How the Cannabis industry can start shrinking its carbon footprint

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Companies are using indoor farms to reduce the number of variables, which helps create a stronger yield of potent bud, but at a financial and environmental cost.

Cannabis grew on its own, without the help of mankind or fossil fuels, for thousands of years.

Just as the plant is naturally eco-friendly, cannabis consumers are often environmentally savvy citizens. Glimpses of this can be seen in the oft-recycled or zero-waste packaging that some weed brands are now using.

Why then, is the carbon footprint of cannabis currently so high, and continues to grow as the industry expands? The answer to this question may lie in the way marijuana is grown these days.

 

The Fresh Toast asked Heather Dunbar, director of marketing and communications for Sun+Earth Certified, some questions about the current state of weed’s carbon footprint and what needs to change to make it smaller. Sun+Earth Certified growers, according to the company’s website, are all holistically, responsibly and restoratively grown. In other words, the goal is to give back to the environment, rather than diminish it.

There are questions about how to curb, or even reverse, current issues with cannabis cultivation and its use of fossil fuels. But as marijuana continues to grow as a player in business and industry, is it possible to change the tide and return to a climate-conscious method of pot growing? Or is it destined to continue to morph into a major consumer of fossil fuels.

Use the sun — It’s there and it’s free

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for the major shift in fossil fuel energy use within cannabis farming is how each plant gets its light.

Since the dawn of the plant, marijuana has relied on the sun to get its much-needed rays of light. Now, however, outdoor cultivation occurs is a small minority of marijuana growing operations in the U.S.

“Nationally, 80 per cent of cannabis is cultivated indoors with sophisticated lighting and environmental controls designed to maximize the plant’s yield,” according to Politico.

So, instead of getting natural light, companies are using indoor farms to reduce the number of variables, which helps create a stronger yield of potent bud, but at a financial and environmental cost. This is why Sun+Earth Certified aims to use sunlight to feed to plants, rather than electricity.

“These methods are good not only for the environment, but for the bank account too,” said Dunbar. “Regenerative methods use natural sunlight and avoid the high cost of expensive energy bills that come from using high-intensity lights.” After all, as important as environmental concerns are, knowing there is potential money savings is a great way to encourage change.

But it is not easy to sway the big growers who have built major indoor facilities that run like clockwork to churn out harvest after harvest of reliable buds. This methodical consistency, however, comes at a cost.

“Large indoor grows require a massive amount of energy with high-intensity lights and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems that run 24/7, which has a major environmental impact and huge carbon footprint,” Dunbar argued.

Use environmentally friendly pesticides and materials

Not only can unregulated and man-made pesticides be dangerous to the body, but these potentially toxic pesticides are also bad for the environment.

“Synthetic petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers have a major negative impact,” Dunbar reported. “By reducing, or ideally eliminating, the use of these products, one’s carbon footprint is drastically reduced.”

Fertilizers are also an area of opportunity for cannabis growers to reduce their footprints. Composting and creating one’s own fertilizer is not only cheaper, but it means an operation doesn’t need to purchase fertilizer that has travelled on a truck for long distances.

Some of the fertilizers available for purchase might even have some damaging effects on the environment and climate change as well. As Dunbar explained, “Petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers not only disturb the soil biology negatively, but also use large quantities of fossil fuels.”

That is why her company encourages making one’s own fertilizer.

Small and sustainable farms may help lower carbon footprint

Sun+Earth Certified works closely with many smaller growing operations, and it is these operations where there is some hope for environmental stability. The concept is that these farms work together, as a collective.

“Farmers share best practices, join collective forces, work together to bridge the gap from farmer to consumer, amplify the message of regenerative cannabis cultivation and strengthen communities,” Dunbar suggested. She explained that the goal is that this low-waste, regenerative way of farming will spread to other growing operations that want to help, but just don’t know how.

While this seems like a noble and optimistic plan, it’s clear that there is a limited time to make these changes happen, especially as small cannabis farms continue to struggle. “The farmers who have been doing right for generations are having an incredibly hard time making ends meet. Currently, there is no profit margin and some farmers are closing up shop,” Dunbar said.

Looking at her own state of California, where the power grids are already becoming very stressed and overwhelmed, she said, “If large industrial grows continue to produce record amounts of cannabis using an enormous amount of energy, this will continue to strain the grid.”

The challenges of growing cannabis sustainably are very real, and becoming increasingly challenging as more powerful companies buy up growing operations.

Still, for such a vast carbon footprint problem, the solution appears to be somewhat simple. As Dunbar said, “It is time to grow it in a way that is aligned with nature and what makes sense for a sustainable and regenerative future: growing under the sun and in the soil.”

Region: North America