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AUTHOR: Heather Allman
PUBLISHER:  CANNABIS LAW REPORT

Cannabis Sustainability: SCOPE and SOLUTIONS

SUSTAINABILITY SITUATION IN 2017

Over two years ago, Nora Mounce of Hello MD penned Beyond Organic: How to Shop for Sustainable Cannabis:

Cannabis can’t be certified organic, but there are third-party labels to help you pick marijuana grown safely and sustainably.

For cannabis-friendly environmentalists, it makes sense that we celebrate Earth Day just after 420. In fact, the annual celebrations, both dedicated to green living, seem to sync up more and more each year. With respect to green farmers of all stripes, here are some tips for sourcing eco-friendly cannabis this Earth Day and every day.

Cannabis Can’t Be Officially Called Organic

“For better or worse, you won’t see organic cannabis at your dispensary or offered by your delivery service any time soon. While many of California’s cultivators practice organic- style farming, the federal government holds the trademark on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic designation. This prevents anyone from slapping an organic label on cannabis, until prohibition is lifted nationwide—and who knows when that will happen.

“Consumers want organic; they want GMO-free; they want products produced from sustainable farming methods,” says Rick Bakas, a wine industry marketing professional. Also an advocate for medical marijuana, Rick believes that success in the legal cannabis industry will hinge on sustainability practices. Yet, in order to market a business’s commitment to consumer safety and environmental integrity, these values need to be communicated—but how?”

Marijuana Sustainability Certifications to Look For

“Over the years, the media has repeatedly characterized cannabis cultivation as either energy-sucking indoor grows or backwoods farms that unleash rodenticides on wildlife. Like any industry, there are good and bad actors. But in 2018, marijuana legalization has emerged as the platform to raise environmental standards of California’s most infamous green industry.

Here are some of the third-party labels you can look for and ask about that identify cannabis products made with sustainable practices:

  • Beyond Compliant >> In lieu of a Certified Organic designation, consulting firms like Hall & Associates in Humboldt County have developed third-party certifications to communicate a cannabis farm’s environmental practices. By leveraging designations like Hollie’s Beyond Compliant certification, dispensary buyers have a clearer picture of the farm’s environmental practices. The Beyond Compliant name comes from the language of Prop 64, which requires cannabis farmers to be “on the pathway to compliance” in abiding by the state’s new environmental regulations governing marijuana cultivation.”
  • TCC Standards of Sustainability >> “With a California office in Nevada County, Colorado-based The Cannabis Conservancy also established a sustainability certification. Co-founder and President Jacob Policzer explains that its label, TCC Standards of Sustainability, supports and recognizes cultivators whose agriculture practices are “beyond organic certification.”
  • Clean Green >> Another third-party certification you can look for is called Clean Green. The designation has been around since 2014 and certifies a range of products and services based on their sustainability practices. Clean Green has a robust online business directory where you can search for certified cannabis farms, processing companies and dispensaries throughout California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington”

SUSTAINABILITY SITUATION IN 2017

In 2017, this discussion gained momentum in Cannabis & Sustainability: How Marijuana Can Go Greener by Carmen Márquez:

As the cannabis industry grows, more attention is being paid to sustainable cultivation and manufacturing practices. In fact, many anti-cannabis proponents are using the environmental impact of commercial cannabis operations as a way to sway people to their side. However, there are many cannabis companies seeking to make the industry a greener place with more sustainable practices.

Ways to Improve Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry?

There are three basic aspects to consider for sustainable cannabis growth: energy consumption, water usage, and waste management. Here are suitable sustainable alternatives:

  • LED Lighting
  • Sustainable Water Usage
  • Effective Waste Disposal:Seed to sale tracking implementation in legal markets allows cannabis companies to accurately track all aspects of their plants. And while processors, cultivators and dispensaries are disposing of waste correctly per state laws, much of that waste just ends up in landfills.”

Predictions for the Future of Cannabis Sustainability?

All in all, there are many businesses within the cannabis industry aiming to promote sustainable and green practices. And while it may take a while for these practices to be adopted on a wide scale commercial level, at least the conversation has been started. In fact, there are even advocacy groups you can join today to do your part in spreading sustainability awareness, such as the Cannabis Sustainability Workgroup.

SUSTAINABILITY SITUATION IN 2019

Yet in 2019, Cannabis Companies Struggle To Become More Sustainable. CEO and Co-Founder of KushCo Holdings Nick Kovacevich writes:

State regulations make it hard for cannabis companies to focus on sustainability. That doesn’t mean they’re not trying. Millennials are bringing that sense of responsibility for maintaining a livable planet…. But while cannabis is a business based around agriculture, there aren’t clear rules for how to make it more sustainable. Because cannabis production and consumption have been illegal for nearly a century, there is limited data to support the design of best practices for the industry.

And unlike other valuable agricultural crops, there has been virtually no publicly-funded research on how to produce cannabis most effectively and efficiently, nor which of the various cultivation methods has the smallest carbon footprint.

Many cannabis companies are doing their best to reduce their carbon footprint while continuing to meet local regulations. Some are switching to more efficient and ecologically sound methods. Another way cannabis companies are hoping to become more sustainable is through packaging changes.

Industry groups and producers are hoping technology in the form of QR codes, a type of matrix barcode which can be read by smartphones and stores URLs and other information, can help. Many legal states might soon adopt QR codes, eliminating some of the excessive plastic required to cram all the mandated information onto each package.

At the same time, cannabis industry groups are taking the lead on sustainability, recommending the creation of packaging recycling programs, which offer small discounts to customers for returning bags and containers. They’re also searching for ways to incentivize producers and processors to switch to sustainable containers, including biodegradable hemp plastic.

Trade groups such as the Cannabis Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the advancement of an ethical and sustainable cannabis industry, are working to help find and develop compostable packaging. Companies such as TerraCycle are springing up specifically to deal with recycling cannabis packaging.

As cannabis continues to grow, and emerge from prohibition in more parts of the country, the industry will continue looking for ways to decrease its carbon footprint and working toward more environmentally sound packaging from the fields to store shelves.

SUSTAINABILITY SOLUTIONS IN 2019

Solutions to reduce our collective U.S. cannabis carbon footprint in 2019 are once again being promoted and encouraged, such as Cady Drell’s September 2019 Rolling Stone article on How the Cannabis Industry Can Do Better to Fight the Climate Crisis:

Cannabis is a pretty eco-friendly plant, all things considered: It’s versatile, it’s one of the fastest-growing commercial crops, and it may even help clean up soil that’s been contaminated by other farming practices. But despite all that, not to mention its perception as an Earth-loving agro-business, the legal cannabis industry isn’t all that green.

Since the early days of legalization, weed has struggled to match its sustainable image. Between the vast amounts of energy used for indoor grows (according to a 2011 estimate, a full 1 percent of the nation’s power usage goes to cannabis operations, though that number could be higher in 2019), the water used to cultivate plants, the oil used to ship them, and the packaging needed to sell them, the waste really starts to add up. And as the industry continues to expand rapidly — spending on cannabis is projected to hit nearly $50 billion a year by 2027 — the problem will only get bigger.

One obstacle is that much of the waste is due to regulation: Few legal states allow for outdoor growing, which is far more energy conservative than indoor, and single-use packaging is mandated by child-proofing standards and the ever-changing nature of cannabis regulations in general.

Packaging regulations, like all regulations, are a shifting target,” says Ben Gelt, board chair of the Colorado-based Cannabis Certification Council, which hosts the annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium. “With packaging, it’s very noticeable when a [regulatory body] changes a rule, because most companies have to change all of their packaging…It’s hard to invest in something not nimble or cheap, because you might have to ditch it.

Solar is an emerging option in indoor cannabis, and companies like Canndescent — which completed the industry’s first commercial-scale, solar-powered indoor production facility earlier this year — are showing how it could be done.

And then there’s the issue of packaging. About 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually, and much of it ends up in landfills or the ocean after its outgrown its use. And sometimes that use is once: Single-use plastics are de rigeur in the cannabis industry, mostly because of the aforementioned regulation.”

On July 19, 2019, Danielle Antos published Sustainable Plastic Packaging Options for Your Cannabis Products in the Cannabis Industry Journal:

Consider using different resins for plastic bottles and alternative manufacturing processes to help your business incorporate more sustainable packaging.

A large part of your company’s brand image depends on the packaging that you use for your cannabis product. The product packaging creates a critical first impression in a potential customer’s mind because it is the first thing they see. While the primary function of any cannabis packaging is to contain, protect and identify your products, it is a reflection of your company in the eyes of the consumer.

When you opt to use sustainably produced plastic bottles and closures for your cannabis products, you take an important step to help ensure a viable future for the planet: Cannabis Packaging that Helps Your Business Grow.

SUSTAINABILITY SUCCESSES IN 2019

There are Companies Going Beyond Sustainable Marijuana as highlighted by Fred Hernandez in March 2019:

Cannabis consumers are growing wiser to the detrimental environmental impact outdoor and indoor cannabis grow operations can have on local ecosystems. More than ever, customers are willing to spring a little extra for sustainably-grown cannabis in an eco-friendly package. Water shortages and high electricity use plague the cannabis industry. A few cannabis companies are focused on marijuana sustainability amidst a sea of questionable products.

Stagnant since the article by Nora Mounce in 2017, due to U.S. federal cannabis prohibition, the plant is still unable to receive a USDA-approved organic certification. Despite this fact, “organic certification, third-party certifications are filling the void. Marijuana sustainability is based on a number of eco-friendly practices including the use of LED lighting, sustainable water use, eco-friendly waste disposal, and sustainable cannabis packaging, Hernandez closes.”

Yes, the cannabis industry in the United States has a long, winding road ahead if cohesion, acceptance, and adherence to solid federal GCAP and GMP standards are established. However there are some legal cannabis companies currently dedicated to sustainable, quality cannabis product in the midst of our collective national uncertainty and confusion concerning the plant.

For example, as Melissa Schiller reported on December 19, 2019, a California Nonprofit Trackles Vape Recycling Issues Through Collaboration:

Up Kindness has a lofty mission to create a kind and sustainable future for all, and the Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit is making strides toward achieving this goal after a Dec. 15 panel discussion that brought industry stakeholders together to discuss the environmental concerns surrounding disposable vape cartridges.

The organization partnered with cannabis brand Big Karma and product design firm Canna Co-Operative to hold the discussion with statewide experts, which included panelists such as National Stewardship Action Council Executive Director Heidi Sanborn, GAIACA Waste Revitalization Director of Services Maria Espinoza, Zuber Lawler & Del Duca Law Managing Partner Tom Zuber, Big Karma’s Michelle Dougherty and NUG’s Dante Pasquini.

Photos courtesy of Up Kindness

California law leaves most recycling plants unable to accept certain byproducts of the legal cannabis industry, Up Kindness Executive Director Shira Lane tells Cannabis Business Times. Used vape cartridges, post-extraction biomass and any form of THC were left uncategorized under the federal and state laws that govern hazardous waste.

SUSTAINABLE CANNABIS COMPANIES 2019 DIRECTORY

  1. Sungrown Packaging and Higher Standard Packaging from recyclable and compostable materials
  2. HISIERRA sustainable dispensary exit bags from renewable plant-based materials from their fossil-fuel free facility.
  3. Regenerative farming methods; many cannabis companies are going beyond sustainability using such methods.
  4. Flow Kana “beyond-organic” and sustainable cannabis; partner with veteran farmers that grow small batches of sun-grown cannabis.
  5. Eel River Organics organic and sustainable marijuana farming methods and outdoor-grown cannabis; dry farming is as close to zero-waste and biodynamic as is currently possible. 
  6. L’Eagle only adult-use, indoor grown cannabis grower with a Clean Green certification.
  7. Terrapin Care Station
  8. Bird Valley Organics ancient Hugelkultur technique.
  9. Swami Select
  10. Catalyst Cannabis Co
  11. Raw Garden concentrates, labeled Clean Green.
  12. Sana Packaging
  13. Hemp Wick—exactly what the name implies; produced by many different brands and companies.
  14. Puffco—high-quality, non-toxic, long-lasting vaporizers; refill chamber for hash oil that does not come from traditional cartridges.
  15. Phuncky Feel Tips
  16. Marley Natural
  17. Sunrise Mountain Farms, a clean, sustainable approach to producing cannabis alongside naturally thriving wild elderberries (Sambucus).
  18. Papa & Barkley’s; company’s pre-existing, small-holder agricultural ecosystem (think Dr. Bronner’s) which is 100% free of the harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers necessitated by Big Ag, makes the need for a Big Ag cannabis takeover in California completely obsolete,” according to CEO Michael Steinmetz, who believes the cannabis industry at large, needs to “prioritize environmentally responsible practices and source from sustainable resources.” 
  19. Canndescent; invested a combined $3.75m to retrofit its inimitable 11,000 square foot warehouse for solar and cannabis production; CFO Tom DiGiovanni reports they want “to help the ‘green’ industry to go greener” by accelerating the adoption of solar power and “green door” practices within the cannabis industry.