Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry

The idea that the fledgling cannabis industry boils down to the purchase and sale of pre-rolls and edibles in beautiful packages is a total misnomer.

Pure Beauty
Imelda Walavalkar
Imelda Walavalkar CEO of Pure Beauty

Most people do not think about where their weed comes from or how it’s grown or treated in its life cycle the same way they do other things, like their food.

The idea that the fledgling cannabis industry boils down to the purchase and sale of pre-rolls and edibles in beautiful packages is a total misnomer.

Even though the industry is still years away from taking full shape and excelling at peak strength, new players are appearing on the market every day to improve the cannabis space with diverse new products and offerings.

The consequence of having so many new entrants, though, is a lack of sustainability. After all, the industry is still not legal on the federal level and has yet to develop universally adopted standards in the cultivation, production and sale of cannabis.

But the industry is developing so rapidly that it’s necessary to draw attention to this issue, for both users of the plant and manufacturers working with cannabis retailers.

What is sustainability in the cannabis industry?

Soil

1. Soil

The entire world, including the United States, is facing soil degradation due to the loss and erosion of soil organic matter (SOM). Cannabis helps with this problem thanks in part to its bioaccumulation potential. Cannabis has a large root system, which protects the soil from erosion and absorbs harmful substances from the soil. That means it leaves behind a soil that is cleaner after cannabis than it was before. Our ancestors often planted cannabis in the land to revive the soil after more debilitating plants had weakened it.

But there is a downside that happens when growers use chemical pesticides and other additives to increase yields. Using artificial additives emasculates the soil and harms the soil ecosystem’s stability.

To improve the situation, it is necessary to use both sustainable and regenerative methods of soil cultivation. Practicing sustainability helps preserve valuable resources for future generations while also meeting current needs. Regenerative methods go even further by improving the soil through nutrient regeneration, increased biodiversity (natural pesticides), composting and no-till methods.

Some examples of growers using sustainable soil cultivation

Lazy Bee Gardens
Matthew Frigone

Matthew Frigone, owner of Lazy Bee Gardens. Frigone amends his soil every spring and typically gives it a few AACT inoculations each year.


“The idea is to encourage a strong living soil food web in the rhizosphere that stimulates the plants to use their natural feeding process,” Frigone said.

Pure Beauty
Imelda Walavalkar

Imelda Walavalkar, CEO of Pure Beauty, uses bugs like rolly pollies, earthworms, and nematodes to create her soil food web, along with friendly bacteria, fungi, and protozoa.


“It helps naturally prevent disease and plant-eating predators by working with the plant to provide nutrients and protection,” according to Walavalkar.

Wildwood Flower Far
Isaac Ekholm

The use of goats as a method of loosening and fertilizing the soil, as Isaac Ekholm and Melissa Beseda do at the Wildwood Flower Farm, deserves special attention.


Ekholm and Beseda grow their cannabis under the full spectrum of the sun and in living soil inside high-tunnel greenhouses that protect the plants from extreme weather. The Wildwood Flower Farm duo said they’ve put significant effort into building and maintaining soil health by using organic soil amendments, cover crops, and companion planting with alfalfa, marigolds, and a pollinator wildflower mix. After all of their cannabis flower is harvested and begins its long cure inside, they move their goat herd into the field.

“Every year the soil seems to get better,” Ekholm and Beseda said. “Goats are great for soil regeneration: their hooves aerate the soil, their foraging keeps the weeds under control, and their manure goes into our compost which will enrich the soil for years to come.”

Energy

2. Energy

There are three methods of growing cannabis: outdoor, indoor and greenhouse. Outdoor cultivation is the most energy-efficient method because it doesn’t require lighting, air conditioning, ventilation and dehydrogenation as in a closed ground. Those three factors account for 89% of the total energy required for indoor cannabis production.

Resource requirements for indoor cannabis production
Resource requirements for indoor cannabis production

Some solutions to this problem can be found in LED lamps, smart HVAC systems and the Internet of Things. Unfortunately, most of the industry’s prevailing small companies cannot afford such expensive technologies.

Greenhouses are a good compromise between the highly controlled indoor growing and lesser controlled outdoor growing models. Greenhouses can save 60 to 75 percent energy per pound of flower compared to indoor grows. This significant reduction in energy consumption comes mainly thanks to a reduction in the need for artificial lighting. Indoor cultivation requires 18 to 24 hours of artificial light per day during the growing stage and 12 hours during the flowering stage. Greenhouses require up to 6 hours a day of additional artificial lighting for the vegetative stage (depending on geographic location) and may not require any additional lighting for the flowering stage. In addition, greenhouses are usually designed to have significantly more air circulation than indoor grows, which allows greenhouses to use evaporative cooling systems that save up to 75 percent of the energy required compared to refrigerant-based cooling and dehumidification

But greenhouse cultivation is so far the least popular model for legal growers in the United States, mainly because converting a warehouse or buying a plot of land is less expensive than building a greenhouse. And in the event a cultivation business fails, a large warehouse or plot is much easier to sell than a greenhouse.

For Troy Meadows, founder and CMO at Legion of Bloom, asking for his preference between growing indoors or outdoors is like asking which of his children is his favorite.

Alaska cannabis
Troy Meadows
Troy Meadows founder and CMO at Legion of Bloom

“I love indoors for the level of control you have with your environment,” Meadows said. “But you can’t beat the sun for the power it has to produce exceptional results with just soil and water."

A great example to follow is Mike Emers’ Rosie Creek Farm. Despite living up in Alaska, his team can still successfully grow cannabis outdoors. Emers grows his plants in the natural soil with natural sunlight, maintaining a low carbon footprint in the process.

Rosie Creek Farm
Mike Emers
Mike Emers owener of Rosie Creek Farm

“We’re really committed to organic farming for all of our cannabis,” Emers said. We’ve had to develop our own genetics and do our own breeding up here in Alaska.”

Danielle Rosellison, founder and CEO of Trail Blazin’, operates one of the first cannabis farms in the world to switch to 100 percent LED-lighting, which decreased her farm’s energy consumption by more than 65 percent compared to traditional indoor grows.

Trail Blazin
Danielle Rosellison
Danielle Rosellison founder and CEO of Trail Blazin’
Water

3. Water

Despite the fact that the cannabis industry consumes less water in total than farms for other crops, the rapid growth of the cannabis market has sparked conversation about how to most sustainably utilize this precious resource. Local authorities should be careful to ensure that cannabis production facilities are located in areas with sufficient water supply, so that water withdrawal doesn’t deteriorate the local ecosystem.

Water is a critical resource for cannabis cultivation, especially in the southern and more arid states. It’s needed for many purposes, including irrigation, cleaning, heating and cooling as well as fogging for humidification and pest control solutions.

Total water consumption in the legal cannabis market is expected to increase 86 percent by 2025, but the illicit market will remain the main driver of water use for the next five years. Black market grows accounted for 83 percent of cannabis-related water use in 2020, but that share will decline to 69 percent in 2025.

Growing indoors allows cultivators to save water through drip irrigation, collecting water that can be purified and reused.

Trail Blazin
Danielle Rosellison

Rosellison says Trail Blazin’ uses homemade water reclamation systems that allow her growing operation to reuse 95 percent of its water.


“We reuse and reduce,” she said. “Sustainability is at the forefront of all the decisions we make.”

Indoor grows and greenhouses offer operators better control and use of their water resources than outdoor grows thanks to their HVAC systems. But cannabis fields in states with sufficient rainfall can also save significant quantities of water by utilizing the natural rainwater.

Carbon footprint

4. Carbon footprint

A 2018 Cannabis Energy Report from New Frontier Data showed that indoor cultivation in the United States produces 2.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or one pound of carbon emissions for every gram of harvested flower. The same report found that indoor growing uses 18 times more electricity and produces nearly 25 times more carbon than outdoor farms.

The reason: lighting used to grow cannabis indoors consumes copious amounts of electricity and is necessary to create an ideal environment (warm environment with low humidity) for plants growing indoors. Growers also pump carbon dioxide indoors to increase the rate of photosynthesis and increase plant growth. This added CO2 accounts for 11 to 25 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from operating facilities.

But the largest energy consumption comes from the constant supply of fresh air to grow rooms, as proper ventilation is essential to fuel photosynthesis while also preventing pests and mildew. Cannabis performs photosynthesis much faster than regular house plants and the HVAC system acts as the lungs by distilling oxygen so the plants are not poisoned.

The amount of emissions also depends on the location of the cannabis farm. Indoor cannabis cultivation results in higher greenhouse gas emissions in the Mountain West, Midwest, Alaska and Hawaii than the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. This is because the coastal climate is milder, so growers require less heating and air conditioning and electrical grids use more clean energy. Places like California, New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest and Florida have large numbers of renewable energy sources. Those sources help reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they do not generate emissions through electricity.

Locations with more extreme temperatures and fewer renewable energy sources had the highest greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions from cannabis production

A beneficiary of such a trend is John S Nemeth, President and Owner of Alaskan cannabis brand Top Hat Concentrates. Nemeth’s company operates on Tlingit Land in Juneau, Alaska, which is surrounded by mountains, glaciers, rivers, and the sea. The entire town runs on locally produced hydropower, so Top Hat’s water supply is sustainably sourced and incredibly clean.

Alaska cannabis
John S Nemeth
John S Nemeth President and Owner of alaskan cannabis brand Top Hat Concentrates

Most people do not think about where their weed comes from or how it’s grown or treated in its life cycle the same way they do other things, like their food.

Laurel Friesen, founder and CEO of Heylo Cannabis, described how her cannabis brand reduces its carbon footprint through each different stage of production. Besides reusing CO2 and ethanol, Heylo Cannabis works with grow partner Cascade Gnome to take post-extracted biomass and reintroduce it into both the soil and compost to enrich their land.

Heylo Cannabis
Laurel Friesen
Laurel Friesen founder and CEO of Heylo Cannabis

“Also, we use recyclable packaging, some of which is produced by wind power,” Friesen said.

Waste

5. Waste

The cannabis industry has two main types of physical waste: plant waste and cannabis-product packaging waste.

The industry has its own guidelines for how products should be disposed of so that people can’t take cannabis home from the trash heap. Waste should be mixed with other waste in a 50/50 ratio, on average. This recycling process requires time, money and resources from cannabis businesses, so many growers instead use plant waste as compost. Using composting methods that generate minimal emissions and that do not emit greenhouse gases can help minimize waste.

In addition to saving resources, growers can benefit from natural fertilization and additional income from selling compost to other growers.

City Trees
Dr. Dominick Monaco

Dr. Dominick Monaco, Laboratory Director of City Trees, has introduced numerous initiatives to excel in waste reduction. The company offers a cartridge and battery recycling program as well as a Buy 1 Plant 1 initiative with the Arbor Day Foundation (one tree planted for every 1:1 or 1:1:1 product sold). City Trees also utilizes recyclable packaging.

DomPen
Jake Catt

Likewise, Jake Catt, CEO and Co-Founder at DomPen, looks beyond the value of recycling on his brand. Catt said DomPen understands the importance of recycling in general.


“We were one of the first brands to launch a vape recycling program in California,” Catt said. “Our program accepts all brands — not just Dompen — and so far we have recycled over 500 pounds of vapes.”

Packaging

6. Packaging

The packaging of cannabis products is an overlooked and important aspect of sustainability. Different states have put forward their own restrictions on packaging, including banning products that are attractive to children and requiring child-proof packages that can only be opened with scissors or other devices. Various state laws also require doses to be separate from one another and mandate THC labeling, health warnings, identification numbers, soil information and other resources for crop production, as well as information on the testing and composition of cannabinoids.

Packaging must succeed in keeping the flower or other cannabis products fresh for as long as possible. These requirements have made plastic the most popular component in cannabis packaging. For every gram of cannabis sold, up to 70 grams of packaging waste can be generated, according to some of the first cannabis consumers in Canada.

Companies have offered a solution: packaging made from biodegradable substances such as hemp. Hemp is an ideal raw material for bioplastics, requiring less water and pesticides than other raw materials such as cotton and corn — which make it even more environmentally friendly. The fast growth cycle and high fiber per acre ratio also make this crop extremely profitable for growers. Hemp, with a cellulose concentration of 65-75 percent, is one of the best sources of bioplastic fibers. But the unclear legal status of cannabis in many countries around the world coupled with the high cost of setting up hemp processing plants has made any talks of real shifts towards sustainability in packaging premature.

Pure Beauty
Imelda Walavalkar

It’s still happening on an individual level. Imelda Walavalkar, CEO of Pure Beauty said her company tried to avoid using plastic in its packaging. Instead, Pure Beauty opts for recyclable and compostable paper.


“We’ve also spent a lot of time creating a child-resistant mylar bag that is made from plant starch,” Walavalkar said. “Traditional plastic mylar pouches are basically impossible to recycle and will not decompose.”

Wildwood Flower Farm
Isaac Ekholm

Isaac Ekholm and Melissa Beseda from at the Wildwood Flower Farm have also minimized their use of mylar packaging, opting instead for kraft paper stand-up bags. As part of Wildwood Flower’s five-year plan, the company is aiming to replace all of its packaging with compostable materials.

Why do you
need sustainability?

At first glance, the cannabis industry may appear to have unavoidable consequences to the environment and seem to be an extremely dangerous industry. But compared to many industrial and agricultural industries, cannabis has the most stringent regulations — a result of emerging at the beginning of the 21st century when the issue of sustainability had already been raised. The fact that cannabis is a plant with psychoactive properties has also made it a target for regulators.

All participants in the cannabis industry, including users, retailers, producers, and state governments, must understand that only through working together can the industry maintain a middle ground between actively enjoying the benefits of cannabis and preserving the environment.

State governments must continually monitor the relevance of regulations with cannabis testing results and approach sustainability responsibly, but without putting undue pressure on businesses.

Growers must adhere to regulations and continually improve their growing methods to become more sustainable.

Retailers must work with responsible and honest cannabis growers.

Consumers must be diligent and selective with their purchasing behaviors, making informed choices when buying cannabis products. They shouldn’t support manufacturers and retailers who do not fulfill their obligations to society and our land. After all, our descendants will live here.

what do growers think about sustainability?

Lazy Bee Gardens
Matthew Frigone

Matthew Frigone, owner of Lazy Bee Gardens, says he’s alarmed by the tendency of growers in the midwest to pump salt-based fertilizers into the ground. Doing so kills off all the microbiology, Frigone said, and could lead to a dust bowl.


“The idea is to build soil that is alive, not to strip it to dead dirt,” he said. “I feel that way about commercial farming in general, not just cannabis.

Lazy Bee Gardens
Matthew Frigone

Frigone added that he has seen “amazing” products from all types of grows and respects the freedom of cultivators to grow as they see fit.


“But once we start stepping into the huge arena of commercial agriculture, I feel like we take on a responsibility to act as stewards of the land,” he said. “We try to do our part to keep our ecological impact at a minimum.”

Pure Beauty
Imelda Walavalkar

Imelda Walavalkar, CEO of Pure Beauty, remarked that most people don’t think about where their weed comes from or how it’s grown or treated in the same way they do other things, like their food. Holding cannabis to the same standards of sustainability as food and other common items can help improve growing standards.

Pure Beauty
Imelda Walavalkar

Laurel Friesen, founder and CEO of Heylo Cannabis,, says everyone at her company understands their individual impact potential to minimize waste.


“Our mission is to create lasting partnerships with growers and retailers that share similar values and vision for this industry to ensure that all of us will be in business for a long time,” she said.

Pure Beauty
Imelda Walavalkar

Ditto for Danielle Rosellison, founder and CEO of Trail Blazin’, whose company does “what is right, not what is easy.” Over time, Rosellison said, doing the right thing becomes easy when it’s done consistently enough.


“Our mission is to create lasting partnerships with growers and retailers that share similar values and vision for this industry to ensure that all of us will be in business for a long time,” she said.

How else can the sustainability of the cannabis industry be improved?

AskGrowers sees several possible ways to improve sustainability in the cannabis industry:

1. Certification of brands that meet the standards of the cannabis business

Companies like cannabisconservancy.com and sunandearth.org enable cannabis businesses to pass a 3-party assessment to meet high sustainability standards.

2. Developing policy and regulations that encourage cannabis operators to meet such sustainability standards through tax discounts or other preferential advantages. 3. Raising awareness for people and businesses within the industry through public opinion

For most business owners in the industry, the sustainability of their business generally comes first. But the planet is everyone’s home. We should all strive to keep it beautiful for our descendants and future generations, so that they too can enjoy the purity of quality cannabis.

4. Encouraging cannabis growers, retailers and consumers alike to consider quality and sustainability in cannabis production in the same manner they consider such attributes in food and other commonly consumed products

By destigmatizing the conversation around the plant and holding it to the same ecological and production standards as other mass-produced items, we can help eliminate unsustainable growing and reward business owners who operate ethically.

5. Continuing to offer and expand on programs that ensure legal cannabis is not wasted or relegated to the black market

A prime example is found in June 2020 regulations passed in Nevada, which allows growers to sell flower that fails the state’s stringent testing standards as extract instead of mandating that it’s trashed or snuck out the back door and circulated into the illicit market. Such policies can save growers tens of thousands of dollars while also preserving soil resources and keeping the plant in legal circulation.