A Handful of States Just Legalized Cannabis. What Sustainability Lessons Can They Learn From Colorado?

While each state will have to consider its own climate and landscape in crafting cannabis regulations with sustainability in mind, they no longer have to start from scratch. One of the first states to legalize cannabis for adult use in the US, and the first to launch legal sales, has kept sustainability top of mind, and taken steps to share its innovative approaches. 

One of those steps is the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, a two-day event held in partnership with the City of Denver and hosted by the Cannabis Certification Council, a nonprofit focused on about sustainable cannabis practices. Colorado has been at the forefront of these efforts with its Cannabis Sustainability Work Group, which meets roughly every two months.

One of the panels, called Growing Resiliency in Emerging Markets, was focused largely on innovative ways of reducing waste. It brought together Kaitlin Urso, an environmental consultant with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Jessica Lally with the City and County of Denver, Daron Joffe a farming consultant, and Warren Neilson, the vice president of real estate for Flow Cannabis Co.

There are two main types of cannabis waste, Urso said: plant waste and packaging waste. Regulators generally have more control over plant waste, because packaging waste is tied to consumers who can do what they want when they leave a retail shop. 

Packaging waste, Urso said, is “really driven by child resistant packaging laws.” 

“We want youth protections for these types of products. We have to have youth protections for these products. But what it leads to is a lot of single use, hard to recycle packaging here in Colorado,” Urso said. 

Colorado’s recycling infrastructure is “single stream,” meaning that residents put all of their recycling materials — plastics, glass, and paper — in one bin by the curb. The recycling materials then head to a facility where they’re sorted. The problem? 

“Cannabis packaging is so small it’s not easily sorted at the recycling facility. So it doesn’t have a good recovery rate,” Urso said. But the state can’t not have childproof packaging, so a program allows for consumers to bring cannabis packaging materials back to the where workers can collect it and bulk recycle. And, the state is starting to see packaging reuse models, which Urso said she’s “really excited about,” adding that it’s “another lesson learned from the brewing industry,” referencing reusable growlers that can be taken home filled with beer and brought back to a brewery for another refill. 

“We’re hoping to see those types of programs take over in the cannabis industry as well, because it gives the advantage of price differentiation and consumer retention for the store as well,” Urso said. “If somebody is buying a specifically branded container for your store and then you give them a discount every time they bring that container back to refill it, it really incentivizes that refilling, it maintains the child resistant packaging, and eliminates a lot of plastic waste.”

In Colorado, cannabis-related waste has to be combined with 50% of another material, like sawdust or coffee grounds, essentially “doubling what goes to the landfill.” But after new rules went into effect earlier this year, growers could compost the low-THC parts of plant waste, like stalks, without additional “mixing or grinding,” Urso said.

There are many parallels to be drawn between the cannabis industry and other industries, including craft beer, Urso said, especially because both use a lot of energy. For beer, it’s the heating and cooling of the beer, whereas for cannabis, especially indoor cultivation, there’s a lot of energy used in lighting, for example, and water use, in addition to the agricultural and packaging waste.

“There’s a lot of similarities as far as impacts go. And I think the cannabis industry could learn some really great lessons from the brewing industry,” Urso said, emphasizing the importance of data collection and, importantly, sharing. 

“The craft brewing industry has a really great data sharing program through their national trade organization, where they all anonymously share their environmental data with the trade organization. And then the trade organization can put out annual reports,” Urso said, describing the reports, which contain information about water and energy use.

There’s another area where Colorado’s brewing and cannabis industries have worked together to reduce environmental impacts: CO2. Urso described what she called an “innovative project” where CO2 produced by breweries, generated from fermentation, is typically pumped back into the atmosphere. Instead, some breweries are now capturing the CO2, compressing it, and bringing it to a nearby cannabis facility. 

“It was a really successful project, both economically and environmentally, because it saved money,” Urso said. “And it’s more sustainable because we’re getting it locally, and even the vehicle miles on the road traveled to get it from the brewery to the marijuana cultivation is much less than getting it from a power plant, maybe all the way down in Colorado Springs.” 

Post-federal legalization, cannabis growing might look more like the agricultural approach to orange growing, which primarily happens in favorable climates like Florida and California. Until then, while indoor growing presents a whole host of challenges for farmers, it’s a necessity in many states with harsh and unpredictable winters. Better management, and waste and energy reduction, don’t just have positive impacts on the environment — they can have hugely positive economic effects on a cannabis

“If you’re primarily growing indoors, your largest expense for production is your energy. So anything you do to reduce your energy impacts is going to translate to profit margins for yourself,” Urso said. 

Another option that is of increasing interest to growers is creative reuse of existing hemp materials, Joffe said. Hemp, of course, is just another word for cannabis with .3% THC or less, though the plants are largely similar.

“I don’t think we’re too far away from the potential of having a hemp-based alternative, kind of a hemp mat mulch. That might be kind of the perfect way to close the loop on this, is to recycle some of that biomass and make a fibrous weed mat with hemp,” he said. 

Neilson said that he prefers a “biodynamic perspective, kind of a regenerative approach to growing cannabis as a crop,” and “thinking about it as a rotational crop in a broader farm business model that also includes community.” 

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