Making Cannabis Climate Friendly

September 18, 2019


Evan Mills, a senior scientist at the University of California, was one of the first researchers to quantify how energy hungry the nascent industry is, estimating in 2011 that indoor cannabis cultivation represents 1% of total electricity use across the US, a figure backed up by a New Frontier study last year
Lighting can comprise up to half of a cannabis grower’s energy use, with the desire to create a round-the-clock version of natural growing conditions requiring hugely powerful high pressure sodium (HPS) lights. These lights are on a par with those found in hospital operating rooms, throwing out around 500 times the illumination recommended for reading.
As a result, producing just a couple of pounds of weed can have the same environmental toll as driving across America seven times. Cannabis may still invoke thoughts of small-time, hippyish pursuits but the actual energy impact of indoor growers is on a par with humming data centers, Mills’s study found.

Rolling Stone:

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.” 
But Aster Farms, a small grow in Northern California’s Mendocino County, is trying to tackle some of those barriers to sustainability, in the hope that others will follow their lead. The company prides itself on growing its plants outdoors, and keeping its entire operation pesticide-free and hand-picked. President Sam Ludwig’s family has been farming in the region for generations, while CEO Julia Jacobsen has a more corporate background, but turned to cannabis in her twenties to combat chronic migraines. “We really take sustainability seriously, from our agriculture practices all the way to our stores,” says Jacobsen.

It’s an issue that got very personal for Aster Farms last summer, when Mendocino County was hit with the Mendocino Complex wildfire. Exacerbated by climate change, it was the largest fire in California history, with nearly half a million acres burned — including several of Aster Farms’ own outbuildings. “For us, the Mendocino Complex Fire drove home the power of nature,” says Jacobsen. “Every year now, we are seeing more wildfires, stronger hurricanes, and flooding in 1,000 year flood planes. It’s a reminder that while this is part of the cycle of nature, [climate change] is happening and will affect all of us in someway, somehow, sometime.” 

The company has since launched a give-back program, a package of pre-rolled joints called Harry’s Harvest (named for the cat the farm lost in the fires), which donates $2 from every sale to the local volunteer firefighters who helped combat the blaze. 

Though they’re by no means the only cannabis company aiming for more environmentally conscious practices, Aster Farms has taken a uniquely holistic approach to the problem. First, there’s the soil they’re using. “We use the live, native soil right on our farm,” says Jacobsen, who adds that they also don’t flush (that is, throw out) their soil year after year, as many cannabis farms do to replace depleted soil.  Instead, Aster farms uses regenerative crops like peas, rye, and sunflowers to reintroduce nutrients so the same soil can be used again. 

It’s a practice that saves money and creates less waste, but it’s also got some great environmental benefits. Organic soil naturally captures atmospheric carbon in a process called sequestration, and farming practices that keep soil disturbance to a minimum keep more carbon in the ground, drawing it down so that it’s not further contributing to climate-change-causing emissions. Some groups estimate that industrial cannabis can sequester 20 tons of carbon per acre per year. If smarter farming practices were applied to all 1,142 acres of permit-holding cannabis farmland in California, we’d be looking at a lot less CO2 in the air.

13 Responses to “Making Cannabis Climate Friendly”

  1. toddinnorway Says:

    I suggest a Joint project to Weed out the Pot of energy hogs in this Bud-ding business. Just Hash out the Skunks that waste energy like it was nothing more than cutting Grass.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    50 years ago we were used to say, “smoke the best, smoke Californian grass”. I doubt they were using light technology that time.

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    BTW, there is a new search engine out there. They use their profits for planting trees. They claim to plant one tree each 45th search.

    Check it out =>

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    “indoor cannabis cultivation represents 1% of total electricity use across the US,”

    When it was illegal, you grew it indoors. Legalize it and grow it in sunlight.

    When it was illegal, you could throw millions and millions of POC into jail. Thereby removing voting rights (likely permanently for most, because Republican states simply do not fulfill their re-enfranchisement obligations) for people who are predominantly voters for Democratic candidates.

    Legalization of marijuana and a Federally-mandated program of re-enfranchisement would go a long way toward keeping Republicans out of office.

  5. doldrom Says:

    Yeah, growing pot in your basement is wasteful of energy. Try strawberries or tomatoes instead …

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