Jun 01, 2019 01:40PM
● By Leland Rucker
Almost two thirds of states have medical cannabis programs of some kind, and more than eight in 10 Americans are in favor of legalizing it for therapeutic purposes. Cannabis compounds like cannabidiol (CBD) are marketed for their health benefits just as THC is for its relaxing and elevating qualities.
People who buy and consume cannabis are more interested than ever in healthier, environmentally sound options, and they’re willing to pay for them. A recent Brightfield Group study found that consumers in all age groups are concerned about consistency and safety when it comes to how pot is grown and processed and whether it’s been tested for quality and impurities, and they’re ready to pay a premium for quality.
But let’s face it. Much cannabis, whether by design or through regulation, is grown indoors, often in retrofitted industrial warehouses, with all the attendant concerns about pests, insects, and mold. It takes a lot of electricity many grow operations run 24 hours a day and energy is expensive and a drain on the electrical grid. Even when it was illegal, cannabis growing operations used up one percent of national electricity use. Today the more than 300 grow facilities in Denver alone account for four percent of the city’s total electricity demand.
As for people’s concern about whether or not the cannabis products they’re consuming are organic, it’s nearly impossible to know. Because cannabis is illegal on a federal level, the government hasn’t created nor will it certify any cannabis as organic, as it does with other agricultural products. That leaves it to states and individual testing companies to come up with and maintain quality standards.
Cannabis packaging, much of it originally designed with child resistance as the primary concern, is often excessive and inefficient. Then there’s the water and waste involved in producing cannabis products (a lot of both), all which need to be considered as we become more aware of environmental impacts on health and well-being.
Consumers and company owners alike are coming to grips with the issue. “2019 is the year that people are paying attention,” says Derek Smith of the Resource Innovation Institute, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that promotes communication and sustainability amongst all parties in the cannabis industry. “We have the opportunity to be the biggest and best industry, one that stands for more than just selling stuff.”
Sustainability was far down on the consideration list when states began to legalize. Business owners had to start their operations from scratch, while state regulators had to devise common-sense rules for something that had been illegal for decades. There were no best practices to start from.
“I think there’s lots of room for improvement. But it’s also time for the industry to embrace it,” says Emily Backus, sustainability advisor for the city and county of Denver. “They don’t have this long legacy of bad operators to overcome. They’re consolidating, and there are big-money players, which creates an easier financial path for making investments. I think at this point we see that the only way to go is up.”
Backus works with all sectors of the industry to promote communication and cooperation between business owners, governments, and other affected parties such as electric companies to develop strategies for lowering costs and building sustainable business models.
Lowering electricity costs could be beneficial to everyone, Backus says, but there are many nuances. “It’s tricky to talk about sustainability in this industry because there are so many techniques and styles,” she says. “Hydroponic grows won’t have the same requirements as outdoor grows.”
Lighting is the major factor to consider, even for home growers. Creating an environment that mimics sunlight and the outdoors is daunting, and we’re just beginning to develop practices to do that.
Outdoor cultivation has a lower electricity footprint, and regenerative soil practices can improve carbon footprint because you’re restoring carbon into the soil. “But the reality is that no matter what type of cultivation a farm is employing,” says Smith, “we can all do better.”
To that end, more companies are employing LED (light-emitting diode) lighting for their operations, Smith says, but the cost has been prohibitive for many smaller growers. Today, more options and financial incentives are available to help lower the upfront costs. “LED is one of the clear options for improved lowering operating costs,” says Smith. “There are studies that are beginning to show there may be quality benefits.”
RIIoffers a primer on LED pros and cons on its website as part of its free resources for growers. “If you’re thinking about making the switch, it’s what you need to know before you make that jump,” Smith says.
As part of its commitment to lowering the industry’s footprint, RII has gathered a huge amount of data for farms and grow operations to use. The Cannabis Power Source Tool allows owners to benchmark their companies against others to make decisions about how to cut energy usage. “More than 200 farms have given us data that we hold confi dentially,” Smith explains. “We provide that benchmark so they can know their strengths and weaknesses and get resources to become more efficient.”
The possibilities seem endless, and more solutions are coming online all the time. A micro-grid company called Scale has a system that brings together solar, battery storage, and natural gas generators, potentially cutting energy costs by up to 35 percent. Another one, GrowX Aeroponics, is designing systems to improve yield while reducing water consumption.
Another problem is HVAC, or air-conditioning systems, which are critical parts of any operation. Smith saysgrowers need to be aware in the design stage of what they will need. “The most important way to lighten your electricity load is to size it properly as you’re designing and setting up the facility. Once it’s up and running, it’s hard to swap out an HVAC system.”
Backus says that everyone is trying to get away from designing facilities on the fl y. “Today there are professors and engineers who are finding out how to take technology from one thing and tweak it for cannabis.”
States have struggled to come up with packaging that eliminates smell, keeps products fresh, and is childproof. Plastic is everywhere, because it’s as useful as it is destructive to the planet and is often a requirement to child-proof a product.
Packaging is improving. Early on in Colorado, the joke was that child-proof also meant adult-proof for those with arthritis or aging hands. I can still remember purchasing two small Tootsie Roll-sized candies wrapped in foil, then sealed in plastic bags, then sealed a second time in a tall, plastic, box-like container that could hold fifty of the two items I bought.
More options are now available. Sana Packaging, which specializes in 100 percent hemp-based plastic, has added reclaimed ocean plastic to its line of storage containers pre-roll tubes, and vaporizer pens. Soulshine Cannabis, a Renton, Washington, processor, uses 100 percent compostable and biodegradable products. N2 Packaging, based in Twin Falls, Idaho, has created a stainless steel can for cannabis products.
Water resources, especially in California and Colorado, are scarce, and states have different rules for recycling and composting waste. “We don’t have any ordinances that require businesses to recycle or compost,” says Backus. “It’s up to the business owner. Cannabis produces a lot of recyclables. We’re making sure companies know how to compost and be compliant. It’s an area of opportunity.”
Once cannabis is legalized on a federal level, many of these inconsistencies will vanish, clearing the way to let farmers and processors do what they need to do instead of what they are told to do.
Until then, says Smith, “We have the chance for an open playbook for good policy, and there’s a need to share and learn and grow and create an increasingly good reputation for the industry. But people will have to work together to make it a reality.”
What Can You Do?
Most cannabis users who are looking for environmentally conscious and safe products have no idea where their cannabis comes from. The variety of products is staggering, and more are added every day. Given the complexities of cannabis production, what can you do to make sure you’re getting environmentally healthy products you can trust?
Everybody I spoke with agreed that education is key. If you’re concerned about what you’re buying, find out more about how the cannabis is grown and which practices they’re using. Which means, ask your budtender or dispensary owner questions. Lots of questions.
“I think consumers need to go in and talk to people and ask them about their practices,” says Emily Backus, sustainability advisor for the city and county of Denver. “If you’re shopping with vertically integrated companies, that’s easy. But it’s harder otherwise.”
Josh Bareket, founder of BUSHL, a California organization dedicated to clean, sustainable cannabis products, says it comes down to knowing your source. “That doesn’t mean knowing the brand or logo, but actually who is behind the products. Who is the owner? Who is the grower? What’s the story? What do they use to produce it?”
Adds Franciosi, “You just gotta ask the budtender. What soil was used? What was the medium it was grown in? Were there chemicals used that will wind up downstream?”
When it comes to packaging, consumers have choices and should make their complaints known every time they go into the store. “Telling them you want better packaging is a big deal,” says Backus. “This is one of the areas where we’ve had a few bright spots. A number of companies have started making compliant packaging cannabis using recycled materials.”
Not everyone has this option, but the best way to make sure you know what you’re getting is to grow your own. That way you’re in control throughout the process. Otherwise, educate yourself. Below are a few websites to help you get started: