Committee Blog: Future-Proofing Cannabis Manufacturing Facilities
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Committee Blog: Future-Proofing Cannabis Manufacturing Facilities


by NCIA’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee

As the cannabis industry scales and more states legalize for adult-use, the demand for consumable cannabis products increases. To keep up with the demand, manufacturing facilities have to not only scale, but stay ahead of the curve as far as conserving resources, constantly innovating facility design to meet regulations and third-party compliance, e.g., ASTM Cannabis Certification Program and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).

Here are a few areas of environmental, product quality, and worker impacts to consider when planning for the future of your manufacturing facility. 

Energy

As with any manufacturing facility, cannabis manufacturers pull power from shared electrical grids, meaning there is increasing pressure to reduce energy usage as they scale their operations. There are many design strategies for facilities to consider, whether they retrofit or build new, to reduce environmental impacts and position their operation for a sustainable future. One example for the cannabis industry is to recapture and repurpose heat generated from the processing equipment used for manufacturing products. Another example is incorporating climate control technologies to reduce the amount of energy required in extreme environments. More and more energy companies are starting to incentivize cannabis operations to reduce their energy usage and offer guidance on how to do so. Furthermore, regulators are beginning to enforce energy usage requirements for manufacturing facilities. 

There are many ways to reduce your facility’s energy usage from efficient lighting to control system maintenance and making sure your odor and emissions control systems are designed to your facility’s specific emission load and mechanical design. Whenever possible, installing cloud-based smart systems with the ability to capture energy usage and system maintenance data will help to improve your facility’s energy efficiency. More areas of impact and best management practice guidance can be found in the NCIA’s Environmental Sustainability Report, released in October 2020.

Air Quality

Manufacturers of Infused Products, or MIPs, are Colorado’s manufacturing facilities, which is one example of a market segment facing regulatory enforcements for air quality control. The large-volume use of solvents for extraction leads regulators to monitor the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from the use of these solvents, as VOCs are contributors to low-level ozone formation, poor air quality, and public health issues. These solvents are also potential contributors to water contamination if wastewater is not discharged properly from the facility and are consequently on the radar for regulators to tightly monitor. The EPA statesthe main concern indoors is the potential for VOCs to adversely impact the health of people that are exposed. While VOCs can also be a health concern outdoors, EPA regulates VOCs outdoors mainly because of their ability to create photochemical smog (or low-level ozone) under certain conditions.

Luckily, smart technology such as cloud-based platforms using the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) for control equipment is increasingly being installed in manufacturing facilities, allowing for the collection and monitoring of facility data, such as emissions. Furthermore, the same technologies that are used for odor mitigation, such as molecular filtration systems (aka carbon scrubbers) also remove VOCs in the facilities’ air space from both the products and the solvents in the facility. The ability to prove this removal to regulators with real-time data will help reduce facilities’ contributions to VOC emissions when regulators require reporting.

Worker Health & Safety

In addition to environmental impacts from VOCs, along with other emissions inside of a cannabis manufacturing facility, there is also the issue of indoor air quality and worker health. There is not a lot known about the potential impacts of the processing of cannabis on indoor air quality. What is known is that terpenoids that are emitted in the cultivation and processing of cannabis can contribute, through a series of atmospheric reactions, to the production of known air pollutants. Terpenoids, such as monoterpenes (C10H16) and sesquiterpenes (C15 H24), are highly reactive compounds with atmospheric lifetimes ranging from seconds to hours. These compounds on their own are non-toxic. However, the atmospheric reactions they participate in can result in a range of low volatility products that create aerosols or ozone. These two compounds have clear implications for indoor air quality and thus occupational health. 

Uncertainty remains as to the extent of the formation of these pollutants since previous studies have been hampered by a lack of reliable data and are predicated on conditions and practices prevalent in illicit operations. Given that the methods employed in these illegal operations are driven by different needs, the methods currently used in legalized facilities may produce vastly different conditions. This speaks to the urgent need for rigorous new scientific research and evaluation to aid this new industry and relevant regulatory bodies in assessing the current occupational environmental threats of marijuana processing and provide solutions to mitigate those impacts.

Quality by Design

The competitive licensing process, regulatory requirements, and lack of knowledge on scaled cannabis production has contributed to facilities that were not designed to properly ensure control of environments, the process flow that minimizes risks of cross-contamination and the adequate storage for the many types of raw materials, work in process, and final products. The result is an inefficient operation that may have been spared significant Capital Expenses (CapEx), but requires significant Operational Expenses (OpEx) to maintain.

The concept of Quality by Design (QbD) was first developed by the quality pioneer Dr. Joseph Juran. It posits that quality should be designed into a product and recognizes that most quality issues are a result of poor initial design. It is supported by long-standing evidence that increased testing does not necessarily improve product quality. 

Currently, there is an overarching emphasis on final product testing as the determinant of whether cannabis products are safe for release into the marketplace. This has pitted labs, regulators, and producers against each other, leading to accounts of lab shopping, exclusive contracts, and other nefarious activities. This approach does not serve anyone, and is in stark contrast with the concept of Quality by Design.

Transitioning from a Quality Control Approach to Quality by Design

Transitioning from our current processes into a proactive Quality by Design approach requires an understanding of Good Manufacturing Practices or GMPs. The first set of GMPs for finished pharmaceuticals were established for enforcement by the United States FDA in the Federal Register in 1963. Since then, GMPs have been created for and adopted globally for nearly all products that can be consumed or applied for human and veterinary use –- categorized under dietary supplements, food, cosmetics, and of course, pharmaceuticals. GMPs represent the minimum sanitary and processing requirements to ensure safe and consistent products. Consider the road map and cross-over between major FDA cGMP (current Good Manufacturing Practices) by industry sector.

GMP regulations are written by the FDA and adopted in the code of federal regulations under the authority given to the FDA by various laws. Almost all of these regulations are performance standards. There are dozens to potentially thousands of substantially different products regulated under each category of GMP standards. It is up to each manufacturer to ensure their unique processes meet the GMP standards. In this way the regulations are flexible yet force all manufacturers to operate with a minimum level of rigor that includes programs that proactively mitigate risks that can lead to product failures and cannot be controlled simply through final product testing. They take a holistic approach to facility operations, starting with the facility culture, design, layout, placement, and selection of equipment, along with ongoing training, supplier qualification, environmental monitoring, and executive commitment.

The current status quo of manufacturing facility design has been built on a quality control approach. Most facility owners believe cannabis will be assigned a cGMP category based on the final product type and have been trying to build compliant facilities under this assumption. Some States have incorporated by reference the federal GMP regulations. However the competitive application process and focus on final product safety via testing has created an environment in which facility owners feel compelled to do as much if not more than the other facilities in order to meet regulator expectations and all focus is on the final product, not the process. In order to win the application, businesses want to look ‘better’ than the other applicants so they tack on as many hazard controls as they can think of. This has given regulators unrealistic expectations as to the best practices required to operate responsibly. Instead of quantifying hazards by collecting data and making informed decisions as to how to best eliminate risks, facilities are simply copying hazard controls they have seen used in other industries with hopes they meet the regulators’ expectations of what a GMP facility looks like. This culture of adding as many hazard controls as possible is a quality control approach focused on the final product, not a Quality by Design approach focused on the process. As a result, envelope in an envelope style facilities in which the manufacturing process is entombed in layers of energy and resource consuming hazard controls are commonplace.

There are other ways of designing compliant facilities; ways that could be more efficient and use less energy and resources. With a Quality by Design approach, these options become explorable. With quantified hazards the process can be approached holistically and significant design questions asked, e.g.. how much energy goes into the outer envelope and how much product quality/safety is gained from that?

In the Southwest deserts, there is consideration given to opening canopy/atrium style extraction spaces that would use less energy while providing the safety of unconstrained open atmosphere ventilation. The important question to ask when considering alternative facility designs is – How much energy/resources goes into containing human contamination versus the likelihood and the actual consequences? Perhaps manufacturing facility workers can wear long sleeves, pants, and hair restraints and that will be sufficient versus wearing a full body gown?

Quantification of Risks

Quantifying the processes and proven hazards of the cannabis manufacturing industry will allow for more informed design and operational choices versus prescriptive solutions that may potentially over-mitigate the risks and possibly introduce additional risks. Moreover, this data would provide validation that the design and operational choices made are in fact the best practices. Instead of scrambling to follow each standard in a quality control approach, Quality by Design considers the whole process, how the 10 principles of GMP standards apply and focuses on finding the most efficient strategies to eliminate risks.

A Way Forward

Training is vital for the manufacturers to know the next steps and why they are critical for the future of cannabis extraction and post-processing. Knowledge is required to put valuable technology, tools, and equipment in place with the least operational downtime. Further, it is necessary to accept guidance from verified knowledgeable support, such as from a vetted supplier. Lastly, risk mitigation education is necessary to highlight the reality of long-term savings and sustainability versus the common short-sighted tendency for immediate cost savings, which can result in significant consequences for a business such as TerrAscend Canada’s 2021 recall of infused gummies due to mold contamination.

 

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