This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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 Mendocino, California, 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.
Published: September 18, 2019