Is The Cannabis Industry Environmentally-Friendly?

Contrary to popular belief, the cannabis industry isn't as "green" as people think it is. Let's take a look at the environmental issues facing the cannabis industry.

Although the cannabis industry has been growing rapidly with annual market values expected to reach $30 billion by 2025, Cannabis producers still face daily struggles with legality, regulation and banking.  

And, amid all the regulatory complications of running a licensed cannabis business, environmentalism isn't a priority. The long-lasting historical illegality of cannabis meant that the industry has had no oversight until recent years, which gave growers very little incentive to curtail their power or water use, or to avoid dumping pollutants of cannabis crops.

As such, the cannabis business has never been especially green.

Despite its long-standing history in human culture and its extraordinary economic potential, cannabis remains a poorly understood agricultural crop, with relatively little published research on its production and potential environmental impacts.

Sustainability has been a topic of increasing importance across every industry, given the growing focus upon climate change and the impacts that humans have on the planet.

Only recently has the issue of sustainability been receiving growing attention industry, not only among the producers but also among consumers, as it will effectively be their dollars that decide which companies sink or swim at this point.

In October 2020, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) published its recommendations for improving environmental sustainability in the cannabis industry.

The report entitled Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry' was developed by the Colorado Policy Council along with experts in the field of environmental sustainability.

A successful, socially responsible Cannabis Industry will require best practices for environmental sustainability. Kaitlin Urso, Engagement Manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment

The lead author of the report Kaitlin Urso said that "this paper is a vital first step in that effort. This is important and ongoing work that will benefit everyone. The NCIA's paper on environmental sustainability is going to inform how we approach important questions related to the future of the cannabis industry."

Below highlight are some of the main issues discussed on the NCIA's report:

  • Importance of Displacing the Illegal Market: regulated cannabis market carries myriad environmental protections. Discouraging purchases from the illicit market will drive consumers to the regulated marketplace where more environmentally sustainable practices are being adopted.
  • Soil Degradation Impacts: Soil erosion, nutrient loss, reduction in organic carbon stored within the soil, and increased acidity are all inextricably linked to traditional destructive agriculture practices. The use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and replacing native vegetation with single-row annually planted crops – lead to unintended and avoidable impacts to land use and soil health. If the cannabis industry adopts environmentally sustainable practices, it can become a leader in how to reduce the environmental degradation and climate change impacts associated with traditional agricultural operations, in which many cannabis producers also rely on.
  • Water Impacts: Agricultural runoff from traditional and cannabis farming has impacts on the environment from pesticides, heavy metals, excess and elevated nutrients, as well as other pollutants from wastewater. Indoor cultivation can also put pressure on municipal water systems from the discharge of excess nutrients and industrial cleaners, which increases the stresses on existing wastewater treatment facilities. Increased load on water systems also leads to indirect air quality impacts through increased carbon emissions.
  • Energy Impacts: The cannabis industry leverages a range of energy infrastructure in a variety of different cultivation and production environments, including indoor and outdoor facilities. Depending on production methods, cannabis can be an energy-intensive crop, especially indoor cultivations.
  • Air Quality Impacts: Emissions of air pollutants may occur at multiple points during the cultivation and processing of crops, and the cannabis industry is no exception. Cultivation and processing of cannabis, along with the electricity generated to power indoor growing facilities, and transportation of cannabis products all contribute to air emissions. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted from all plants as they grow, with cannabis plants emitting VOCs as terpenes throughout their growth cycle and especially, processing (extraction). Studies are underway to better understand the quantity and characteristics of cannabis industry emissions, specifically on VOCs from cultivation. Emissions of VOCs, nitrogen oxides (NOX), and greenhouse gasses contribute to climate change, as do other air contaminants resulting from fossil-fuel-based electricity generation and transportation of products.
  • Waste Impacts: A significant portion of the waste generated from industrial scale cultivation and processing of cannabis is the organic plant waste and single-use consumer packaging. The environmental impacts from these waste streams are similar to various other consumer goods and are the result of inefficient and antiquated waste management models for all of society (i.e., excessive landfilling, flawed recycling infrastructure with recently failed end markets, and weak end-markets for compost)

Besides pointing out all those issues in detail, the NCIA's report provides solutions and guidelines to address the problems.

Additionally, the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition seeks to bring about a more environmentally-friendly cannabis industry, by getting cannabis industry leaders work together to improve sustainability in cultivation, manufacturing and distribution.

Finally, The Cannabis Conservancy is a certification organization that provides an internationally recognized Sustainability Certification, for cannabis organizations that adhere to good agricultural practices, free of harmful chemical inputs, utilize waste reduction methods, are energy efficient, and conserve water.

While the industry is certainly green in one sense, that doesn't mean it isn't damaging the environment. As the cannabis industry continues to define itself, sustainability will play an increasingly crucial role.

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Camila Ferezin
Camila Ferezin

Camila Ferezin is a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology. She holds a BA in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Biochemistry and has been working with Research and Development, both in the Academic environment and Pharma company. She is passionate about Science and loves to talk about Chemistry, Biology and Physics.