For years, legal and illegal cultivators alike relied on antiquated production methods to grow cannabis. Criticism from environmentalists followed the fledgling industry as every new state to legalize saw surges in electricity consumption. Overzealous packaging requirements and regulations only further inflated the carbon footprints of growing businesses.
In 2014, Ben Gelt and a handful of other industry professionals set out to change that narrative.
Having been an industry stakeholder since 2011, Gelt wanted to help modernize it through education and advocacy. He co-founded the Cannabis Certification Council, a nonprofit that has brought transparency and education to the industry through several events including the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium. Gelt is the chairman of both the Council and the Denver Cannabis Sustainability Working Group (DCSWG), a group of cannabis business owners, government employees, contractors, consultants and experts in policy and sustainability. In December 2020, the Council and DCSWG released an updated Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices Guide (BMP) for free online.
Gelt spoke with Marijuana Venture about the newly released guide and provided his insight on how cannabis businesses can reduce their carbon footprints and save money.
Marijuana Venture: What is one easy way for businesses to reduce their footprint?
Ben Gelt: I think looking at waste is always one, and with that you are going to run into some regulatory restrictions.
I’ll give you an example of something we have done here in Colorado that I anticipate a lot of markets are going to be looking at and probably replicating: In every market, all of the organic waste from cultivation — stems, stalks, soil, all the stuff that doesn’t get commercialized but is part of the cultivation process — is required to be rendered unrecognizable. That rendering often involves mixing plastics and other things into that organic waste. Because of what is mixed into it, a lot of it ends up going into landfills. Here in Colorado, as of January 1, we have changed those rules so now all of that organic waste can be composted, anaerobically digested, gasified. You suddenly have several options.
I anticipate that other markets are going to follow suit, because that is what happens when one of these states does something that’s a little proactive or progressive; other states look at it and say, “That makes a lot of sense, we are going to do that.”
Here in Colorado, any operator is able to drastically, drastically reduce their footprint from waste going to landfill because of these opportunities of how they can manage their organic waste.
MV: Are there incentives for businesses to adopt more sustainable practices? Are there external incentives from the government or other agencies?
BG: There are some people in our universe that this is all they do: work with operators to help them get rebates from utilities and work with operators to help them become more efficient. The incentive is almost always financial at first.
There are other incentives, like for a parent to be able to have a business that has a positive environmental impact because they want their children to inherit a healthy planet. There is that piece of it, but presuming that the world is not altruistic, then the incentive is always going to be money. With LED lights, for example, some of the larger manufacturers have dedicated people on their team to work with you to get rebates on your lights, because those types of rebates are available from utilities and other government or quasi-governmental organizations. Again, there are lots of experts out there who have worked with a multitude of industries to help them become more efficient. The rationale for doing that is not altruistic, it’s cost savings. There are literal, actual incentive packages, programs and experts out there.
It’s not something we do directly but there are a lot of people, programs and services that do that.
MV: What should operators know about the best practices guide?
BG: It looks at a lot of the different areas of operation of any kind of business, with applications for retailers, cultivators, extractors and for handling waste. It really touches on all areas of operation.
The other thing they should know is that, while it is based in compliance here in the city of Denver, it is essentially universal. Of course, there may be some exceptions and there may be some changes or tweaks that might be required to be compliant in some other jurisdictions in the country, but by and large, it is going to be compliant in virtually any market.
MV: What do your organizations get out of providing this guide free for cannabis industry stakeholders?
BG: Part of what we do is the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium events, which will be in year six in 2021, so we will be doing nine Symposium events this year and we sell sponsorships for those events. But we don’t sell the BMP Guide, and we don’t sell consulting and services against it. This is a free guide with the intention to help the industry achieve sustainable practices. We’re not trying to put barriers around it.
There are a lot of people out there — really talented, credible people — that can help companies implement sustainable practice, because I think there are, in some cases, areas where you need the expertise to do these things at a high level. But that is not a place where we benefit and that is not something we do directly.
The Council is a 501(c)6 nonprofit association and the DCSWG is a civic group, convened through the city and county of Denver through the Office of Climate, Action, Sustainability & Resiliency so there is no hidden agenda.
MV: What do you think is keeping cannabis businesses from embracing more sustainable practices?
BG: Some of it is just getting information but there are some other factors there, folks who have been doing things a certain way and there is always the hesitance to change. At the end of the day, it’s just getting out the information.
If there is an impression, for example, that there’s not a great return or that there is significant additional expense, that might keep people from adopting more sustainable practices. But in fact, there are a lot of things businesses can do that are not expensive and are a matter of altering their own standard operating procedures, such as looking at waste management and other things that are “low-hanging fruit” that don’t require massive six- or seven-figure investments into infrastructure.
MV: Some decisionmakers, especially cannabis CEOs, will say they’re just too busy to read a 100-page guide. How can they benefit from this guide, even if they’re not going to read the entire book?
BG: You don’t need to read this cover to cover to get something out of it. If you are a busy executive and this comes across your desk and you are too busy to read it, I think this is the kind of thing that you give to your chief operating officer. This is not necessarily for everyone in the C-suite, but I think operational people are going to love it because it’s accessible in that it’s not overly technical. I think multiple people on teams can read it and get a pretty clear understanding. I think the more technical you are, the more you are going to get out of it and probably the more questions you are going to have.
It’s not for the CEO necessarily. It’s good for the CEO to understand for the big picture, and there are many CEOs that do want to read this to understand all the details. But when you come down to it, this is for people who are operational and are thinking about ops all the time. If you are a serious COO and you are getting pressured by your CFO on how to reduce some of the costs associated with cultivation, this is a document that provides some serious answers.
MV: What are the top priorities for DCSWG and the Council for 2021?
BG: The goal of the Working Group is always to push and restore what is possible in regards to sustainable operations in the cannabis industry. We will continue to do that. We will update the best practices guide again in 2021 so you will see more additions to that document. This is the fourth iteration. We will continue to develop that. The Working Group is also the genesis of the Symposium events, and we will be doing nine Cannabis Sustainability Symposium events in 2021. Another priority we identified is to look even deeper at commercialization and how sustainable practices and initiatives can be further commercialized. Those are really the big goals.
For the Council, the Symposium events are really critical for us. They are a tremendous platform for us to share all the work we do with the Working Group and with other groups that we work with around the country and in Canada, and it brings together thought leaders both in the cannabis industry and sustainability experts from outside the industry.
MV: There were some pretty big organizations involved in making the best practices guide. What are these types of companies doing to be more sustainable?
BG: Not to beat around the bush, but LivWell and Native Roots are big operators in any context on Planet Earth. When we are talking about legal, commercialized marijuana, Native Roots and LivWell are big, and they are both doing a lot to walk this walk.
It’s not a coincidence that those guys, Brandon Rhea (Native Roots) and Andrew Alfred (LivWell), participated directly in the writing of the BMP.
LivWell, for example, is in a program here in Colorado called the Environmental Leadership Program, which is about a 15-year-old program that is open to all industries and creates incentives via regulatory relief and other mechanisms to become more sustainable in operations. There are some massive operators here in Colorado that are participating in that. It is funded by an Environmental Protection Agency grant. Another group participating in that is Smokey’s Cannabis Co., which is a great participant in our work; they are not at the scale of LivWell or Native Roots, but they are also not teeny tiny.
Native Roots spends a lot of time and money and energy exploring how to become more efficient with their packaging, more efficient with their waste stream, more efficient with their water, more efficient with lighting. And going back to an earlier part of this conversation, they are doing it because it saves money. It makes their businesses more profitable.
They are investing heavily in this stuff and that’s partly why Brandon, who participates in our work, is one of their top science people. They deploy not only dollars, research and energy, they deploy their people, which, I think, is one of the greatest assets companies like this can have.
There are plenty of examples of these companies walking the walk.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.