By Bill Shevlin
California grows some of the best cannabis in the world. Unfortunately, cultivation can have not-so-green consequences. From unregulated guerilla grows in the Emerald Triangle, to indoor cultivation in cities like Los Angeles, there are often negative side effects for the environment. High energy consumption, water shortages and the endless wasteful packaging that’s required under the regulated market all add up to cannabis having potentially devastating environmental impacts if things continue along the same trajectory.
California is leading the way when it comes to energy efficiency. Former governor Jerry Brown signed the carbon neutral order in September 2018, committing California to 100 percent use of zero-carbon electricity by 2045.
Evan Mills, a Californian scientist specializing in climate change and energy, is a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to him, the cannabis industry could increase the efficiency of almost any stage of production: “California and elsewhere has begun to address the destructive impacts of unregulated outdoor cultivation, but have yet to recognize what may be even greater environmental consequences from the prodigious amounts of energy used by indoor operations.”
But there is hope for a cleaner, greener future for cannabis. Innovative cannabis cultivators are lowering their carbon dioxide (CO2) outputs by shifting their grow-ops towards zero carbon footprint cultivation practices, reducing their water consumption, and using biomass to create paper and plastics, which all help reduce the waste and pollutants from the industry.
Indoor Grows That Are More Energy efficient
Indoor cannabis cultivation is often the preferred grow method as it allows for greater security, along with pest and disease management. Additionally, by creating an optimal climate for cannabis production techniques, growers have greater process control and are subsequently able to increase their yield per square foot.
Unfortunately, this industrialized method utilizes processes that consume a lot of energy, which ultimately means indoor cannabis production has a large carbon footprint. This variable measures the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.
According to one report, the carbon footprint of one kilogram of indoor cannabis produced is 4,600 kg of CO2. One single cannabis cigarette represents 1.5 kg CO2 emissions, equivalent to 25 hours of 100 watt light bulb average emissions. In total, this adds up to $6 billion in energy expenditure.
The majority of CO2 emissions from indoor grows come from the fleet of air conditioners required to keep the plants comfortable. This includes dehumidifiers to manage the inevitable moisture, fans to circulate air and water management systems for plant irrigation.
In SoCal, indoor growers have developed proprietary technology that replicates the photosynthesis process of plants and trees. Direct Air Capture technology pulls in atmospheric air and extracts the carbon dioxide from it while returning the rest of the air to the environment. The carbon dioxide is then delivered in a pure, compressed form that can then be reused, allowing a cannabis biomass increase through an environmentally positive process.
Progessive, vertically integrated cannabis companies are going one step further, and using EV powered delivery vehicles to deliver their product to dispensaries and consumers in the region. The good news is with reduced electricity overheads, indoor cultivators will have a higher profit margin.
Reduced Water Consumption
Minimizing water use in cannabis cultivation not only reduces the impact on the environment, but it could also help growers comply with state and municipal regulations, as well as reduce costly water bills.
California’s struggle with droughts in recent years is common knowledge, and the state itself diverts eighty percent of its water resources to agriculture.
In 2019, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) updated the Cannabis Cultivation Policy – Principles and Guidelines for Cannabis Cultivation. The policy “establishes principles and guidelines (requirements) for the diversion and use of water, land disturbances, and the activities related to cannabis cultivation to protect water quantity and quality.”
The regulations around water supply and water quality with cannabis cultivation can make compliance exceedingly difficult for both indoor and outdoor, or sun grown growers.
Forward-thinking indoor growers have implemented proprietary water collection technologies to build irrigation systems for their plants that don’t require the use of outside water, helping to create a climate positive water impact.
Innovative outdoor farmers in Northern California have forgone the use of water altogether, opting instead for drought-tolerant genetics and dry farming techniques in a bid to overcome the potential issues of water shortages.
Dry farming has been used for crop management in drought-prone areas of agriculture and winemaking for decades, yet there are relatively few cannabis farms using the practice in California. The technique allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of production, especially when combined with biodynamic techniques like cover crops and cultivating healthy, nutrient-rich soil. This is craft cannabis at its finest, embracing the uniqueness of the terroir and appellation of the region to create award-winning, sustainable cannabis.
Sustainable Packaging As the New Normal
One of the downsides of California’s regulated market is the excessive packaging cannabis products are required to use. Layers of plastic and paper are required to ensure products are childproof that inevitably end up in a landfill.
New plant-based paper and plastic packaging opinions are coming onto the market that give conventional packaging options a run for their money. By using the biomass waste from cannabis and hemp extraction processes, sustainable and environmentally friendly products like hemp paper and plastic can be utilized as real, viable alternatives. Additionally, they can be recycled multiple times instead of ending up in landfill, creating a new circular system.
By embracing new technologies that allow resources to be reduced, reused or recycled, along with operating using a zero carbon footprint cultivation model, cannabis companies can lower their production costs, which ultimately means a higher profit margin. This, along with helping to save the planet, can only be a good thing.