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Thinking greener: Industry seeks sustainable solutions

Cannabis producers and processors can work to reduce the industry's environmental impact. (Getty Images)
Cannabis producers and processors can work to reduce the industry's environmental impact. (Getty Images)
Kate A. Miner EVERCANNABIS Correspondent
As the cannabis industry continues to grow, sustainable cultivation and manufacturing practices are constantly scrutinized due to the considerable energy consumption, water usage, and waste management involved. Unfortunately, the environmental impact of commercial cannabis operations is often used by antagonists to discredit the industry. And because the term “organic” is federally regulated, no matter how environmentally friendly the cultivation practices are, legally, commercial marijuana can never be called organic. In National Geographic magazine’s June 2015 edition, Editor-In-Chief Susan Goldberg wrote, “The disconnect between the willingness of some states to regulate, sell, and tax marijuana and the federal reluctance to allow research to progress leaves an increasing number of people without the knowledge to make informed, science-based choices.” The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) may not recognize cannabis as a legitimate agricultural crop, however, there are many cannabis companies seeking to make the industry a greener place with more sustainable practices. There are three aspects of sustainable cannabis growth: energy consumption, water usage, and waste management. Energy Consumption Reports released by New Frontier Financials in 2016 estimated that cannabis cultivation annually consumes one percent of the United States’ total electrical output, which roughly equates to $6 billion, or 1.7 million homes. Most of this energy is used to supply high-intensity lamps used for indoor growing operations. Grow lamps consume a significant amount of power and generate a lot of heat, which subsequently necessitates HVAC systems to keep the plants from overheating. Some cannabis growers opt for on-site power generation, mostly coal or gas based, in order to reduce their electricity bills, but these methods are big sources of CO2 emissions. To combat high-energy output, many cannabis cultivators are implementing LED lighting. Although it may be a larger investment up front, LED lights generally have longer lifetimes, require little maintenance, produce minimal to no heat and are over 60%-70% more energy efficient. Additionally, LED technology requires less fertilizer because of the water evaporation rates in relation to the temperature that the plant, soil and water contain. Water Usage Water is essential in growing cannabis. Depending on the source, it’s estimated that a total of 2-6 gallons of water per plant, per day are needed for cultivation – about twice as much as a wine grape vineyard. However, many cannabis groups and the Small Farmers Association are pushing growers toward goals of 0.5 to 1 gallon per plant, per day. Unfortunately, the amount of water needed for healthy cultivation isn’t the only issue keeping the waste water clean and free of pesticides is also important. Closed circuit desalination (CCD) and reverse osmosis (RO) systems are ways to reclaim roughly 75%-97% of the water used for growth, allowing reuse and establishing clean water if/when it goes to waste. Effective Waste Disposal Seed-to-sale tracking implementation in legal markets allows cannabis companies to accurately track all aspects of their plants. And while processors, cultivators and dispensaries are disposing of waste correctly per state laws, much of that waste is ending up in landfills. It’s estimated that 1.7 million pounds of plant waste have been created by Washington State’s legal marijuana industry since 2014. This issue comes from the fact that many composters decided to follow federal law and not accept any cannabis waste, which means local generators are forced to put it in the garbage. However, many growers are now creating their own composting material on site and reintroducing the plant waste back into production. The Future of Cannabis Sustainability Whether you cultivate cannabis or not, there are many great ways to get involved in helping cannabis become greener. The Cannabis Sustainability Work Group in Colorado is an organization that hosts sustainability symposiums to help educate attendees on the latest tools, techniques and technologies for efficient and safe cannabis production. The group is a big factor in sustainable thinking within the cannabis industry and showcases top experts from across the country presenting on the industry’s key environmental challenges and best management practices. The Cannabis Sustainability Symposium is a nationally recognized five year-running event that helps educate attendees on the latest tools, techniques and technologies for efficient and safe cannabis production. Clean Green Certified is a program modeled on existing national and international agricultural standards, ensuring environmentally clean and sustainable methods, and the number one certifier nation-wide for cannabis cultivated using sustainable, natural and organically based practices. Finally, Washington Sungrowers Industry Association (WSIA) is working hard to keep it clean and green in Washington state. WSIA is an integral part of a sustainable cannabis industry in Washington, and beyond, prioritizing the needs of the market relative to our environmental and economic vitality.
Kate A. Miner has a degree in visual anthropology, and has worked in marketing and advertising for many years. She writes, takes photos and teaches yoga.
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