Cannabis sustainability

ORLANDO — If there are two clear issues that twentysomethings seem committed to these days, one is the legalization of marijuana, and the other is the promotion of and a strong dedication to long term sustainability goals.

While Millennials and Gen Xers have been strong supporters of ballot measures to legalize weed, they’ve also been vocal in their support of sustainability goals, from a cleaner and healthier environment to the preservation of our natural resources, which is why they’ve become strong advocates of movements like recycling, Going Green and alternative power sources like solar energy.

And the newly emergent legalized weed industry is starting to realize that they need to play catch up when it comes to sustainability.

So when some in the weed industry start talking about their own efforts at Going Green, they’re not referring to the color of the leafy substance they grow.

The cultivation and manufacturing or cannabis, either for recreational use or as medical marijuana in Florida, has become a
fast-growing industry in the age of legalization. And as the cannabis community continues to grow and expand, the environmental impacts are being felt — and not always in ways that sound good in a press release.
The agricultural side of this business uses a high amount of water, since cannabis remains a very thirsty plant, while the manufacturing side uses an usually hefty amount of electricity. Neither one is a boon to our natural resources.

And don’t forget all the packaging required once sales have been made.

Usually grown indoors, cannabis requires extensive use of grow lights and other equipment, and a 2016 report from New Frontier called marijuana the “most energy intensive agricultural crop produced in the U.S.”

At the same time, commercial cannabis companies appear to be aware that anti-cannabis opponents are starting to raise issues about the environmental impact that cannabis growers are having, as an additional way to build opposition.
So Going Green has truly started to taking a whole new meaning within the industry.

What Does Sustainable Cannabis Refer To?

A lot of businesses that have nothing to do with environmental protections are nevertheless touting their green efforts, from using solar panels and LED lighting to helping make their community a greener place through recycling, energy efficiency, and other sustainable practices.

It’s a smart move. Studies indicate that more than 70% of millennials are prepared to pay more for products made through sustainability efforts. Just as they’ve become more socially conscious consumers, they’re looking for socially conscious businesses as well.

And since many of those involved in the emerging cannabis industry are young entrepreneurs with a sense of social awareness, it looks like a growing number of them are developing a commitment to sustainability goals as well.

So the next big question is how to produce cannabis in a way that has the smallest carbon footprint?

But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

For one thing, in California, indoor growers are up against state energy codes that are requiring them to use the most energy-intensive growing methods. In Denver, Colorado, total electricity usage is up for the cannabis industry because of building codes for residential and commercial properties. In some instances, these codes are designed to improve air filtration and dehumidification for indoor growers, which increases their energy consumption.

Meeting local regulations has made it more challenging for the weed industry, which is why some growers are starting to invest in methods like:

  1. Led lights
  2. Solar power
  3. Water reclamation systems
  4. Technologically sophisticated greenhouses that can control temperatures, moisture levels, and light intensity.

And since packaging is a major part of the cannabis industry, more and more cannabis operators are also making a commitment to another top sustainability goal, recycling. Some cannabis growers have launched recycling programs for their packaging, offering customers discounts if they return bags and containers.

Likewise, Cannabis Alliance, a non-profit that works to promote an ethical and sustainable cannabis industry, is exploring the idea of offering compostable packaging.

How Can the Cannabis Industry Find Other Ways to Innovate?

So can marijuana growers actually establish the cannabis industry as one that’s regularly making positive contributions to our environment? They certainly can, starting with the expanded use of energy-efficient lighting and advanced energy- and water-management systems as part of their overall operations.

Other options include using:

  1. Low-carbon energy sources to power your facility
  2. Natural gas chillers rather than electric chillers
  3. Energy consultants to provide further guidance on saving energy in your facilities
  4. Education about state regulations, how they impact you, and what kind of incentives the individual states have for adopting energy-efficient methods
  5. Organizations that promote lower-impact approaches to cannabis cultivation

It’s also worth keeping in mind that sustainability practices can help reduce the cost of how much you’re spending on your business, since incorporating sustainable practices for your indoor cannabis garden can pay off financially in the long run.
And who doesn’t want to set up the most cost-effective garden possible?

Sometimes that requires some up front investments. Use of LED systems may cost some extra money up front, but will save far more money over time when it comes to your energy bills. LED systems are also going to prove to be a cost-effective solution for lighting your indoor cannabis business.

Not every change requires an initial financial investment. There are also natural solutions to climate control for your garden that are worth exploring, such as creating airflow pathways in and out of the garden to help reduce room temperatures — potentially a way to eliminate the need for heavy air conditioner use in there. You don’t need to sacrifice high quality of the product in order to innovate and get creative about sustainable cannabis.

Water usage and pesticides are two other issues worth considering. Cannabis plants are very thirsty, requiring high water-use. GrowX has responded by developing “aeroponics,” a system that helps conserve water by having the marijuana plant suspended by its roots in a moist environment, with water vapor keeping it hydrated.

GrowX notes that their aeroponics system requires 95 percent less water than growing outdoors, and 40 percent less water than an indoor hydroponic farm.

And work to avoid use of any pesticides. Environmental advocates have expressed increased concerns about the use of pesticides in growing marijuana. Eliminating pesticides from the operation that would be smart move for cannabis growers, particularly if they act before states begin to consider legislation that prohibits use of pesticides in growing cannabis.

Cannbis As a Top Industry

The bottom line is that the legal cannabis industry is growing fast, with projections that it will exceed $50 billion in the United States within the next six years. The industry is growing just as polls show more than 62 percent of Americans say marijuana should be legalized.

Now it’s time for cannabis growers, cannabis companies, and those fitting within the cannabis industries to consider the higher profits that can be achieved by making cannabis production more sustainable.

It’s smart today to make investments in more sustainable production methods, which can reduce electricity and water usage, and to be factoring in the environment impact of what they’re creating.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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