By Jourdan Binder
From the outside looking in, it is easy to assume the cannabis industry operates in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly fashion. Because cannabis culture has long since been represented as eco-conscious “hippy types,” many think the industry has established protocols for environmental protection. However, a more in-depth look at the modern cannabis industry exposes a field lacking in sufficient sustainability measures.
Looking at the cannabis supply chain in detail, you will quickly see that nearly every phase of production comes with a substantial carbon footprint. To understand what sorts of sustainability challenges are faced by cannabis companies, it’s helpful to assess every link in the supply chain. From cultivation to retail, we must begin a fruitful dialogue to work towards improved sustainability in cannabis.
To illuminate exactly where the industry is falling short on environmental action, we put together a few key improvements that will help sustainability in cannabis.
The contemporary cannabis industry features a diverse array of cultivation practices, each presenting its own challenges and opportunities for sustainability. Most notably, indoor and outdoor cultivators each have avenues for environmental impact. Within each practice, it’s possible to devise methods to curb the consumption of limited natural resources like fossil fuels and water.
It is no secret that indoor growers use massive amounts of electricity. According to Forbes , “even before legalization, 1% of all electricity used in the entire United States was consumed by cannabis. Today, almost 4% of Denver’s total electricity usage can be attributed to the crop.” As such, almost all new sustainability measures with indoor growing deal with the issue of electricity.
As indoor cultivators look for new methods to conserve electricity, they often look at the development of new technologies. Of these new technologies, light-emitting diode (LED) lights show great promise in curbing the electrical consumption of indoor grows.
Traditionally, grow lights use the most electricity out of any piece of equipment in a grow room. However, leading LED lighting manufacturers claim that their lights can reduce energy usage in grow rooms by up to 40%. Even more, as they run far cooler than metal halide lights, LEDs reduce the electricity needed to power commercial HVAC systems.
While indoor cannabis cultivation struggles with electricity usage, outdoor growing falls short on water conservation methods. In understanding water consumption issues with outdoor crops, it’s important to look at the landscape on which cannabis gardens are often planted. According to the website Nature , this means considering “the source” of the water which fuels cannabis farms.
Cannabis plants thrive in sunny, arid climates. Not only does the species thrive on abundant sunshine, but overly humid conditions wreak havoc on crops due to mold. As such, without the aid of greenhouses, commercial outdoor cannabis is almost exclusively grown in desert climates like California and Nevada. Yet, while sunshine in these regions is abundant, water is not.
Due to limited water supplies in places like California, outdoor growers are constantly looking for ways to conserve usage. Of these methods, drip irrigation systems offer a good way to monitor irrigation output while also ensuring water is efficiently used directly on a plant’s root ball. Secondly, many outdoor growers conduct water conservation methods by insulating soil with a layer of straw. In doing so, they help ensure water doesn’t evaporate quickly in the hot desert sun.
Cannabis Retail Business
As we work our way to the end of the cannabis supply chain, we arrive at retail businesses. Most notably, cannabis companies are notorious for using excessive amounts of materials in packaging their products. Oftentimes, MJ Biz Daily tells us, cannabis businesses use “extra layers of plastic and paper to ensure that flower or vape products are childproof and don’t fall into the wrong hands.” Similarly, cannabis retailers are known to sell singular joints in plastic “doob tubes,” which are quickly discarded after a single-use.
There are a few options for working towards sustainability in cannabis product packaging. For starters, businesses should strive to use recycledmaterials whenever possible. In like fashion, cannabis companies are encouraged to use plant-based materials for their packaging, including those made from hemp. On the consumer end of the spectrum, it is recommended that people repurpose cannabis packaging for something else.
To illustrate, hearty baggies and glass jars can be reused for any number of purposes. For our own branded product division, City Trees, we took the initial step of shifting to packaging made almost entirely from recyclable materials. Wherever possible, we also use plant-based inks for any print materials, and made intentional choices in design to create a package that consumers will want to hold onto and reuse. While our work is never truly finished, these incremental steps are part of our responsibility to move the industry forward.
As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, it presents unique opportunities for betterment. Today, as the market begins to show signs of maturation, it’s time we take a closer look at sustainability. This process begins with a careful assessment of the cannabis supply chain. In looking at both cultivation and retail, there are several areas where we can improve environmental impacts.
For cultivators, key environmental indicators lie in the consumption of limited natural resources. While we have mastered cannabis horticulture, we are sorely lacking in balancing these processes with sustainability measures. In both cases, the answers seem to be found with improved technologies and methodologies.
Retail cannabis businesses are in a difficult position, as state-mandated compliance laws often require them to use excessive packaging in the interest of child safety. While the development of sustainable packaging materials is a great start in curbing waste issues, a true change will likely require policy reform on the parts of regulatory agencies.
Whatever your cannabis business model, it is important that we begin a dialogue about the environment. Looking to the future, it would be great to see the cannabis industry setting examples of sustainability for others to follow.