As the legal cannabis industry continues to mature and grow, operators and regulators have a unique opportunity – and a responsibility – to take a lead in environmental sustainability, according to a new industry report.
Cannabis operators face several challenges when it comes to protecting the environment, but some of those challenges present opportunities to implement new sustainability practices, according to a detailed report released this week by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA).
The 58-page report, titled “Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: Impacts, Best Management Practices, and Policy Considerations,” analyzes the industry’s current environmental impacts in the areas of soil health, water, energy, air quality and waste. It suggests several ways that business owners and regulators can move forward in a more sustainable manner – whether through the voluntary adoption of industry standards or the implementation of data-driven regulations.
Aaron Smith, NCIA co-founder and CEO, said his hope is that those involved in regulated cannabis markets use the report to “make our industry the environmentally responsible example for other industries to follow.”
“The cannabis industry has the opportunity to be a trailblazer in environmental sustainability, but unfortunately it is being held back by lack of knowledge, unnecessary regulations, and onerous financial burdens, which encourage the continued existence of unregulated markets and make it difficult for regulated businesses to implement the practices and technology they would like to use,” he said.
Leading the way
The report suggests there are multiple financial incentives for companies to focus on sustainable practices.
Those who do, for example, reduce their resource dependence and the costs associated with it, and they also improve their chances of accessing environmental-related financing opportunities.
An encouraging sign is that cannabis consumers – much like consumers of traditional produce – have shown a willingness to pay a premium for organic or sustainably-produced materials, said Michelle Bodian, an attorney in Vicente Sederberg’s New York office, where she is a member of the firm’s hemp and cannabinoids department.
“In some regards, it’s no different than any other business,” Bodian said. “While there might be some upfront infrastructure or planning costs, certainly in the long-run businesses do see financial benefit.”
The NCIA report highlights several areas where improvements can be made, beginning with land use and soil health – described in the report as “the foundation upon which sustainable practices are built.”
The report notes that conventional agricultural practices have largely tried to meet the demand of a booming population by prioritizing short-term maximization of crops over the long-term health of the land and soil. It suggests that cannabis growers can help reverse that trend by developing comprehensive cultivation plans and continuously monitoring soil health.
“The cannabis sector can lead the way in integrating these practices, along with the fundamental elements of regenerative agriculture, to ensure the viability of the land and soil it depends on,” the report states.
It further suggests the industry adopt best practices focused on minimizing electricity and water usage and the adverse impacts to water quality from any discharges back into the environment.
Bodian, who previously served as land use counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said now is the ideal time for the cannabis industry to lean into sustainability. She said the industry is currently transitioning out of its “how do we set this up” stage and into its “how do we improve” phase.
“The earlier you can establish environmentally responsible practices, the better,” she said. “The longer any industry is entrenched in its methodologies, the harder it will be to make any sort of holistic change.”
Out of the landfills
Federal legalization of marijuana could help cut down on some of the roadblocks to sustainability by allowing for national standards and regulations, according to the NCIA report. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than with waste.
Much of the plant waste generated at cultivation sites ends up in landfills, due to a common rule adopted by jurisdictions that requires marijuana plant waste – like trimmings, roots, stalks, residue – to be mixed 50/50 with other non-cannabis waste, such as non-consumable solids. The rule is borne out of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate that hazardous cannabis waste be rendered “unrecognizable and unusable.”
In part because of the rule, the volume of cannabis byproducts in landfills is estimated to have an environmental impact equivalent to the combined annual emissions from roughly 6,000 vehicles.
Getting rid of the 50/50 rule has the “most potential to have an immediate and lasting impact,” according to the findings.
“It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut down on landfill space while supporting more environmentally effective diversion practices, such as composting and on-site anaerobic digestion,” the report states.
The vast majority of single-use plastics and other organic-based materials – such as those described as compostable or biodegradable – that are used in packaging and processing also end up in landfills, due to what the report describes as “flaws” in waste management and diversion systems.
While some of that is due to consumers choosing not to recycle, the report notes that some municipalities outright ban the recycling of cannabis packaging or won’t allow those items to mix with other recyclables due to their varying shapes and sizes.
The report encourages regulatory bodies to incentivize “take-back” programs that would allow packaging manufacturers and retailers to collect and recycle or reuse materials.
“These programs would encourage both the producers and consumers to work together in a regenerative model that moves packaging back and forth multiple times through reuse and repurposing,” the report states.
‘Vital first step’
While the NCIA report makes several suggestions for regulators, it also notes that over-regulation can disadvantage legal operators in favor of their illicit counterparts. It’s for this reason that it suggests new laws be backed by data, developed in coordination with multiple stakeholders, and take into account financial considerations.
Bodian, with Vicente Sederberg, suggested that regulators in different states and regions need not wait for federal legalization to start looking at implementing uniform standards. She pointed to the recent creation of the Cannabis Regulators Association, for which regulators from 19 states joined together to share information and best practices, as an example of the cannabis industry taking initiative.
“Obviously that’s the regulators, but I certainly think there’s opportunities for the industry and businesses themselves to come together and self-regulate,” she said.
In that vein, the NCIA report also calls for a national clearinghouse that could serve as a single point of information for regulations and practices.
“[It] would also provide a place for the industry to track environmental parameters, such as electricity usage and emissions generated from transportation,” the report states. “This would serve as a one-stop shop for determining regulatory compliance and would serve as a place to educate the cannabis industry on air-quality regulations.”
Kaitlin Urso, a lead author of the report and a manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the report was a “vital first step” in developing best practices for environmental sustainability and could help shape the future of the industry.
“This is important, ongoing work that will benefit everyone,” she said.
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