Sustainability in Cannabis Grows is Hard to Achieve

Francis Cassidy June 9, 2020 0 comments

Sustainability in cannabis will mean cultivators, investors, legislators, and dispensary workers all innovating for change.

The environmental impact of cannabis may surprise many. Between strict tamper-proof packaging laws, and huge energy consumption, sustainability is a definite issue in the cannabis industry. But thankfully, some non-profits are stepping up to ensure a greener future.

Few realize that the cultivation of a humble plant can lead to a large environmental footprint. But the issues around sustainability in the cannabis industry are primarily due to cultivation methods and the requirements imposed upon the legalized industry.

With its connection to the counter culture movement of the 1960s, cannabis has long been associated with environmentalists. But, when cannabis became a Schedule I substance, grow operations went indoors to avoid detection. While indoor cannabis generally provides higher and more potent yields, these bountiful harvests come at the cost of huge energy consumption that many consumers don’t readily perceive.

Why is Cannabis Considered So Dirty by Some?

In truth, it’s never the plant, but rather, it’s our methods of growing. Several factors influence the carbon footprint of cannabis, few of which are immediately apparent to the average consumer.

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sustainability in cannabis represented by fingers touching seeds in palm

The Costs of Growing Cannabis

Most cannabis is grown indoors, something that brings high costs in lighting. Power-hungry lights running for  twelve to eighteen hours a day require substantial energy. Add to that the fact that many lighting types will also raise the indoor temperature considerably, forcing cultivators to use air conditioner units, dehumidifiers, and fans to keep the temperature and humidity in the required range.

A study published the journal Energy Policy (2012), attempted to quantify the environmental cost of large-scale cannabis production. Evan Mills, who headed the study, claimed that “producing one kilogram of processed cannabis results in 4,600 kg of CO2 emissions.” To compound the statistic, he equated this to driving across the United States eleven times in a 44-mpg car!

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Water Use is High in the Cannabis Grow

While cannabis is a thirsty crop, it doesn’t require the quantities of water of other conventional crops like alfalfa, potatoes, or cotton (thankfully). Its water requirements are still considerable, and with an expanding legalized industry, those requirements look set to increase. A 2015 Washington Post report claimed that outdoor grow operations in Northern California required approximately 430 million liters of water per square kilometer. Further, with certain states in the US already experiencing issues around water sustainability, this issue may become more critical as legalization spreads.

Legal Cannabis Packaging Uses too Much Plastic

The legalized cannabis industry must abide by some unique restrictions when it comes to packaging, something that leads to more plastic waste than many comparable industries. Child-resistant packaging used in cannabis products means that tons of plastic end up in landfill sites every year. Canada, who legalized cannabis federally in late 2018, saw huge amounts of plastic waste following legalization. As a result, Health Canada took steps to encourage the use of innovative, and environmentally sound, packaging.

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Plastic Problem for US Cannabis

In the US, with individual state laws, things aren’t quite as unified. Authorities are, of course, concerned with keeping cannabis products out of the hands of children, and contaminant-free, but this careful approach comes at the cost of excessive waste.

In the state of Washington, every product must be individually wrapped, leading to a situation where packages containing multiple doses of edibles or concentrates must each be self-wrapped.


Increasing Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry

Issues around sustainability in the cannabis industry clearly exist. Consequently, several non-profit organizations have stepped up to the mark in an effort to steer the industry toward a greener, cleaner, and more sustainable, future.

They offer advice on lighting setups, develop industry-wide certifications, and also liaise with regulators to help ensure non-reactive policies with a longterm vision.

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The Resource Innovation Institute

One of the more well-known organizations involved includes the Resource Innovation Institute. They developed a range of guides on cannabis cultivation, run workshops, and also created a benchmark tool known as PowerScore that helps analyze energy and water consumption, along with the waste generated across hundreds of farms. It aims to provide a measure of an operation’s resource efficiency relative to other facilities. It provides enterprises with an indication of their competitiveness and provides tips on improving profitability. And what’s more, it’s free!

The Cannabis Conservancy

The Cannabis Conservancy provides an internationally recognized sustainability certification named “Simply Certified.” The certification protocol involves looking at any grow operation as a holistic entity, as opposed to a system made up of individual components.

This certification is recognized by many regulatory bodies. Moreover, the Cannabis Conservancy only grants the certification to cannabis organizations that adhere to Good Agricultural Practices. This involves the employment of waste reduction methods, energy-efficient lighting solutions, and water conservation techniques.

The Cannabis Certification Council

The Cannabis Certification Council is at the forefront of standardizing the industry. In association with Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, they crafted a free guide tailored to the best environmental practices in growing cannabis.

The guide deals with a wide array of subjects. These include energy efficiency and management, water filtration, purification, and recycling, waste management, air quality, and pest control. In 2018, they introduced the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium in an effort to lead the way towards clean, ethical, and sustainable practices in the cannabis industry.

Further, many of the groups mentioned above now have associations with several States in the US. They work alongside regulators to help ensure sustainable practices, sensible regulations, and ultimate transparency in the cannabis industry.

Human ingenuity knows no bounds. With a legacy culture based on environmentalism, cannabis will certainly bring these founding features into the legalized industry.

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Mills, Evan. (2012). The carbon footprint of indoor Cannabis production. Energy Policy. 46. 10.1016/j.enpol.2012.03.023.
Bauer S, Olson J, Cockrill A, van Hattem M, Miller L, Tauzer M, et al. (2015) Impacts of Surface Water Diversions for Marijuana Cultivation on Aquatic Habitat in Four Northwestern California Watersheds. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0120016.
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Francis Cassidy
Francis Cassidy is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of topics. With a particular focus on the cannabis industry, he aims to help ensure the smooth reintegration of cannabis back into global culture. When not writing, he's to be found exploring his new base in British Columbia, Canada. You can follow his other works including his photography on his blog