistic Approach to Reduce Cannabis WasteA true, whole-plant approach to cannabis and hemp waste management.
Waste not want not is a universal rule that's valid even within industrial production. For cannabis and hemp, the often less desirable biomass left after harvest isn't a burden. With some craft, these leftover stalks, shucks, and leaves can turn from a hassle into bioplastics, hempcrete, and textile-grade fiber.
But first, the infrastructure needs to be built and farmers need to create the connections and processes to properly utilize the less desirable biomass.
Disposal is a Holistic Conversation
Whether we're discussing balancing an ecology or the structure of the cannabis plant, holistic mindsets are often preferable. Here holistic means taking everything into account rather than focusing on one aspect. If you have a cannabis farm, you have a hefty amount of biomass or non-flowering organic matter. For decades many have thrown this material away. However, this is a waste of a gift.
While requiring some industrial processing, biomass is versatile. From biodiesel and ethanol to hempcrete and clothing, our organic matter can become anything. One solution offered by DTE Materials provides a carbon-neutral option for farmers to get involved in converting their harvest into useable products. Their product, Stonefiber, is sourced from CBD hemp waste. This material works for insulating walls, floors, and roofs. It also is rated for non-structural walls.
As DTE stands for Down to Earth, it seems logical that they use enzymes in their "ClearWash" process to break down the cannabinoids, mold, and residual oils remaining in the biomass. Retting is the technical term for micro-organisms stripping biomass to reveal more usable fiber underneath the raw material. Currently, this method is common practice in the production of flax and coconut fibers.
Such methodology allows producers to avoid the use of heat or solvents during processing. Either way, what you end up with is a spectrum of fiber material - the densest of which converts eventually into hempcrete and the thinnest of which converts eventually into bioplastic.
The Reality of Biofuel Potential
Bottlenecks in the production of biofuel don't have to do with research but with infrastructure. Connecticut researchers found a 97% conversion rate from hemp seed oil into biodiesel. That was back in 2010, yet still, we lack vibrant regional processing centers to streamline this process within the industry. Similar to many issues of the modern world, this is an issue of will. If a talented enough producer or a determined municipality began to create a nationalized supply chain, cannabis fuel could be a viable alternative.
Current conversations around the fuel are mixed, highlighting the need for more collaboration on every level of the supply chain. 2021 research from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry concluded that "Due to the recent increase of hemp-related markets and its high carbohydrate content, industrial hemp is a promising feedstock for bioethanol, biochemicals, and bioproducts productions. Despite its great potential as a feedstock in many applications, its biological conversion approach is still in infancy."
Over a decade after proving the potential of hemp fuel in Connecticut, we are still years away from cannabis-derived biofuel as a legitimate competitor to other sources. Still, it's a very exciting horizon, and anyone with the access to unify producer, processor, and the market is poised to lead the industry.
What Can You Do with Hemp Biomass?
For those interested in working with hemp industrially, companies such as The Hemp Plastic Company, DTE, or other companies providing hemp fibers and construction materials. Working Pedone in Puglia, Italy, is already working with hempcrete as one of their materials. The company is an architecture firm with over 60 years of experience. They contributed to the “Case nel verde” project, a 24-apartment building mostly made with hemp.
However, as with most industrial ideas, hemp waste management is challenging to do alone and the infrastructure needs to be built. Due to the processing which hemp requires, it would be most promising for us to invest in the supply chain. By making processing centers rather than relying on small farmers to process their waste, we could streamline the flow of hemp waste and thus actually use the majority of the biomass.
As consumer demand for hemp increases, using the entire plant becomes more than just a sustainability initiative, it becomes a catalyst for innovation and growth. The creativity of producers knows no bounds. Perhaps some private cultivators can create an excellent production area in their facility and do something spectacular with their biomass?