The multi-billion dollar industry that is marijuana is only going to grow here in the states and that is a great thing. However, as with all explosive growths of industry, it’s imperative that we take a step back and examine the impact our propagation will have on the fragile ecosystems around us. Unfortunately, in the past, this has not been a priority when reaping the riches of new economic booms. As a whole, the human race has a tendency to take first and consider the repercussions later. We have a unique opportunity in the cannabis industry to recognize the impact we have and modify it with sustainable practices while the industry is still in it’s infancy.
It’s A Plant, How Bad Can It Be?
Well, more than you think. Some may argue that growing indoors poses more of an environmental impact than growing outdoors, but the truth is that each has it’s own unique set of complications that should be addressed to decrease the industry’s carbon footprint. It’s important that we not overlook the impact of one method in favor of the other, but rather examine ways that we can create a greener industry across the board. Let’s take a look at both sides of the sword.
Indoor Growing Operations
It’s estimated that indoor growing operations account for as much as 1% of all electric consumption in the United States. 1% may not seem like a huge number to most, but let’s put this in perspective. 1% is the equivalent of the annual usage of every single residential computer in the country combined!
Indoor operations operations consume 8x more energy per square foot than your standard commercial business!
That’s not an insignificant drain on the system! Indoor growing operations require high intensity light bulbs, dehumidifiers, and complex ventilation systems, that require a great deal of energy to operate.
Unfortunately, few of these operations are operating with renewable energy sources. In fact, illegal operations often create an even more significant carbon impact than those operating on the grid because they utilize generators to avoid detection on the standard electrical grid. These generators utilize gasoline or diesel in mass quantities and are no more renewable or clean burning than tapping into the grid.
Outdoor Growing Operations
If you thought growing outdoors was without environmental impact, you’d be, unfortunately, wrong. Outdoor operations are often located on remote land located on steep hills in heavily forested areas. This often means access roads have to be created from scratch, land cleared to accommodate the crops, and water sources are often diverted, resulting in increased soil erosion, chemical runoff, and a general destabilizing of the local ecosystem. Pesticides and chemicals threaten local wildlife, including some endangered species. Meanwhile, diverted water sources can mean decreased water flow, threatening fish life in the area as well.
Unfortunately, this obscene impact is multiplied in illegal operations. According to the U.S. Forest Service, illegal operations
Frequently damage soils, cut timber and clear vegetation to create room for their grows, creating resource damage and erosion problems
The U.S. Forest Service estimated that in 2014 alone, 72 national forests across 21 states were home to illegal marijuana cultivation sites. All of which, have no stake in ensuring their footprint isn’t lethal to the surrounding ecosystem. Often, these operations have no concern about their crop’s impact or their own, creating large amounts of non-biodegradable waste and trash which only serve to compound the issue.
What Do Indoor and Outdoor Have In Common?
Water. And lots of it. A single pot plant can consume as much as 6 gallons of water per day! To put that in perspective, running a load of dishes through an energy efficient dishwasher uses approximately 4 gallons. A recent study by the California Fish and Wildlife Department found that in a watershed supplying an average of 30,000 pot plants, the plants consumed 180,000 gallons per day- the equivalent of 160 Olympic size swimming pools over an average 150 day grow cycle.
How Do We Implement Sustainable Practices?
So, how do we continue to supply a plant that heals and helps millions in a more eco-friendly way? The answer is less complex than you might think. However, it starts, in large part, with a concept that has been turned into a chaotic concept: legalization on a federal level. First and foremost, we need to bring growing operations completely out of the shadows and allow them to freely seek more environmentally conscious options for cultivating without fear of reprisal. Furthermore, legalized operations can be held accountable for their environmental impact and regulated like other industries are to ensure the future of our beautiful planet.
In a study conducted by Jake Brenner, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College, and Van Bustic, a specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, they have this to say: “Siting grows in areas with better access to roads, gentler slopes, and ample water resources could significantly reduce threats to the environment. Future cannabis policy should take into consideration the potential for mitigating environmental impacts through land-use planning.”
Indoor grow operations can and should consider renewable energy sources to meet their electricity demands and create a cleaner option for sustaining indoor growing practices
Outdoor growers can embrace organic methods that eliminate the poisoning of surrounding wildlife with chemicals and pesticides. Operations of every kind can find ways to collect and reuse water and embrace modern irrigation techniques that reduce waste.
At the end of the day, the answers are simple but require a change of mindset and a commitment to change. If we are to successfully pursue the future of cannabis as a green industry, then all of us, consumers, growers, dispensaries, everyone, has to demand a higher standard of production and a system of accountability for the industry to ensure that the innumerable benefits of cannabis aren’t sacrificed on the altar of mass production and greed.