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How Cannabis Can! is Navigating Recycling in a Newly-Legal Industry

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The cannabis industry is forcing businesses in every sector from finance to waste to rapidly adapt to evolving state regulations while adhering to the federal government's stance on the plant.

The rush to open business doors as the United States progresses on the legalization front has left little time to set up the mechanisms needed for waste collection and recycling.

A former Cleveland Clinic practitioner with two decades of family and occupational medicine experience, Dr. Bridget Williams became discontented with the pharmaceutical approach of traditional medicine. She made a leap into the cannabis space with Green Harvest Health (GHH) and is determined to find a solution to the industry's waste dilemma. Cannabis was legalized in the state for medicinal use in 2016, and Ohio's first dispensary debuted in January 2019.

“I opened up my own offices with cannabis and CBD and then tried incorporating holistic practices as well,” Williams explains. “I was interested in really supporting the community that has supported our efforts.”

Shortly after opening her clinic, Dr. Williams - along with Ally Reaves, founder, Midwest CannaWomen and Solomon Oyeyemi, owner, Green Ideas and Wellness - launched Cannabis Can!, a nonprofit that is, among other efforts, working to establish a sustainable recycling system for the state. In a recent conversation, Dr. Williams and Waste360 outlined how legalization is impacting waste collection efforts and what progress is being made to create a recycling model for cannabis in Ohio.

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Dr.Bridget Williams

Waste360: There are communities across Ohio that don't have any kind of recycling program. Coupled with the fact that cannabis is still banned on a federal level, the issue of what to do with the industry's waste presents a host of problems. Has there been any progress made since 2019 in terms of being able to recycle cannabis or take that waste and put it toward use?

Dr. Williams: In 2019, when we first got started, the number of plastics and packaging that's related to [cannabis] sales – and we're not talking about just even the cannabis flower, but all the processing units as well – that are sold, were about over a million just from the manufactured product and probably over almost 3 million units of cannabis packaging from the plant material. So, nearly 5 million units of packaging have been produced and it is growing every day from sales.

Cannabis Can! is a nonprofit project under GHH Community Foundation. We are a group of cannabis businesses as well as cannabis business supporters that want to work collectively and network to serve the communities that are serving us here in Ohio. And so, before the recycling program came up, we ran two different food collection campaigns, raising over $5,000 of money and then over a half-ton of food.

In the short time that we've been an organization, we realized that a big problem that we were facing was the recycling issue, that there are aspects of the packaging, which is recyclable, but a great deal of it is non-recyclable pieces, including batteries. We wanted to see if we could find a solution to this issue. So, we started doing our research, looking to see what our options were. When we realized how big of a problem that was, we really wanted to not just do a campaign but actually develop a program that could serve the entire state. So, we were looking for recycling organizations that helped not only recycle non-recyclables but also recycle cannabis-related industry recyclables because everyone doesn't do that as well. And that's how we got in touch with TerraCycle, which is out of New Jersey. And that's basically what they do. They have a huge program out in Canada, where they are recycling packaging for a large group of dispensaries out there, and they are really excited to get involved with us down here in Ohio. So, we approached the Board of Pharmacy, which is the governing body for a great deal of the cannabis industry here, and they're really interested in what we have suggested and presented to them. And we're in the midst of writing our final proposal to them to actually be able to get the program started, and then actually raise the money to be able to fund the program.

Waste360: What are the challenges and the opportunities that starting a recycling program from scratch presents?

Dr. Williams: This is going to be an incredible opportunity for all in the medical cannabis industry. I think Ohio is really trying to create a stellar program that is well maintained. We have a number of restrictions, but I think what our restrictions offer is a well-controlled program. So, we're excited to add this into what could be very beneficial for the state. So, some of our challenges are creating a program from scratch and looking at residuals or being able to make sure that we are avoiding any concerns about any illegal behavior that might be related to residuals in cannabis packaging. So, we have to make sure that everything's secure and safe. And then we're also raising the money to be able to fund the program itself. One of the benefits of this is that being a nonprofit, we're looking for small and large donations that will be able to fund the recycling program. And then it's also a tax write-off for these corporations being that it’s coming through a nonprofit organization.  

I'm working with a group that's outside of Ohio, and we're working with the [Drug Enforcement Administration] DEA to make sure that if we're transporting any material at all, but it's still considered legal. So these are some of the things that have come up, but that we're actually working through and getting some really positive feedback from the DEA, from the state and from TerraCycle as well. We're at the point that we're creating the proposal to then get the final word and then start creating our fundraising program. That's one of the other things that we're looking at - grants for recycling programs that would support such a large effort.

Waste360: What other states have you been researching that already have something established?

Dr. Williams: TerraCycle is in a number of different states on a smaller scale. Not as far as a statewide program, I think what we've looked at probably a little bit closer is what they're doing in Canada. They have a large group of dispensaries that are doing something similar where they are starting with batteries and in phases. Other aspects of recycling, including the residuals and a phased program makes sense, and phasing in is what we're able to do. So we're looking at the plastics, the biowaste, the metal, as the program grows. That's what we've looked at the closest. Based on the proposal, it's obviously going to be very detailed and thorough, just based on the legality and all the intricacies of the cannabis industry.

Waste360: How long do you think this phasing will take, and how is it going to be implemented?

Dr. Williams: That is really dependent on the state. It could possibly be six months to a year before we would implement the next phase. When you're talking about a recycling program, it's not just about putting out a bin and hoping people show up with their materials. There's a great marketing campaign that has to go with that so that people know where to go, what they can bring, what they can even recycle still at home and what they need to bring to the dispensary to be able to recycle. Our plan is to have a bin in every dispensary in Ohio, which is going to end up being about 54 to start.

Waste360: Do you see patients asking for this type of option for recyclable packaging options, or a move towards sustainability in general?

Dr. Williams: Absolutely. We did a survey of the cannabis patients as well as the industry business owners, and 80% believe if there was a recycling program with cannabis and CBD packaging that 95% were willing to support and participate in the recycling program for Ohio.

Waste360: What are the next steps for the organization?

Dr. Williams: We're really in the midst of making sure that this effort is successful. So, creating the proposal, the fundraising and getting this project off the ground is a huge, huge effort for the organization, and that's going to be a great deal of our focus. As we go on, we're building more and more of what we consider collaborative networking. Cannabis can be a very competitive space, but we have the most optimistic, friendly and wonderful people that work with us. And it's creating more projects that really support Ohio. That's where our focus is – on supporting the Earth with recycling and supporting our communities by doing food donations. We would love to do more community projects that support the people around us as well. As we move forward, I think we'll continue to have a lot of growth and continue to do more and more projects that support the community.

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