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The industry needs to address energy efficiency, plastic use, and wastewater to build a long-term reputation of accessibility, legitimacy, and sustainability.
As cannabis grows in popularity nationwide, the entire industry will face increasing scrutiny from consumers, investors, and regulators. For the industry to build a long-term reputation of accessibility, legitimacy, and sustainability, it will need to address several core operational areas: energy efficiency, plastic use, and wastewater.
As cannabis continues to grow in popularity-and as legalization sweeps more and more states around the country-so too will scrutiny of the entire industry by a wider and more global audience. As the larger market deepens its education on the benefits, use, and cultivation of cannabis, there will be more opportunities for consumers, educators, industry experts, and novices alike to form their own opinions. While cannabis cultivation can be traced back centuries using many techniques, its recent legalization at the state level has done little to correct inefficient and unsustainable practices that have been carried over from the illegal market. Those practices have given pause to regulators and state officials who oversee the standards and code-creation beginning to take shape across the industry.
As more legislation forms in energy, water, and waste, I invite cannabis companies to proactively steer toward more sustainable and ecologically focused mindsets now. Doing this will not only put companies ahead of the regulatory curve and improve operating cost structures, it will also set a valuable industry example and provide tangible environmental benefits at scale.
There are three core operational areas already surfacing that could impede the industry’s trajectory toward global legitimacy and sustainability. These are areas, as detailed below, that we must immediately address to avoid a significant hit to our reputation now and in the future.
In a report released by New Frontier Data, electricity demand for cannabis cultivation in the US alone will increase 162% from 2017 to 2022 as more states come online and as operations scale (1). Identifying operational areas to create energy efficiency is one of the first steps that cannabis cultivation companies can take on the path to sustainability. Energy efficiency is mired in false claims and incomplete data, in some cases leading to issues like plant health degradation and crop loss. The key is to understand that cultivation environments are independent ecosystems. They must be managed holistically and require a delicate balance between lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), dehumidification, air exchange, feed rates, and more.
A cultivation operation’s energy demand largely comes from its lighting and HVAC systems, but there are many other systems that use energy as well, including extra dehumidification, fans, operational overhead and-if your facility has processing operations-extraction or manufacturing equipment. Of the many systems involved, lighting has long been considered the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to opportunities for energy efficiency improvements.
In a study conducted by Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Amplified Farms underwent a high-pressure sodium (HPS) versus light-emitting diode (LED) trial in which all systems were monitored over time together for two turns (rounds) (2). As illustrated in Figure 1, systems can be harmonized to improve efficiency gains-up to 25% savings overall in this trial-with each new cycle when cultivators understand how individual operational components interact as part of an entire ecosystem.
There are several organizations collecting energy efficiency data and providing the detail necessary to understand the impact to the full system. One such company is the Resource Innovation Institute, which just published its detail-rich “Best Practices Guides” for both LED lighting and HVAC in cannabis cultivation (3).
Cultivation facilities must also factor in regulatory requirements taking shape in some states. Massachusetts and Illinois have adopted legislation that mandates cannabis facilities average 36 W/sq. ft. of lighting load over canopy, and the Massachusetts code references the Design Lights Consortium’s (DLC) Qualified Products List for horticultural lighting fixtures (4). Other states-as well as Canada-are considering similar aggressive energy codes. Part of this can be attributed to the setting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) as well as states’ own goals for energy efficiency or renewable energy.
Nutrient and Pesticide Runoff
Eutrophication is an all-encompassing agricultural by-product and by no means applies only to the cannabis industry. But cannabis’s rapid penetration into new markets and states presents a significant threat to surface water systems.
At last year’s EarthxOcean conference, I was introduced to “Breakpoint: Reckoning with America’s Environmental Conference,” by Jeremy Jackson, Professor Emeritus at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, and Steve Chapple, author of the independent column “Intellectual Capital” and visiting scholar at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography. They wrote that agricultural processes have so inundated our water systems with nutrient and pesticide runoff that a dead zone the size of New Jersey now plagues the Gulf of Mexico. In the Heartland, where industrial agriculture is most prominent, nutrient runoff into Lake Erie created dead zones that threaten the northern Midwest’s drinking supply (5).
These are foreshadowings of the impact cannabis operations at scale can have on other water systems throughout the US if we do not enact measures and practices that reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff.
Drain-to-waste, for instance, is one of the more prevalent issues we encounter at indoor cannabis cultivation facilities, and is one that can’t be properly curtailed with our current water infrastructure. Existing water treatment plants have trouble effectively filtering the nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich water, and in some cases the nutrient-laden water doesn’t even pass through treatment plants at all. Once it hits rivers, coastal systems, and lakes, it leads to massive algae blooms that clog systems and kill marine wildlife.
Cultivation facilities can instead consider adopting reflow or recirculating water systems that can recapture some of the nutrient runoff rather than direct it down the drain. However, many systems that currently do this can be quite expensive and inefficient themselves, and typically do not work well with organic nutrients. Retention ponds are another potential method for addressing extra nutrient runoff, but these also require the space to set them up. The Cannabis Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley is starting to conduct studies regarding water use, but it is apparent that much more research and attention is needed in this area to understand the holistic impacts and identify more sustainable, eco-friendly practices (6).
Industry-wide, rampant plastic waste is a harsh reality that needs to be confronted now for two reasons: one practical and one philosophical.
As more states legalize cannabis, we risk setting a dangerous precedent for plastic use that threatens to escalate and consume the entire industry. According to MJBizDaily, one cannabis executive estimated that in Canada’s first year of legalization, the industry generated more than 10,000 tons of plastic (7).
The industry’s wastefulness is a slight to those of us who believe in the eco-consciousness of the cannabis revolution. Cultivating cannabis requires craftsmanship, practiced by people who dedicate their careers to becoming experts in biological processes and advocates for Earth’s ecosystems and environments. For the final product to then be packaged into a single-use container that will likely end up as microplastics in the world’s oceans strikes these principles to their core.
According to the CEO of hemp-based packaging company Sana Packaging, more than 1 billion units of plastic could be wasted every year in the cannabis industry alone (8). It’s a nascent problem and one that will continue to worsen as more and more states legalize cannabis. Sana specifically has raised critical awareness for this issue, supporting organically-grown, local movements like the Regenerative Cannabis Farm Award, hosted every year by the Portland, Oregon-based Cultivation Classic (9).
New, innovative, and sustainable packaging-hemp-based biodegradable plastics, for instance-have emerged as an alternative to plastic, though they are still widely considered too expensive to adopt en masse. Root Pouch’s reusable fabric planters made from recycled ocean plastics and natural fibers are another solution to plastics used in cultivation, providing a replacement for single-use grow pots (10).
Fortunately, consumer behavior could be the most significant factor in driving industry-wide change. Studies have shown that consumers are paying more attention to sustainable packaging than ever before, paving the way for dispensaries and producers to explore new marketing strategies that promote sustainable packaging and drive revenue to offset the additional cost of alternative packaging options, and ultimately quicken the industry’s shift away from unsustainable plastic use (11).
Before joining Fluence by OSRAM-even before she was a marine biologist-Corinne Wilder was an explorer. Corinne has spent her career fusing her childhood love for science with the rigors of international business development. Today, Corinne serves as the Vice President of global commercial operations for Fluence and is responsible for sales reports and analytics for internal operations, heading the company’s utility rebates and incentives program, and directing internal processes to meet strategic goals for the cannabis and commercial food markets. Direct correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
C. Wilder, Cannabis Science and Technology3(4), 46–48 (2020).