At its core, the U.S. cannabis industry is a resurgence of our country’s agriculture and manufacturing capabilities. From planting the cannabis seeds and harvesting the flower, to processing distillates and selling the finished product, this rapidly expanding industry relies on natural resources and stringent packaging requirements to even make it into the hands of a consumer. And like any other agricultural or retail business, it also creates waste that end up in landfills and produces harmful gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
However, little data on the ecological impacts of legal cannabis exists since the federal government classifies it as a controlled substance and the Environmental Protection Agency has no obligation to monitor it. And in the absence of national standards or regulations which address sustainability for the cannabis industry, state regulators are just starting to develop new resources and requirements with sustainability in mind. For these reasons, it’s key for this rapidly expanding industry to examine their natural resource inputs and outputs to establish best practices for sustainable cannabis growth.
Consider the basis of cannabis cultivation. For every pound of flower that is harvested, up to four pounds of THC-less stalk is left and must be to be disposed of in a specific way dictated by state law. In Colorado, their Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) requires cannabis business licensees waste to be mixed equally with non-cannabis waste. However, Colorado is currently revising this waste mixing rule for 2021 as part of their statewide cannabis sustainability goals.
“The two main waste streams from both hemp and cannabis are the plant waste and the packaging waste,” says Kaitlin Urso, Environmental Protection Specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. While her position with the state is part of National Small Business Environmental Assistance Program, she is the only one in the country specifically focused on reducing the environmental impacts of cannabis. The MED requirement forces industry “to double the amount of materials they’re sending to landfill or compost because of outdated rules,” said Urso. At the onset of Colorado’s legalization, the original focus of the rule was to protect public safety. Now the state knows more about the risks of plant waste, how it can be more efficiently tracked, and how focusing on sustainability can better balance the rule.
Additionally, cannabis packaging has a hard time being recovered in single stream recycling facilities. So, for a more sustainable path, new Colorado regulations to allow for packaging take back by consumers at dispensaries took effect in January. Earlier this year, the state also launched a pilot program to capture carbon dioxide from fermenting yeast at local breweries and reuse that CO2 to grow cannabis plants. And at the local level, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment launched a Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices Guide in 2018 and have continued to expand the program.
While local government and industry are working together to build this industry from the ground up, no two states are the same. Colorado’s largely indoor grow methods have environmental impacts that are very different from states with more outdoor grows. In California where there are more grows outdoors, they face issues such as land pollution, ecology disruption and drought. To help protect the use of the Golden State’s precious resources, California regulators developed the Cannabis Cultivation Policy with requirements to help minimize the effects of cannabis cultivation on wildlife and waterways. Oregon, another state known for its outdoor cultivation, also regulates wastewater from cannabis crops like other agricultural products. And the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) addressed the lack of data on sustainability by requiring cultivators to include their PowerScore – a tool to measure energy use – in renewal applications this year. By including their growing cannabis industry in benchmarking, it can better meet the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act.
As state governments continue to develop regulations solely focused on energy and environmental issues or any new rule that can be seen through the lens of sustainability, they should strike a delicate balance that incentivizes safety and resource efficiency without making it harder to be eco-friendly.
“Colorado is often looked to as an example and I’m proud our lessons are adaptable,” said Urso. “As a mature market, we can take a step back and look through the lens of what can be done differently. When we started, we were focused on safety, security and no diversion, and environmental issues weren’t at the top of the list. Now that industry has evolved, we can evolve our regulatory structure simultaneously. We can keep the original intent of safety and security and make it more sustainable.”
The cannabis industry has proven itself to be nimble and innovative in the face of a patchwork legal landscape, tackling the illicit market and enduring business during a global pandemic. Still in its nascency, now is the time to lay the foundation for this to be a sustainable industry, too.