Is legalization to blame for the sustainability problems in cannabis?
As the hottest, wettest, coldest, and downright most severe weather in history is being recorded around the world, climate is a topic on many people’s minds. With stringent packaging, resource intensive cultivation rules, and other state-mandated regulations, it’s clear that the cannabis industry isn’t helping.
While plants will always need water and light, there are some ways the sector could go green. But it requires the coordination of many moving parts. Each state has a slightly different set of issues. From forced monocropping to child-proof packaging, many farmers are cornered into regulatory practices that aren’t helping the planet.
Bye, bye single-use plastic plant tags
A recently passed piece of legislation in California alleviated some of the strife for producers in the state. Governor Gavin Newsom signed S.B. 622 at the top of the month, eliminating the single-use plastic tags on each plant.
The tags are meant to track plants from seed to sale, ensuring all cannabis remains in the regulated market. By law, tags could not be re-used, and with over 30 million plants growing yearly, that’s a lot of plastic.
Tiffany Devitt, regulatory advisor for CannaCraft and supporter of the bill shared that plant tagging costs California $15 million per year.
“Over the past five years, the state has used between 200 and 250 million plant tags generating over one million pounds of plastic waste,” Devitt stated in a press release. “The biggest tragedy here is that those tags did nothing to prevent diversion, which was the stated intent.”
S.B. 622 passed unanimously in the California Senate and Assembly before reaching the Governor’s desk. Now, the state will create a more flexible approach to plant tracking, but this is just one issue in a web of regulatory hurdles for sustainability advocates.
Regenerative farms forced to monocrop
Judi Nelson is the owner and co-founder of Sol Spirit Farm, a regenerative farm that cultivates sun-grown cannabis. She explained how staying in compliance alters how she turns her soil.
“From a farming perspective, a huge issue is our lack of ability to rotate crops as any other farmer would do,” Nelson shared. “The regulations only allow us to cultivate on the same exact patch of ground every single year, so we cannot grow other crops on that area, or move where we are growing our cannabis.”
This agriculture method is called monocropping. It depletes the soil of nutrients. Each plant requires a specific nutritional value in the soil to thrive. As such, the plant will take every nutrient it can from the earth. Monocropping siphons plant food from the land, lessening plant growth with every turned over crop. It can also lead to erosion.
Many farmers opt to rotate crops instead, planting a new veggie, fruit, grass, or flower that naturally replenishes nutrients after harvest. Under California cannabis law, cultivators must replenish the soil with compost teas and fertilizers, adding cost and labor to the growing cycle.
“What would be so bad about me rotating the area where I grow cannabis on my farm from year to year?” Nelson asked rhetorically.
The curious case of child-proof cannabis packaging
Packaging is a monumental sustainability concern at the other end of the product cycle. Lex Corwin, CEO of Stone Road, a family-owned and operated biodynamic cannabis farm with operations in multiple states, spoke to GreenState about this issue.
“There are many compliance and regulatory measures that force cannabis businesses to be unsustainable,” Corwin said. “The immense amount of plastic waste to make packaging ‘child safe’ is one example. It’s frustrating that flower needs to be in child-safe packaging as cigarettes and alcohol does not. It’s just a plant!”
Jim Amend, senior vice president of strategic partnership of cannabis supply chain firm 240 Logistics echoed these sentiments. In a statement to GreenState, Amend asserted that child-resistant packaging regulations are “ridiculous” compared to alcohol. Children can easily open a high-proof bottle of alcohol without any child-resistant packaging.
“Requiring child-resistant packaging on flower is a major hurdle to being able to use sustainable packaging, because it is very difficult to make child-resistant packaging without plastic, and it does not actually make children safer from accidentally getting high,” Nelson added.
Only children five and under are kept out by child-resistant packaging but every state continues to focus heavily on this aspect of the laws while forming cannabis regulations. To add to the problem, the packaging itself is only one piece of the eco-issue at hand. The majority of containers take a long journey to their final destination.
“Most is manufactured overseas, as the small volumes do not allow this to be manufactured economically on-shore,” Amend explained. “This creates an even greater negative carbon footprint when considering the freight to transport overseas.”
Though it makes the operations more challenging, Stone Road optimizes sustainability efforts in every operational step. The brand opts to package pre-rolls and flower in glass and recently swapped out from 99 percent plastic-free pre-roll boxes to completely plastic-free tins.
“We are always looking for ways to lessen our footprint,” Corwin said. “I hate litter (ironic since I grew up in NYC) and don’t ever want to create a piece of packaging that could outlive me. We would never release flower in a mylar bag. It’s just too much plastic that will ultimately end up in the earth or ocean.”
This road is more chivalrous to future generations but does increase the cost of production. That rise in cost is seen on the consumer end, but Corwin is confident it hasn’t hindered brand growth. Instead he believes it makes Stone Road stand out in the crowded California market by aligning with the principles of its target consumers.
“A brand should have values besides just making money, and a good brand ultimately becomes a reflection of its community,” Corwin elaborated. “Our consumers are willing to spend more for a comparable product because they know we prioritize sustainability and all-natural, safe, and high-quality products above all else.”
Let the plant travel
As a regenerative farmer, Nelson also takes every measure to keep Sol Spirit as earth-friendly as possible. The farm is also home to Sol Spirit Retreats, where guests can enjoy a relaxing stay at the property. As the law stands right now, if guests want some Sol Spirit flower, they need to drive to the dispensary to buy it.
Following this system, a guest’s eighth could travel up to 1000 miles just to end up back where it was grown and processed at Sol Spirit. Nelson believes that allowing farms to sell directly to consumers would eliminate another major sustainability impediment in the space, especially for operations in the Emerald Triangle.
“The biggest area where regulations could improve and help us reduce our carbon footprint would be to allow direct sales from small farms. If I were able to sell direct or transport my own flower to the local dispensary without having to go through the intense process and expense of having a distributor license myself, think of the emissions savings we would achieve,” Nelson explained.
As it stands now, sun-grown flower from the Emerald Triangle is only available where farmers can pay to have them distributed. Nelson believes that once the legacy growers can get cannabis to other markets that are forced to buy indoor flower, the energy consumption from indoor cultivation would go down as well.
“We could potentially reduce the carbon footprint of cultivating cannabis by more than 94 percent,” Nelson noted. “By my math, you can transport an eighth of sun-grown 16 million miles by train before you would equal the carbon footprint of growing that eighth indoors…Even better if we could ship through the mail across state lines.”
“The overall framework of individual state markets and lack of interstate trade makes operations sub-optimal and creates waste and redundancy across lines.”
The cannabis sustainability problem doesn’t have one answer
Regulations are made for a reason. In theory, each of these regulatory measures was set to protect the public safety. Plant tags were meant to keep cannabis plants in the legal market, but that hasn’t worked.
Many of the packaging laws that are in place are meant to keep children from consuming cannabis. However, despite detailed attention to how weed is bagged up, news stories from Florida to California show that regulations haven’t stopped accidents.
Though these measures were established in good faith, not all of them are effective. As regulators turn to reworking what compliance looks like, perhaps sustainability could be more prominent. Simply put, the cannabis industry has a sustainability problem, and the solution is anything but simple.
From how farmers till their soil to where the plant can travel, there are aspects across the board that hinder the sustainability efforts of regulated cannabis brands. The nascent sector is being formed in siloed state markets with sometimes overlapping but often individualized rules and regulations.
Among them are measures made in good faith that lead to plastic in landfills, excess cost from growers, and fewer consumer options. Though these regulatory problems won’t be easy to solve, everyone who touches the space could benefit from their resolution.