Research published in the journal Energy Policy found annual carbon emissions from inefficient indoor cannabis cultivation in the U.S. are similar to emissions produced by 3 million cars. Beyond a long-term problem for the planet, inefficient production across the industry is a poor way to attract the most important customer segment for long-term growth in an era of declining sales. More than half of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2013) is 18 years of age or older, and their preferences as consumers will dictate how the industry grows and survives. This generation cares a lot more about sustainability than past generations, and they’re willing to pay more for eco-friendly, sustainable retail products from socially responsible brands.
As the wine industry has demonstrated, there is great potential for monetary gains from cutting energy costs and waste while attracting younger, more conscientious consumers. A study of small- to medium-sized wineries and vineyards published in Science Daily found “the more sustainability practices a winery has in place, the better its financial performance — and the effect is enhanced when a winery perceives significant pressure from competitors.”
How to save money by going green
True cost-savings and sustainable practices start at the ground floor with cultivation, according to corporate climate strategy consultant Eloisa Lewis, who helps cannabis companies become more eco-friendly through the organization New Climate Culture.
“Anyone who is concerned about the cost of sustainability probably doesn’t understand what real biodiversity, regenerative economics, and sustainability are,” said Lewis. “These modes and methods are ancient, and tribal farmers are the ones who have maintained the best practices and taught me as well as my cohorts. We look to low-cost, high-yield practices only.”
Lewis shared several small ways companies can go green while saving some green.
Some of the most wasteful materials in the cannabis industry are ones that cannot be reused, such as hydroponic growing mediums like rockwool and coco-coir. That is why Shawn Magill, chief executive officer and co-founder of the hemp farm CBG Gurus, advises growing operations to switch to soil—preferably locally sourced.
Magill, who works with Lewis, gets his soil from a company 45 minutes away from his property and amends it with compost he buys locally along with other materials he sources from his farm.
“This allows for the high upfront cost of a really good soil to be a one-time cost,” said Lewis.
With a proper composting and amending system in place, recycling soil can eliminate a large, unnecessary source of waste and lower the financial burden of regularly buying new hydroponic materials. Lewis estimates it costs about $18,650 annually to grow about 1,000 plants in rockwool, compared to less than $5,000 a year for the same number of plants in reused soil.
“In a properly managed system, a soil-based growing medium can be reused over and over again, so these savings could compound year over year,” she said.
Make fertilizer yourself
In addition to the unnecessary waste created by cannabis cultivation, the growing process results in some necessary waste that can be repurposed. Fan leaves, plant stalks, and root balls can be chipped and added to compost or used to top-dress grow beds. If the farm is not equipped for this, Lewis and Magill recommend donating leaves and other plant material to the nearest composting or soil-producing facility to lower disposal costs and reduce waste. Farm animal waste is another viable option for making fertilizer in-house, and it can be less expensive than more commonly used products.
“This [plant material] waste should be recycled and kept in the system as much as possible,” Magill said.
Cannabis is a water-intensive plant that can put additional stress on drought-stricken areas in states like California and Colorado where cultivators have faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for violating local water regulations. On the other hand, collecting rainwater is legal and even encouraged in states like New Mexico, where companies can offset the cost of collection and filtration systems with attractive rebates. Water filtration experts estimate rainwater capture can cut a company’s water usage by 25 percent, significantly lowering recurring expenses.
A comprehensive system to capture and use rainwater can cost as much as $12,000, but there are more affordable ways to approach it. Permaculture instructor Andrew Millison’s YouTube channel and water harvesting expert Brad Lancaster’s books are great resources for anyone interested in reusing rainwater on a shoestring budget. According to Lewis, no matter how much a business spends up front, the cost of water management can diminish to zero over time.
Grow more cannabis outdoors
There is evidence growing cannabis outdoors instead of indoors significantly cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions by reducing heating, lighting, air conditioning, and ventilation costs, thereby lowering the overhead of the cultivation process. According to Statista, the cost to grow a pound of flower in 2021 was approximately $472 for indoor, $256 for greenhouse, and $214 for outdoor.
Despite environmental and budgetary benefits, seasonality, licensing, and environmental variables can make outdoor operations less practical in many parts of the country. In these areas, consultants like Lewis work with companies to set up greenhouses and source cleaner, less expensive solar energy. The move to a solar-powered farm will require more capital up front, but it can be a significant benefit for cannabis companies in the long run. Massachusetts-based Solar Cannabis Company earned more than $1 million in local rebates for utilizing solar energy.
The financial incentives to upgrade indoor grow operations for sustainability vary widely. However, in states like Michigan, cannabis companies are eligible for up to $2 million in rebates.
Challenges to overcome
Some local governments are doing more to get in the way of sustainability than support it. For example, California’s Department of Cannabis Control prohibits recycling glass vape carts because they can contain traces of THC. Consequently, those must be disposed of as hazardous waste. Companies also sell products in complex layers of child-resistant packaging, which customers bring home in a dispensary exit bag often made from unsustainable plastic or mylar. In 2020, cannabis packaging in the U.S. accounted for approximately one billion pieces of single-use plastic.
But even with the red tape, there are still plenty of realistic changes cannabis companies can adopt to get greener without eroding profit margins.