Is Eco-Friendly Marijuana A Myth? The U.S. Cannabis Industry Could Be A Lot Greener

As legislation surrounding the cannabis industry loosens, it has begun making a big impact on the economy on a national level. In fact, the cannabis market is projected to be a $22 billion industry by 2022. But is it also negatively impacting the environment?

eco-friendly marijuana
Just because the weed is green doesn’t make it eco-friendly. Credit: Unsplash.

The growth of the industry is largely due to the versatility of its products. The cannabis industry is helping many people manage pain and anxiety. Its products are stimulating the appetite of those going through cancer treatments, treating those who are are prone to epileptic seizures, and helping people manage a wide variety of other conditions. The uses of CBD, medical marijuana, and hemp are becoming increasingly recognized by the general public. As a result, it’s a booming market.

Unfortunately, an industry that experiences such substantial growth in a relatively short amount of time is bound to make mistakes. Critics have begun pointing to research that indicates that the damage the industry is causing to the environment may outweigh the positives. Is failing to be eco-friendly truly one of the cannabis industry’s oversights?

Water Use

Of the 33 states with legal marijuana usage, a third of them lie in the western United States, where water is scarce. Marijuana farms’ water use continues to be unregulated due to being considered illegal by federal standards. As the industry continues to expand, the need for regulation is becoming more apparent.

A single marijuana plant can consume up to six gallons of water a day. A survey conducted in Mendocino County, California found a 50-foot by 100-foot plot containing 50 cannabis plants uses 24,000 gallons per growing season (about 240 days). Those 50 plants would produce 12,800 common retail units known as “eighths”(an eighth of an ounce).

Each eighth would require 1.875 gallons of water to produce. To compare, a single almond takes a gallon of water per nut, and one broccoli head requires 5 gallons to produce. In comparison to other agricultural products it may not seem like an excessively water-intensive crop. However, at the rate of unregulated growth, it may have an impact on water allotment for other agricultural industries.

There are ways to reduce the amount of water used in production. Growers can regulate use through drip irrigation and automated water systems. There has also been a movement towards collecting the condensation from dehumidifiers used in grow rooms that can be filtered and used to water plants.

As of right now, most growers refrain from using reclaimed water to avoid damaging their crops. However, as the industry continues to develop, there are hopes of that changing over time as production methods evolve.

Alternative Energy

To grow cannabis indoors, growers must create an artificial environment for the plants, which can be extremely energy intensive. The electricity being used is mostly being pulled from the coal-powered grid. Production requires high-wattage lights, automated nutrient machines, high-powered exhaust fans, heat, and air conditioning.

It is estimated the cannabis industry (both legal and illegal) pulled 4.1 million MWh of electricity in 2017. This equates to 1% of all energy use in America and is forecasted to increase by 167% by 2022. There is an obvious need for this industry to invest in alternative energies to offset its energy use.

Installing solar panels and batteries can reduce energy use and pass on the financial savings on to business owners. According to Solar Power World exhaust fans, dehumidification, and air ventilation, account for 50% of the electricity load of a grow operation. Investing in alternative energies can be off-putting to any type of business owner due to upfront costs. However, when costs are evaluated, it is clear investing in clean energy systems pays for themselves over time.

Sustainable Packaging

A big focus has been directed towards reducing waste in manufacturing and creating more sustainable packaging to be used at dispensaries. Regulations differ from state to state, but all states require cannabis-infused products to be in child-proof packaging.

Child-proof packaging can range from items resembling plastic prescription pill bottles to large Mylar bags with a hefty zipper. Due to extensive labeling mandated by law, the packaging can be larger than needed to hold the product. In an effort to be more eco-friendly, some dispensaries offer a discount on your purchase when you bring in reusable items.

A growing arena within the cannabis industry is the development of eco-friendly packaging and materials. From rechargeable vape pens to biodegradable child-proof canisters, innovative companies are paving the way for new product offerings in an effort to replace single-use and plastic containers.

If you are a consumer or producer of cannabis products, running products through a filtering checklist will enable you to make the most sustainably sound decision on packaging options:

  • Are the materials biodegradable?
  • Are the materials recyclable?
  • Are the materials designed to be multi- or single-use?
  • Are the materials naturally sourced from non-virgin material?
  • Do the materials contain any added harmful chemicals?

The intense resource use required to grow a successful cannabis company creates a challenge for entrepreneurs striving for sustainability. The industry’s initiative towards more eco-friendly practices is worthy of acknowledgment but can be greatly improved upon. Hopefully, grow operations will place sustainable business practices at the forefront of their operations moving forward. Implementing green practices can reduce costs of reorganizing operations down the line.