Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: What is the Environmental Impact of Marijuana?
With concerns about climate change rising, it's important for industry leaders to place an emphasis on sustainability. Whether this is conserving water during grow operations or providing customers with biodegradable packaging, there are plenty of ways businesses can consider the environment.
Paul JamesFebruary 1, 2023
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It’s no secret at this point – climate change is a big deal. When it comes to CO2 levels and their worst outcome, scientists predict a 4°C increase by 2100. The effects of this may be devastating, including rising sea levels, changes in precipitation, and an increase in severe weather.
Naturally, many companies are seeking out ways in which to reduce their impact on the environment. And the cannabis industry is no stranger to sustainability.
Beyond the fact that there may be environmental benefits of marijuana, many brands already put an emphasis on being environmentally friendly. Whether it’s through sustainable cultivation, extraction methodology, or biodegradable packaging, cannabis and the cannabidiol (CBD) industry have been working towards reducing the risk of climate change.
Still, it’s worth wondering whether or not these efforts are actually making a difference. And if there’s more the cannabis industry can do in order to provide further sustainability.
History of Marijuana and Its Impact on the Environment
Since marijuana was largely illegal up until the last decade, measuring its impact on the environment isn’t easy. Most notably, we don’t have data on how many cultivations have occurred throughout its history nor the way in which cannabis was distributed.
Once illegal in the United States in 1937, cannabis didn’t see renewed popularity until the 1960s, after widely being used by the counterculture of the time. Throughout the next few decades, all cannabis activity in the U.S. remained illegal and condemned to the black market. While it’s safe to say there was plenty of cultivation happening across the country, most of it was reserved for the Emerald Triangle.
The Emerald Triangle is a region of Northern California where much of the counterculture migrated to after the 1960s. Due to its limited law enforcement, it became synonymous with growing some of the best-quality cannabis within the U.S.
While this was partly due to the people growing it – practically experts in the field – it also has to do with the environment. Simply put, the area has some of the best soil and wind conditions as well as rain and sun patterns for cannabis cultivation.
In turn, the area wasn’t just a playground for illegal marijuana growers. It also played a substantial role in both legalizing and creating California’s medical marijuana industry – the first in the country, established in 1996 under Proposition 215. This is what largely paved the way for the cannabis industry as we know it today.
Cannabis Today: A Deeper Look at Its Environmental Impact
Now that cannabis is legalized in a number of U.S. states (whether for recreational or medicinal use), we have hard data concerning its cultivation and whether or not the industry is supplying sustainability. We invite you to follow along as we take a deeper look at this data:
How Much Cannabis is Produced Annually in the United States?
According to the U.S. Cannabis Cultivation Report, an estimated 30 million pounds of cannabis is produced yearly in the United States. Admittedly, this number isn’t just based on legal cultivation, but also on evaluations of illegal grow operations. And this is important because even with legalization, nearly half of the cannabis in the U.S. is produced illegally.
With that said, the report also claims:
By 2025, the total legal and illicit production is expected to hit 34.4 million pounds, assuming no additional states legalize cannabis
California will lead in illegal export with an estimated 12,717,133 pounds
Prior to legalization, New York illegally import an estimated 1,568,200 pounds
44% of all grow operations are outdoor cultivations
In 2019, California, Washington, and Colorado produced the most legal cannabis
So, what does all this mean in terms of the environment?
While these estimations don’t provide the hard data we’re looking for, they give us insight that can allow us to estimate this hard data. Such as:
How much Water Does Cannabis Production Require Annually?
The United States isn’t a stranger to drought, with some parts of the country experiencing intense conditions every year. On record, some of the worst drought conditions the country saw were in 2012, when 54.8% of the United States was under a drought warning. Admittedly, drought levels fluctuate and there are a lot of variables in why a drought may occur.
Still, being the vulnerability droughts put us in, it’s important for an industry to consider how to preserve water. Cannabis can be a bit tricky considering it requires water to grow its products. While hard data on how much water supply illegal and legal cultivations require isn’t widely available, we can make some estimates based on the above numbers.
Most sources agree that 1 pound of cannabis requires 1 gallon of water per day. Admittedly, that full gallon won’t be required when plants are just seedlings – so, such a number isn’t accurate for full cultivation.
Still, the average cannabis yield takes between 4 to 8 months. We’re going to be conservative and say that 1 gallon of water is required for 4 months – this is based on an average cultivation timeframe of 6 months and ignores the initial sprouting of the plant.
4 months equates to about 120 days – meaning a pound of cannabis will consume about 120 gallons of water in its lifetime. If 34.4 million pounds of cannabis were produced in the U.S., then we can estimate that it took more than 4 billion gallons of water to produce.
That’s a lot of water! And in places where drought is more prevalent, such as California, we’re already seeing issues with water conservation for the cannabis industry.
How Much Packaging Does Cannabis Production Require Annually?
Determining the amount of packaging cannabis production requires isn’t easy. Beyond the fact that there’s no data on this topic, there are a few factors determining it:
How is cannabis being packaged for retailers?
How is cannabis being packaged for consumers?
How are illegal transactions of cannabis being packaged?
In 2021, it’s estimated that legal cannabis packaging was valued at $842.7 million USD. That number is expected to have an annual growth rate of about 30.6% until 2030. From this report, we also know that most of that money was spent on plastics and glass.
The trend of using these two packaging forms likely isn’t going to change. Most states have specific requirements when it comes to cannabis packaging (i.e. childproof containers) and both plastics and glass provide the most affordable means to meet these requirements.
Unfortunately, most of these packages are made for single-use only. While there are plenty out there who likely reuse and/or recycle cannabis packaging, it’s safe to say most of this ends up in landfills. Not to mention, for most illegal transactions, plastic bags are a staple.
Admittedly, some brands do go out of their way to provide biodegradable packaging on their products. However, being the cost of this type of packaging (and the absorbent cost of running a cannabis business as it is), these types of brands are few and far between.
So, how can we reduce cannabis packaging waste?
Interestingly, cannabis has the opportunity to provide users with more environmentally friendly packaging. Similar to coffee vending machines, it’s possible for legal markets to allow refillable jars or bags when consumers purchase from a dispensary.
The likely reason such practices haven’t been incorporated is due to state requirements on cannabis packaging. Beyond what you’d expect (i.e. childproof containers), all brands must label specific details about their product (i.e. cannabinoid profile) to ensure quality and safety.
How Much Cannabis is Shipped Annually in the United States?
As of this time, interstate commerce remains illegal in the cannabis industry. For this reason, shipping legal cannabis likely doesn’t have a major impact on the environment.
However, there are two other aspects of cannabis shipping that likely do play a role:
Illegal cannabis shipments (happening both interstate and cross-country)
To begin, there’s no solid data on illegal shipments (and the subsequent carbon footprint that comes with that). The difficulty here is that in many cases, people smuggling drugs from one country to the next aren’t simply operating in cannabis. Therefore, beyond the impossibility of measuring the CO2 being released from these transactions, it’s even more difficult to determine how much of a role cannabis is playing in them.
CBD is a bit different due to the fact that it’s federally legal and production of American products almost exclusively takes place in the U.S. Still, the difficulty remains that CBD is often shipped alongside in traditional mail forms (i.e. USPS, UPS, or FedEx). Therefore, determining the exact carbon footprint of CBD itself is also impossible.
Therefore, it’s safe to say that until we as a nation switch from gas-powered vehicles to electric, the environmental impact of shipping cannabis products will continue to be just as prevalent as other industries.
What’s the Environmental Impact of Cannabis Extraction?
In both the CBD and cannabis industries, many products are made through cannabinoid extraction. Simply put, this is the process of removing a cannabinoid – such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the plant and placing it in a specific product – such as a tincture.
The most common method used for these products is known as CO2 extraction. While the name may initially turn you off, this is actually one of the most environmentally friendly extraction methods the industry uses. Namely due to the fact that CO2 extraction is solventless.
Still, the process isn’t perfect and can have a number of negative effects on the environment, such as releasing harmful chemicals into the air.
However, in comparison to shipping, packaging, and water, cannabis extraction has one of the lowest environmental impacts.
The Growth of the Cannabis Industry and Its Environmental Impact
Now that we have an idea of how the cannabis industry is impacting the environment, we should consider how it’s expected to grow over the next ten years. Admittedly, such growth is based on legalization and as we already know, a number of illegal states still have illicit cannabis industries on their own. Therefore, the growth we’re discussing here is simply what can be measured based on legal efforts.
A recent report claims that global cannabis sales reached $30 billion in 2021. Experts predict that number will grow to $55 billion by 2026.
So, over a 5-year period, it’s assumed the industry will (almost) double in size. With that said, if we continue with current industry practices, we can expect statistics of environmental impact (as laid out above) to also double. But this is only scratching the surface.
A Bloomberg report has taken the time to discuss what the exact environmental impact of cannabis will be in 2030. According to the report:
Cannabis cultivation will consume 1% of all electricity in the United States
By 2025, there will be an 86% rise in water demand for cultivation
Again, these numbers are based on if the cannabis industry manages itself the same as it does today. If changes are made to cultivation (i.e. switching to greenhouses to save on energy), then these numbers aren’t 100% accurate.
Furthermore, you can see that negative environmental effects are also based on how the United States continues with its climate change efforts. For example, if 1% of energy continues to be sourced from fossil fuels, that would be much more negative to the environment than if it were sourced from renewable energies (i.e. solar).
How to Sustainably Grow Cannabis
Still, some efforts can be taken both by large-scale and small-scale cultivators in order to conserve our environmental impact. Here is a more detailed analysis of what makes an optimal cannabis grow for the environment:
Every kilogram of cannabis flower releases 2.3 to 5.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the environment throughout its lifespan. To offer some perspective, that’s about the same amount of emissions as the average car emits annually.
With this, the location of cannabis cultivation will have a major impact on certain local environments. More specifically, colder and drier climates tend to have a more negative impact, whereas warmer and more humid climates had less.
As we’ve discussed previously, the United States may see 1% of its electricity going solely to the cannabis industry. With that said, it’s important to consider where your electricity for cannabis cultivation is coming from and what you can do to minimize reliance on fossil fuels.
The most notable is converting to solar energy for cultivation. Beyond the fact that this is cheaper in the long run, it will also help to minimize the environmental impact of specific aspects of growing cannabis – such as LED lighting and filtration systems.
Indoor Urban Farming
Two aspects of cannabis cultivation that drive climate change are land and water use. With that said, there are a number of ways to minimize these effects by converting the way you operate your cannabis cultivation.
The first is by converting to soilless systems, such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. Beyond the fact that this saves on land, it also requires less water to produce a fully-grown plant.
On top of this, in order to save on space, you can opt for vertical farming methods. Many cities are already incorporating such efforts for other crops and it’s having a positive impact on their environments.
The only downside to these methods is they’re extremely expensive. And since the legal cannabis industry is already expensive enough to get into, chances are such efforts won’t be made until cost-effective measures are considered by lawmakers.
Most Environmentally-Friendly Cannabis Companies
If you’re looking to play your role in sustainability and marijuana, here are some of the most environmentally-friendly cannabis brands to consider:
As an interstate company, chances are Chalice Brands is currently offering products near you! Beyond the fact that they make an effort for sustainable packaging, they’ve also made an effort to reclaim ocean plastics. That being said, much of their packaging is made with this reclaimed ocean plastic and is 100% recyclable.
FEATURED: Chalice Brands
Click now to see if Chalice Brands sells products at a dispensary near you!
Popularized through their THC gummies, WYLD has officially reached carbon neutrality by operating with 100% renewable energies. On top of this, they’ve begun making efforts to ensure that all their packaging is compostable. While their THC products can be found up and down the west coast, they also offer CBD products for the entire nation.
Interested in trying WYLD for yourself? We highly recommend their Huckleberry gummies for effective CBD relief and a great taste!
If you’re looking for a top-quality CBD brand offering environmentally-friendly products, there’s no better option than Joy Organics. They’re one of the few brands to garner USDA Organic Certification and follow through with sustainability throughout the CBD manufacturing process. This includes by the time it reaches your mailbox as all products are transported through carbon-neutral shipping.
FEATURED: Joy Organics
With so many products on offer, you can guarantee Joy Organics has something here for everyone.
Paul James is a seasoned cannabis and CBD writer and expert. He is a mental health blogger who advocates CBD as a natural alternative to prescription medications. You can read more about this and other natural alternatives on his blog: https://bedlamite.co/."