Going Green(er): Environmental Initiatives in Cannabis

by | Dec 20, 2019

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

The industry has a bad rap for its inability to rein in excessive energy consumption, water needs, and waste issues all along the production cycle.

When legal cannabis rolls out in a state or a country, legislators are first and foremost concerned about public health and safety, not environmental impact. The regulatory process focuses almost entirely on protecting the public, not the environment. But as the market matures, the problematic production methods of the industry become all too apparent.

Today, consumers are driving the move towards organic farming practices and the reduction of wasteful packaging. The industry itself is also moving towards better energy and water consumption, driven mainly by the need for more cost-effective cultivation methods. Although the transition is a slow one, there are many companies in the industry pushing a green agenda and building impressive environmental initiatives in cannabis. Their stories are worth highlighting.

Energy Reduction in Cannabis Cultivation

Both indoor and greenhouse-grown cannabis are notorious for their excessive energy consumption. Cannabis is a plant with particular environmental requirements, which translate into expensive lighting, temperature, and humidity controls. According to estimates by Oregon-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Program, indoor operations use ten times more energy per square foot than a typical office building. Energy costs for growers can make up over 50 percent of the operating budget.

As the price per pound bottoms out in places like California and Oregon, cultivators are desperate to cut costs to improve the bottom line. In many cases, this means moving away from HPS lighting towards more energy-efficient and cost-effective LED options. Other, more forward-thinking growers are taking energy efficiency one step further, like the case of Bonsai Cultivation in Colorado.

Bonsai has swapped out conventional air conditioning for recirculating water chillers, which has led to a 30 percent drop in energy consumption. The company also reassessed its light-to-plant ratio and were able to reduce their monthly power bill by another 40 percent by eliminating the need for nearly 400 lights in their 28,000-square-foot grow room.

Addressing the Problem of Water Consumption

Cannabis is a thirsty species. It's an industry that tends to drain local water resources during both the cultivation and extraction phases of production. California growers may be the most noteworthy in this regard, but they are far from the only cultivators putting a significant strain on water tables. Water is an ongoing dilemma for the industry. There are already a few noteworthy companies addressing the issue of water consumption in cannabis.

Green Relief is one example. Cannabis Tech has previously covered them in more detail, but their innovative approach to water conservation is worth revisiting. Green Relief is a fully aquaponic facility located in Ontario, Canada, which recycles water within a closed-loop system. The system design is so efficient, they have reused the same water for over two years. The company has almost entirely eliminated the issue of wastewater, thanks to their aquaponics farming practices.

Another company, ecofarm, announced in a press release in December 2019 their intention to operate a Tier 11 Marijuana Cultivation and Product Manufacturing facility in Massachusetts. Applying industry best practices and smart technologies, the facility will “chart a course toward a new standard of cannabis production, focusing on product quality while committing to limit its impact on the environment.” Their plans include a large-scale water recapture system, which will contribute to a predicted 70 percent energy efficiency over comparable cultivation facilities. 

Waste Reduction Across the Industry

Waste is an area where all levels of the cannabis industry need to improve. From seed to sale, the industry is rife with unrecycled plastics, uncomposted soils, and plant materials headed into the landfill. Cannabis waste, in most jurisdictions, can be just as regulated as the salable cannabis product. Such high regulatory requirements make innovation more challenging.

At the retailer level, the problem of single-use plastics and multi-material packaging has created a massive garbage problem. Especially in Canada, which has rolled out strict controls around the composition of cannabis packaging (aroma proof, waterproof, and childproof, among others), the packaging issue is an annoyance for customers and producers alike.

In Canada, Terracycle has launched a cannabis packaging recycling program, seeking to stave off the stream of waste headed from consumers to municipal landfills. Customers can sign up and begin collecting on their own, or petition their retailer to collect in store. As Terracycle explains, “This program accepts any and all cannabis packaging purchased from a licensed retailer, including outer plastic packaging, inner plastic packaging, tins, joint tubes, plastic bottles, plastic caps, and flexible plastic bags.”

On the cultivation and extraction side of the industry, waste disposal doesn't get much easier. Typically, waste from cannabis cultivation and extraction is treated similarly to hazardous materials. Companies must destroy or compromise the waste beyond recognition, and sometimes send it to special handling facilities.

Micron Waste, located in Vancouver, Canada, has developed “the world's first compliant cannabis waste management system that denatures Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) in the waste streams.” The Cannavore shreds, digests, and decontaminates the leftover organic waste from cultivation. The device, which is located on-site, relies on microbial digesters and water treatment processes to turn organic waste materials into potable water. Furthermore, the water is clean enough; it may be recycled back into the growing operation.

Cannabis Can Become a Sustainable Industry if You Know Where to Look

The vast majority of companies operating in the burgeoning industry only consider their bottom line when it comes to business practices. But, the growing costs of energy, water, and waste disposal have a significant impact on economic feasibility. When the price-per-pound is at an all-time low, any savings in production means a competitive edge.

Reducing power bills and implementing water recycling technologies undeniably create a competitive advantage. Moreover, consumers are increasingly choosing companies with eco-friendly, organic products with high environmental standards. As the cannabis industry matures, it will inevitably begin to reassess its wasteful ways. Soon, the bottom line and the customer base will demand it.