Between legal sales plus a still-persistent illicit market, California is on track to record a whopping $11.8 billion from cannabis just in 2019. Home to the world’s largest legal cannabis market, California has been a leader in innovative and progressive business practices in the buzzy industry. This approach has fueled growth as well as attracted many new entrepreneurs to the space. However, there is a concerning disconnect between what is practiced and preached. While the cannabis industry is built on an ethos of holistic & natural approaches when it comes to sustainability the agriculture-based business trails behind.
Lack of sustainability throughout the supply chain
Sustainability is extremely important to consumers, particularly those of the millennial generation. In fact, 70% will pay more for products made sustainably and 83% consider a product’s environmental or social impact before purchasing. Yet the cannabis industry largely struggles with how to incorporate environmentally-friendly policies at all stages of the supply chain. This is a result of the reality that recreational cannabis only became operationally legalized in 2018 in California and still remains federally illegal. Unlike other large agricultural industries, there has been little to no publicly-funded research on cannabis. Even now that recreational cannabis use is legal in eleven states and the District of Columbia the EPA still cannot study production best practices or the environmental effects of cannabis. This creates a patchwork system of regulations for the industry across state lines and leaves companies with no clear environmental incentives.
One of the many reasons that environmentally-cognizant regulations are needed is the fact that producing a compliant cannabis product requires extensive use of electricity, water, pesticides, and plastic. Each of these is a key component yet also has an adverse environmental effect. This is particularly troubling in a state like California which is often afflicted by extreme natural events due to drought. According to a 2018 report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Planning Branch, cannabis plants each need about 6 gallons of water a day. This is a taxing demand of a limited resource leading many businesses to turn to indoor cultivation as an alternative.
While indoor cultivation solves one problem, it creates an entirely new environmental predicament as this is also the most energy-intensive method. According to one recent report available, 1% of all electricity used in the United States annually was consumed by cannabis, even before legalization. A New Frontier October 2018 data report also estimated the combined energy consumption in legal and illicit growing at 4.1 million megawatt hours, roughly equal to the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam.
According to one recent report available, 1% of all electricity used in the United States annually was consumed by cannabis, even before legalization.
This is far from an abstract amount, but without clear environmental research and regulations to support awareness, many cannabis businesses are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Lastly, there is the issue of final-product packaging. In this area, guidelines are actually quite explicit in displaying the potential health impacts of consumption and mandatory packaging regulations. Unfortunately, they also contribute to an enormous amount of plastic waste. While the industry is still lacking data on how much plastic actually goes into the production and sale of cannabis, it is well-known that plastic can take decades to decompose and releases harmful toxins into the soil in the process.
In California, all cannabis products must be sealed in child-resistant packaging to be delivered to a dispensary. When the product is actually purchased it is then placed into yet another child-resistant plastic “exit bag”. This is just the packaging to sell cannabis compliantly and does not count the components that actually make up certain products. Items like vapes are designed with stand-alone cartridges, lithium batteries, and heating components. While individually each of these items are recyclable, when combined they become hazardous material. For a single-use product this is an extreme amount of plastic, particularly in a state that has already banned single-use plastic items like straws.
How does the industry move forward?
The good news is that faced with this information the industry has started to proactively respond and embrace environmentally-conscious approaches. While there is still a long way to go, companies have begun to incorporate more efficient practices such as LED lights, solar power, water recycling systems, and additional technologies to help monitor temperature, light, and moisture levels in plants. Canndescent is one local leader in this area. They recently completed the first commercial-scale cannabis facility powered entirely by solar energy.
Other approaches include recycling programs like that of Canna Cycle, a Northern California based initiative. They place clearly labeled bins at dispensaries to encourage cannabis packaging drop-offs, which they then sterilize and return to be re-used. Notably, vapes are not currently accepted, but the overall goal remains to offset the environmental impact of cannabis products by extending the life of its non-recyclable components. Brands like The Bloom Brand are also joining this effort by partnering with organizations that help facilitate their vape recycling efforts and donate to relevant environmental causes. Sarah Berrafato who leads sustainability efforts at the brand described their initiatives, “The issue of sustainability in cannabis in an extremely important one to us at The Bloom Brand. By partnering with organizations like Gaiaca and 1% for the planet we are taking significant proactive steps to combat an undesirable situation created by current regulations. We encourage other brands to join us in this critical effort.”
Ultimately, sustainable packaging is the solution to excess plastic. However, this often costs two to three times more, and these costs are translated down to consumers. This makes this an unappealing or impossible undertaking for many new or smaller businesses, particularly while the legal cannabis industry competes neck-and-neck with the illicit market. Until regulations are standardized to be more environmentally friendly the initiative will remain with cannabis companies themselves to implement these practices proactively.