How cannabis producers can reduce waste and build more sustainable operations
It’s obvious that the cannabis industry has a massive waste problem. Just how big of a problem seems to be anybody’s best guess, but it’s easily in the tens of millions of pounds per year, particularly between plant material and plastic.
Marijuana Venture sat down with two researchers from New Climate Culture, a think tank focused on biodiversity as a primary solution for greenhouse gas sequestration and general environmental sequestration, as well as creating circular economies and renewable resource cycles. Eloisa Lewis is the founder and CEO of New Climate Culture; Shawn Magill is the co-founder and CEO of the CBG Gurus, a Connecticut-based hemp farm that uses natural, no till, regenerative farming practices.
“It’s so alarming how fast we pull resources without replenishing the ecosystem; we really are taking more from the land than giving,” says Lewis, “and that’s why we have the problems that we do.”
Marijuana Venture: How great is the need for more environmentally friendly cultivation practices in the cannabis space right now?
Shawn Magill: Hands down, I think it’s one of the most consumptive agriculture spaces from an energy and resource perspective, especially with how a lot of indoor cannabis facilities are operated.
Largely, I think the biggest waste comes from growing mediums. When you grow with rockwool, you use it one time and you throw it out. Grows will have a whole room that is full of these rockwool slabs that don’t get reamended and reused. It’s such a consumptive process.
And then there’s all the energy used to grow inside. It’s just insane the amount of energy and resources that are put into these facilities, when really all they’re trying to do is grow a plant. To grow a plant, you should be able to do that with all local things. You should be able to locally source soil that you can reamend and reuse cycle after cycle. You should be able to make a large amount of your fertilizer and amendments in-house.
You can even use your cannabis waste to make compost or worm castings or fertilizer and just put it right back into your system. The other large source of waste in the industry right now is the stems, stalks and all the leaves. Most of this stuff, in most states, has to be weighed and tracked. A lot of times it’s thrown in a dumpster. Here on my farm, when we have the flower left over from ice water extraction, we’re using that to make fertilizer or we’re using that to make compost that goes right back into the system.
Eloisa Lewis: And keeping that stuff out of landfills is just as important as keeping our food waste out. When we mix our organic materials in with our inorganic materials in a landfill setting, it’s just going to release more methane gas, unnecessarily, where we could put it back into the soil, as Shawn is suggesting. And in doing that, not only is it a circular economy, but it’s actually repairing the ecosystem by building soil.
We should be designing grows for the lowest input at the lowest cost for the highest yield. When you start analyzing things from that perspective, it changes the entire narrative of what a farm is and looks like, especially for the purposes of sustainability. It means that it will last through generations and through many business owners’ hands. It means providing generations of people with a viable economic system that they can pass on from generation to generation.
MV: What can indoor cultivators change to reduce some of their waste or improve energy efficiency?
Magill: I would recommend living soil over everything. It may be a little bit more of an upfront cost and a little bit more of a complex system to design, but I’ve seen it done indoors. Whether you want to use pots or grow beds, there are options. But it’s definitely possible to use soil indoors, good soil that can be reamended and can be considered living soil. And ideally, soil that’s sourced locally.
But if you’re just buying it one time and you want to get it shipped across the country, then I would recommend creating a lot of your nutrients with either cannabis waste or using local, widely available plant and animal ingredients, like animal bones, eggshells and local plants that we go out and harvest.
And then for water, I think every grow facility should basically be required to do water capture. I think it makes sense because of the insane amount of water that these facilities use — and generally, the insane amount of square footage there is on the roof to capture water.
Lewis: I do want to challenge the idea that there aren’t companies out there that are willing to change overnight, because I think there are people who have the money and the time and the patience to pivot their business models.
There are also so many parts of the operation outside of simply growing the plant: thinking about what kind of packaging is being used, how goods are being transported to and from the facilities, with what frequency and what type of vehicles. Office facilities and admin buildings also have an impact and can begin bringing in better products, whether it’s starting with organic coffee at the office or implementing trash compactors on-site, so when they do have trash pickup, it’s only maybe half of what they would have had without the compactor. We’re getting smart and creative because each client has its own unique needs.
Yeah, the majority of operations are indoor right now, but when my grandfather was born, there was just the horse and buggy, and when he passed, there was man on the moon and there was SpaceX. So when I think about that, and I think about making excuses about growing cannabis or excuses about changing industry, we aren’t holding ourselves to our own greatness. We can use our profits to pivot slowly but surely in the right way.
MV: Are there other areas within the cannabis industry where you see substantial waste?
Magill: Another huge part of the industry where there’s a ton of waste is extraction. There’s so much chemical waste in solvent-based extraction facilities.
I am a big proponent of ice water extraction; I think it creates the best products, it uses the least amount of inputs, it doesn’t create any harmful chemical waste and no chemicals ever come in contact with the flower.
And I think consumers are starting to realize that it’s a better-quality product. And maybe that’s helpful, hopefully, in pushing producers to switch over to it more. As the technologies continue to advance, it’s becoming easier to do at scale.
MV: Do you think state regulators should take a more active approach in requiring certain practices — whether it’s related to energy or waste or water consumption — to improve sustainability within the industry? And if so, what avenue should that take?
Magill: I think there could be caps that don’t allow for absurd facilities. But besides caps on facilities, I would say incentivizing people to do more outdoor or mixed light cultivation. Because then you’re not restricting indoor grows, but you’re incentivizing people to switch over to outdoor or mixed light.
I know, some states when they come online with a legal program start off by saying no outdoor allowed, which is definitely restrictive. And I don’t think that’s fair or makes sense.
Lewis: I’m not someone who particularly loves government intervention about anything, but what I will say is that if we’re going to do any direct climate action right now, looking at the crisis we’re in and addressing that crisis, then I’m willing to say let’s pass some really strict policies about what producers are allowed to consume, because what a producer is allowed to consume is going to be what the client is also consuming.
I think we can challenge ourselves to find new ways. There are already solutions that are on the market today that might not have been there six months ago. And that’s another thing I want to remind readers right now is to go and look for the solutions where you see a problem in your own production line and in your own production cycle. Things are changing and what might not have existed only a year ago might well be on its way to being available in the market, like an algae-based plastic or something like that.
Short term policy is really great. If we can get some halt on the out-of-control train that’s hurtling down the rails, if we can slow that down at all, that’s great. But outside of that, we need to be rethinking our entire system here from scratch. And I know that’s difficult, painful, uncomfortable in some ways. But when you see the alternative options, and they start to come to form, you see how actually it’s very liberating for our local economies in our relationship with cannabis.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.