Is that weed you’re smoking green enough?

For most of the world’s industries, sustainability is an exercise in correcting the mistakes of the past — from changing mindsets to the very machinery used.

But for the fledgling cannabis industry, there is still hope. A slew of startups and industry bodies are trying to make sure that for once, an industry starts off on the right path.

“What I have seen across Fortune 500 companies is, they’re trying to improve efficiency to reduce the environmental impact of operations that already exist,” said Annie Davis, vice president of marketing for Flow Cannabis Co, an outdoor cannabis cultivator. “But what if, from the start, we could build a different model?”

That would be ideal. However, even though cannabis as a legal business is only about a decade old, it still has a long history of illegal cultivation that set a precedent of avoiding the cops rather than saving the planet. Moreover, that has meant that cannabis cultivation has missed out on the massive advancements in traditional agriculture.

“The agricultural research that’s related to cannabis is anecdotal and driven from its history as an illegal product. It hasn’t benefited from the level of research that traditional agricultural products have,” said Shawn Cooney, co-founder of the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC), a coalition of 20 cannabis or cannabis-adjacent companies, including cannabis producer Trulieve and Flow Cannabis. “So there’s a history of using less efficient technologies.”

Hotboxing is bad for the planet

As of 2020, 40% of legal cannabis growers cultivate solely indoors, which leaves a huge energy footprint. According to Travis Higginbotham, vice president of production at cannabis retailer and producer Harborside, consumers prefer cannabis that’s grown indoors, and so it has a higher retail value.

In Colorado, the cannabis industry alone accounts for 1.3% of the state’s total annual emissions, equal to that of coal mining and trash collection.

Cannabis farmers moved inside because they had to hide from law enforcement, Davis said, and those that grew outside planted under the shade of large trees to avoid being spotted by helicopters — not optimal for producing cannabis with high levels of THC. Such early decisions, made when cannabis was illegal, are still influencing consumer preferences and business operations.

The high energy costs associated with growing indoors are the cannabis sector’s biggest environmental problem — one that is both operational and reputational. Indoor systems use a combination of lights and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to control the climate and simulate ideal conditions.

Cannabis sustainability

Growing cannabis indoors can get very energy-intensive, very quickly. Image Credits: Harborside

Together, HVAC, CO2 pumps and lighting account for 11% to 25% of a facility’s greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, HVAC systems in cannabis grow houses work harder than those even in operating rooms because of the heat generated by the grow lights.

What does the overall picture look like? Depending on location, greenhouse gas emissions can range from 2,283 kg to 5,184 kg CO2-equivalent for each kilogram of dry flower produced.

This is primarily due to the sheer amount of energy required to power the lights, run the CO2 systems and keep the facilities ventilated. With the sector booming, these energy requirements are starting to suck up a good chunk of the U.S. electrical system. In Colorado, the cannabis industry alone accounts for 1.3% of the state’s total annual emissions, equal to that of coal mining and trash collection.

A joint effort to green it up

Cannabis companies are waking up to the fact that what the industry at large is doing may not be as great for the planet as its generally nature-loving customers would want.

The SCC is helping get a big project for the future of sustainable cannabis off the ground. The organization is working with Stephen Doig, senior research and strategy adviser at Dartmouth’s Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society, to perform a complete evaluation and system redesign of indoor cannabis grow facilities.

Doig has previously evaluated everything from hospitals and data centers to the Empire State Building, where his team reduced energy consumption by 40%.

The project is still in the early phases, but Doig and his team plan to investigate every light type, how to integrate solar panels, reduce HVAC usage, introduce automation and much more, including the economics of making these changes so it can be business applicable.

One change Doig is looking into is altering the position of the HVAC systems. In many facilities, the lighting and HVAC systems are fighting each other: HVAC systems are usually set up above the plants, in the ceiling, and they have to work hard to blow cool air downward as the lights heat the air and it rises upward. Doig is investigating ways to perfuse air in from below and draw it out at the top so HVAC systems don’t have to work as hard.

With minor and major tweaks like this across the entire system, Doig is hopeful that they will be able to see energy savings in the “high double-digit” range. The model is purported to be available to the public by mid-2022, and the SCC will help promote it.

Lighting is another major area seeing a shift. Growers have traditionally used high-pressure sodium lamps to help grow the plants, but they are now increasingly turning to LEDs, which have gotten cheaper and generate less heat, meaning HVAC systems have to work less.

“I think [LEDs] will have a huge impact for the industry,” said Brad Stutzman, executive director of operational excellence for Trulieve. “The LED bulbs will reduce our heat and power consumption.”

Using LEDs, Trulieve was able to reduce its HVAC and dehumidification usage by 25% in a few small trials. The company also has a proof-of-concept pilot in the works to test out efficient HVAC and lighting systems to lower its carbon footprint.

Cannabis plants growing under lights

Heavy lighting requirements can push up the energy bill in more than one way. Image Credits: OpenRangeStock/Getty Images

Why not just go outside?

With all the work necessary to get indoor growing to use less energy, you’re bound to ask: Why not just move everything outside now that it’s legal? Well, it’s still legally complicated, and you can only grow cannabis outdoors well in certain climates.

“The local regulations force the industry to act a certain way,” Cooney said. “A lot of the states are almost requiring indoor growth. It’s difficult to grow outdoors in many states, so the healthier alternatives are limited.”

Brian Anderson, Cooney’s co-founder at SCC, said these regulations are “a poke in the eye” of sustainability. “Would you tell corn or soybean farmers that they can’t grow outside?”

According to Flow Cannabis’ Davis, one of the tragedies of increased regulation is that you can grow indoor cannabis anywhere, which will lead to growing cannabis where electricity costs are the lowest. Usually, that coincides with regions that have the least environmentally friendly energy grids.

Flow Cannabis, which produces exclusively “sun-grown” cannabis, is working on getting more regions to allow outdoor cannabis cultivation. The company contracts with 30 small craft cannabis growers and has its own farm in Lake County, California.

But of course, moving outside doesn’t inherently make cannabis growing sustainable. Flow Cannabis’ farm is on a fallowed walnut orchard where the company employs regenerative agriculture techniques such as planting cover crops like black mustard and buckwheat seed to rejuvenate the soil. The farm also plants vegetables, clovers and legumes alongside the cannabis to add biodiversity and draw insects away so they don’t have to use pesticides or herbicides.

“Our goal here is to demonstrate that one can cultivate sun-grown cannabis at scale with minimal environmental impact,” Davis said.

Using experience and tech to take it further

It took them a while, but traditional agricultural veterans have begun foraying into the previously black market and taboo cannabis sector. Higginbotham said he had been eyeing the cannabis industry for some time before he felt comfortable enough with the sector to make the jump.

Cannabis sustainability plants on a conveyor belt

Cannabis plants on a conveyor belt at a Harborside facility. Image Credits: Harborside

“There’s still many in the cannabis industry who do not come from traditional horticulture or agriculture,” Higginbotham said. “And because of that, you don’t have the expertise nor the education to start production with certain baseline environmental impact needs.”

Without these experts, growers have not been following best practices known in the agriculture industry, like not over-fertilizing plants, which can cause nitrogen runoff, using automatic drip irrigation systems, or using curtains to capture heat in greenhouses during winter months to reduce heating needs.

And with these veterans now learning the benefits of big data, the cannabis sector has followed. SCC is working with software company Sustain.Life to develop a tool to help cannabis companies track their emissions. Sustain.Life sells emissions-tracking software to organizations across sectors and recently announced a program that allows cannabis companies to track and optimize energy, water, solvent waste and retail waste.

But there is one giant problem that all these efforts just can’t seem to tackle: packaging waste. Davis calls it the “Achilles’ heel” of the cannabis industry, as cannabis packaging regulations mandate a lot of extras like multiple labels, certificates of authenticity, tamper-proof seals and child-resistant packaging. These requirements, Davis said, make it nearly impossible to make packaging out of compostable materials, which means the industry relies heavily on plastic.

“Companies are starting to work on that and come up with better packaging alternatives,” Cooney said. “But the industry needs to actually speak out, saying, ‘OK, we need to change the packaging regulations so that we can use more sustainable packaging.'”

Small cannabis brands like Beboe, Calyx Containers and Dogwalkers are moving toward glass or paper packaging, but retailers still need plastic zip locks to sell their products. Getting a recollection and reuse system in place at retail stores that customers will actually use is necessary to make this model sustainable.

The cannabis industry is at a place that is different from other industries trying to move to more sustainable models. It could do it right the first time.

“The cannabis industry is growing really fast,” Doig said. “They’re making pretty good margins and they’ve kind of got a PR problem. Getting it right, right now [will] make a big difference.”