The cannabis industry faces sustainability issues, with most topics circling back to those that relate to the industry’s energy use, water use, pesticide application and plastics. As additional states legalize cannabis, it would appear that the focus is toward a more comprehensive and thoughtful approach in the planning stages to areas frequently critiqued. The industry is working to address these. Let’s explore the major issues and the current mitigations to each.
Indoor cannabis production is very dependent on energy. From operating lighting systems to fans, almost every step of the indoor growing process requires electricity. Even outdoor cannabis operations use their fair share of energy, from the power needed to operate required security and camera systems to running well pumps. When legalization started, states tended to focus more on security and compliance issues than energy savings. That priority seems to be shifting, however, as the industry matures.
According to the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, the energy used per square foot by a standard grow operation is approximately ten times the energy used per square foot by an office building of the same size. To mitigate the high energy use, utility companies are helping cannabis operations offset huge energy demands by working cooperatively with those in the industry, offering technical help and expertise during facility design and construction, as well as offering financial incentives to offset energy-efficient equipment purchases, which can cost more initially but tends to save both money and energy use later. In the Pacific Northwest, three Oregon and Washington utility companies have generated notable energy savings through incentives and assistance provided to the legalized cannabis industry in those states: Energy Trust of Oregon, Puget Sound Energy and Tacoma Power.
Water use is a hot topic in the cannabis industry. Unlike some crops (like peanuts, for example), good access to and frequent watering is essential for the success of this crop.
While indoor growing can be a more efficient crop to water with less runoff and evaporation as compared to sun-grown cannabis, water is in a finite supply. In a 2013 survey, before the proliferation of legalized cannabis, the U.S. Government Accountability Office expected freshwater shortages to continue into the next decade, even under what was described as “average” conditions, not accounting for rapid population growth, inadequate rainfall or snowpack, or above-average economic growth. Notwithstanding, 40 states can expect to see freshwater shortages by 2024.
Companies are working to conserve the resource. Surna Inc. offers consultation services and also manufactures specially designed water-efficient indoor cultivation equipment, including designs for indoor operations that capture condensate for reuse. The potential result? Saving gallons upon gallons of water while also saving money on the utility bill.
Other smart water conservation techniques include small but calibrated waterings, which helps to reduce runoff and evaporation, as well as growing aeroponically or hydroponically.
Pesticide and Fungicide Application
While the application of pesticides and fungicides might be necessary to eliminate disease or insects that cause plant damage, there’s still the lingering question about what happens when some of these chemicals, while approved for food crops, are lit and inhaled by consumers. For example, Eagle 20, a fungicide used by grape growers, releases hydrogen cyanide (a toxic gas) when heated.
This topic essentially comprises two parts. One, there are many unanswered questions about what harm these chemicals might do when heated and inhaled. Two, gaps in testing requirements issued by states where cannabis is legal — this includes what testing is required and what pesticides and fungicides are approved for use by a particular state — leaves more questions than answers.
These gaps are being progressively addressed by the testing and regulations being implemented in more mature cannabis markets, and those states where cannabis is soon-to-be legal seem to be taking their cues from previous states’ regulatory missteps and adhering to more stringent guidelines. In addition to more robust testing, many farmers are opting to use products approved for organic farming. Until federal legalization, however, cannabis products cannot obtain official organic certification (the organic designation comes straight from the feds). Utilizing organic products to promote growth, mitigate pests and reduce plant ailments is a responsible method to ensure the safest and most environmentally friendly way for the cannabis industry to operate. Operating as an organic enterprise now, before it’s federally recognizable, could pay off down the road once national cannabis legalization is in effect.
The cannabis industry has turned plastic-heavy. From growing to storing to packaging, plastics comprise almost every step of the process.
Most of the plastics used on the farming side of the equation, like trellis netting, PVC irrigation parts, polypropylene cloth pots or propagation trays, etc., could potentially be reused if care is taken during the set-up and take-down of infrastructure each season or growing cycle. But the reality is that in most cases, growth-cycle specific, plastic-based materials are set up, used, and then disposed of before the cycle repeats itself.
More biodegradable and UV-stabilized materials are entering the marketplace as the cannabis industry matures, which points to sustainability as a key selling point and trend.
The issue of plastics in the storage and packaging stages, however, typically center around specific requirements placed on cannabis-containing products. From single-use, plastic child-proof bottles to containers requiring a certain size in order to meet state-mandated labeling requirements, the sheer amount of single-use plastic components used by the cannabis industry is waste that usually ends up in landfills.
To combat the problem, companies are getting creative and environmentally conscious. Colorado-based Sana Packaging, in an effort to combat the industry’s plastic problem, is manufacturing industry-compliant containers that are hemp-based. Taking the sustainability issue one step further, the company also manufactures its products in the U.S. to reduce further environmental issues related to transporting goods from overseas. An added benefit is that this practice retains jobs on American soil.
Another company, CannAmerica, which owns various cannabis brands in three states, took a creative approach to sustainability. By reducing the sheer amount of packaging materials, including using less plastic and cardboard in its packaging, the company maintained packaging compliance while minimizing transportation inefficiencies, all while shipping the same amount of product — they simply swapped out hard plastic containers to mylar packaging.
Sustainability is not only attractive to consumers, but it can also help increase a company’s profits while minimizing the industry’s footprint on the planet. It’s important that sustainable cannabis operations educate consumers on the multiple benefits of buying from companies that adhere to environmentally friendly practices. Reducing energy use and water consumption is a smart business decision on several levels, and that, combined with organic farming methods, has the potential to bring to market a high-value product that educated consumers will demand.