Twenty years ago legal cannabis hit the scene in California and it now has a global projection of a $146.4 billion market by 2025 not including the hemp CBD market which is projected to be $1.3 billion dollar by 2022. The ecological damage inflicted – from seed to consumption – is horrifying to think about out and isn’t even scalable monetarily because who can decide the dollar value of our air and water?
New Frontier Data has found the legal US cannabis grow operations used over 1.1 million Mwh of electricity and emitted over 427,000 tons of CO2 in 2017. That’s the equivalent of the electricity needed to run 92,500 homes for one year and emissions equivalent to 92,600 vehicles. While in comparison to other industries this may seem miniscule, there are many opportunities to clean it up.
The numbers are a real buzz kill. While in the beginning cannabis struggled to become legit, we now have an industry with total sales surpassing beer and cigarettes. It’s time for the green scene to go eco-green. Cannabis and hemp farming are on the rise thanks in part to the Farm Bill and numerous passages of states legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis. Methods vary by grow operation. While there is enough scrutiny to go around each sector of the industry has an opportunity to improve operations with sustainable practices. In addition to environmental benefits, the image of environmentally conscientious operations appeals to customers. Although it may take a while for sustainable practices to be fully commercially adopted, many cannabis and hemp companies are making leaps and bounds to create a more eco-friendly future. Utilizing renewable energy, focusing on water conservation, implementing sustainable practices, and reinvesting in green practices are just the start.
A Colorado based work group was formed to address these very issues. Their website states: “The Cannabis Sustainability Work Group was formed in 2016 with a mission to promote sustainability in the cannabis industry through education, the development and dissemination of best practices, and the facilitation of dialogue between the cannabis industry, the community, and technical experts.“
The Work Group holds an annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium featuring leaders in sustainable innovation directly geared toward the pot industry. From alternative energy and growing methods, to extraction and environmental concerns, the symposium targets areas where the industry has room for implementing increased sustainable practices. Connecting with this work group is an ideal place to begin for companies looking for a path forward.
Statistics show indoor cannabis and hemp cultivation uses the largest amount of energy when compared to other production methods (outdoor or greenhouse) and creates the largest associated carbon footprint. As of October 2018 Denver was home to more than 591 active cultivation licenses operating out of 295 locations and has the capacity to consume a significant amount of natural resources. Because of this, Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPEH) offers a Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices Guide that recognizes indoor cannabis cultivation as a resource intensive process. Energy demands remain the greatest contributor to the industry’s environmental footprint. Emily Backus, Sustainability Advisor for DDPHE stated that the totality of the energy use, number of indoor grows and their locations are based on building codes and local jurisdictions, therefore a blanket energy use cap or regulation would not be a suitable method of overall use reduction.
Outdoor grows are the most efficient, but the ability to grow year round in an extremely controlled environment makes indoor grows the most utilized method in Colorado. By creating efficiencies wherever possible, reductions can be made on the largest impacts of a carbon footprint, while simultaneously saving money and resources. The primary areas to analyze in a business’s overall energy use are lighting and HVAC systems, quality of insulation in facilities, operational machinery, use of traditional and renewable energy, fleet vehicles, composting and/or recycling programs, the use of carbon neutral ingredients, use of carbon neutral, recyclable, or compostable packaging, and extraction methods.
Colorado cultivation facilities licensing requirements – to open and operate within a specified period – often push growers to focus on the fastest rather than the most sustainable methods of cultivation. This focus on speed rather than energy efficiency increases the environmental costs of cannabis cultivation. These regulations can be problematic for businesses that want to construct high-tech greenhouses customized for cannabis cultivation with sustainability priorities. Regulations that stifle sustainability need to be addressed from an eco-friendly standpoint, with long term sustainability at the forefront.
Denver does not have regulations that place special conditions on energy use for cannabis businesses, but Boulder County Marijuana Licensing requires commercial marijuana growers to either offset electricity use with renewable energy or pay a 2.16-cent charge per kWh. Facilities should check with their electric provider for programs that incentivize renewable energy upgrades and make changes that increase their energy efficiency and decrease their overall use. Backus stated that Exel Energy consumers may be eligible for energy efficiency rebates and could offset initial cost of specific projects. Utilizing energy efficient practices and sustainable methods not only reduces the overall environmental footprint but has the potential to lower overhead costs and product prices.
Water and energy are inextricably linked,. Water should not be a single-pass ingredient for cannabis production. Cultivation facilities equipped with water storage can easily incorporate water recapture methods into existing cultivation practices. Again, utilizing water recapture methods and making some changes to the watering schedule can significantly decrease costs and usage.
In addition, the cannabis industry directly impacts air quality in two predominant operations; plant growth cultivation and Marijuana Infused Product (MIP) facilities. On a positive note, cannabis is unique for calculating carbon footprints in that it uses CO2 to grow; therefore, a negative value can be applied to the overall carbon footprint of the operation. Nonetheless, the DDPHE Cannabis Best Management Practices Guide discusses several opportunities to increase carbon filtration and reduce odors.
When it comes to soil, the opportunities for more sustainable soil use include soil recycling and using living soil. Considering that many soils used in cannabis grows contain raw virgin materials such as peet, which has an incredibly slow regrowth rate, growers should be considering the environmental impact their soil use has. Not only does sustainable soil practices decrease environmental footprint, it has the potential to increase the quality of the overall growth. The DDPHE Cannabis Best Management Practices Guide intends to add soil to their guide on their next release in October 2019.
The cannabis industry, like any other, generates waste and can benefit from the adoption of sustainable waste management practices. Colorado’s Retail and Medical Marijuana Rules include multiple provisions that either encourage or create challenges for reducing the environmental impact of waste from the cannabis industry. For example, the rules explicitly allow plant waste to be disposed of in a compost facility, encouraging that practice. Alternative opportunities to use plant biomass waste are ever increasing, including companies that now contract with growers to create products like fibre, hurd and composite plastic blends.
Consumers hold great purchasing power that has the ability to encourage companies to implement sustainability improvements. Simultaneously, this is an opportune time to address cannabis and hemp regulations that conflict with sustainability, like packaging. In the US, single use plastics use an immense amount of raw material to create and are recovered at an extremely low rate in comparison to production according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The cannabis industry utilizes single use plastics several times in every transaction.
Denver based Sana Packaging has brought sustainable cannabis packaging options to market. Currently they offer both a hemp based plastic line as well as a reclaimed ocean waste plastic line. While their product lines may be limited, their innovation has brought in companies from across the nation that are interested in implementing sustainable packaging for their cannabis products. In addition, all their hemp is locally sourced from either Colorado or Kentucky. Ronjit Basak-Smith, the CEO of Sana Packaging, says, “The industry should be responsible for all the raw material and waste it consumes and produces.” Every industry should be held accountable but cannabis is uniquely positioned to lead in sustainable practices. While implementing more sustainable packaging practices may cause an increase in cost initially, the cost can be passed on to consumers who value the efforts being made to make the industry and the earth more sustainable.
Hoping to lead the way, Canada based Natural Fibre Tech is not only innovating new ways to deal with biomass waste, they are also about to unleash an affordable mobile method for local US farmers to do the same. Using any kind of forestry residue (cannabis, hemp and other bio blends) the ability to make reclaimed waste blends that can be utilized in endless applications is about to be available to every farmer. While creating a turnkey model that removes economic barriers, their mobile decorticator offers the opportunity for farmers to add value to their field waste by creating hurd and fibre for products like biofibre blocks and boards. Jesse Hahn, Vice President of the company, says they have no need to contract with farmers for bio waste as the market is flooded with it right now. He instead wants the opportunity for farmers or co-ops to be able to fill the gap in the value chain, making their “waste” worth more by turning it into hurd and fibre, then bringing it to market. They intend to offer their mobile device with a bundled buy back contract for the finished product.
For far too long industries, not just cannabis, have not been held accountable for their lack of sustainability. It is time that leaders in the industry project that needed accountability from field to home and for consumers to demand more sustainable practices and procedures from the company’s they buy from.