Growing “greener” cannabis has been making the news. Or rather, the cannabis industry’s habit of scaling up largely unsustainable grow methods in big cannabis production facilities is on the national radar.
One widely circulated quote equates the carbon footprint of producing a gram of hydroponically grown cannabis to that of “driving seventeen miles in a Honda Civic.” And while that beats 17 miles in a Hummer, it’s a number cannabis growers have the power to greatly reduce.
Part of what excites me about our freshly-legal industry is that we have the opportunity to shape it in a way that big business has thus far failed to do, by not putting a higher profit margin above the health of the planet.
In August, I was asked to speak about this very topic in Las Vegas at the 2nd Annual National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Southwest Symposium. It gave me a chance to reflect on something I’m passionate about—the real environmental impact of what we do, what isn’t working, and how we can create positive change for this and future generations of growers and patients. Here’s the wrap-up:
Get Under The Sun
- It takes vast resources to power a warehouse cannabis grow that relies on High Intensity Discharge (HID) or High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lights. Automated light deprivation greenhouses can produce cannabis of equal or greater value as that produced indoors at half the cost and one quarter the environmental impact.
- Cannabis used for extracts can all be grown outdoors. Provided you live in a climate that allows for outdoor cultivation, sun-grown cannabis is excellent starting material for extractions. The finished form will be far from the flower, so why not take advantage of one of our most powerful (and free!) resources?
Keep It Lean Indoors
I know that not every method of cultivation can rely exclusively on solar power. However, indoor grows can focus on efficiency:
- For most indoor grows heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are a huge resource suck. I’ve discovered that the best method is to utilize a centralized variable air volume (VAV) system.
- Lighting is another environmental bogey and a trickier part of the equation. I believe the answer is to collaborate with cannabis-friendly LED lighting companies to create a light that can produce the same quality and yield per square foot as the industry standard HID lamp. I’m told such lights exist, but most grows will have to lay down a few thousand dollars to try one out. It might behoove LED manufacturers to make a trial product more available and cost-effective to cannabis producers who can then widely test and prove their merit. Hint hint.
- Without a high-energy code and tight insulation, many industrial-scale grows hemorrhage energy and resources. Make sure the envelope is sealed. Keep your buildings well insulated to prevent leaks.
Lay Down the Law
Frankly, some of the cities and states currently passing laws to regulate cannabis cultivation have the least enviable power infrastructures. Las Vegas, which relies heavily on coal and natural gas is ahead of the curve in terms of legislation, whereas clean and green hydro-electrically-powered Washington state has yet to create stringent and sustainable regulations.
Legislators have been more concerned with issues of security and diversion than environmental impact. The “pot is dangerous” paradigm needs to shift to “unregulated grow practices are dangerous for the planet.”
We can effectively undo all the good of a smart grow with wasteful packaging.
- Think “cradle-to-grave” for your packaging: Where did it come from? What is it made of? Where will it go after it has been used? That plastic container might be a good fix in a pinch, but think about the impact it has as you scale.
- We’ve got to reduce plastics and push glass, wood, or paper wherever possible. Almost every gram of cannabis that goes out into the world from a processing facility is wrapped in plastic— and we all know that it can’t be properly disposed of or recycled. However, the plastic used for business-to-business bulk orders could be saved and reused.
- At Solstice, we’ve been designing glass containers with cork and wood tops for our flower. They can be collected, reused, or returned for a deposit. Our Solstice pre-rolls are made from 60% post-consumer recycled paper and printed with vegetable ink. Every little bit counts.
Have Multiple Bottom Lines
The “Triple P Bottom Line: People, Planet, Profits” (look it up) is the newest, sexiest take on commerce with a conscience. The Triple P works primarily because it’s a flexible paradigm; it gives business owners a framework in which they can question and evaluate the human and environmental cost of every move they make.
Across industries, innovative leaders are finding more generous, humane, and ultimately more sustainable ways to do big business. Some of these are easy and inexpensive: utilizing proper waste disposal, bike-to-work incentive programs (a Solstice favorite), “plant a tree” days, or making sure your pesticide program is safe for employees and the planet.
Sometimes, however, there is an unavoidable immediate cost to doing what is right. Google uses a fancy fuel cell with 2-3 bloom boxes for their building infrastructure. They’re getting loads of good PR for this— in part because very few people can afford to use them.
But, it is my belief that the more you grow, the more capital you’re bringing in, and the more you have to give to impeccable resource management.
Everyone knows that cannabis growing makes money. We’re looking at a multi-billion dollar industry over the next five years. Hobby systems and garage standards are not scalable for the cannabis boom. Whatever the laws might “allow” us to do, we have to stay ahead of the curve and firmly within our own conscience.
Alex Cooley, Solstice Co-Founder
Alex Cooley is the co-founder of the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, and has created or co-founded some of the first professional and legitimate medical cannabis companies in Washington state. He has advocated for medical cannabis as an industry, most notably as a contributing writer of WA SB5073 and the “Collective Garden Model,” which resulted in the method for safe access to cannabis for qualifying patients in Washington. In 2011, Alex Cooley co-founded Solstice, where he oversees production, industry outreach, and expansion of the first-ever fully permitted cannabis production facility in Washington. From inception, Solstice’s goal has been to cultivate the highest quality cannabis, including the award-winning, CBD-rich Sour Tsunami #3. As part of Solstice’s mission to be a positive catalyst in the cannabis industry and offer a new message about cannabis, Alex champions environmentally responsible practices, serves as an adviser to state and local officials, and continues to advocate for patients’ rights.