The cannabis industry falls short in its commitment to sustainability.
According to the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), lack of knowledge, unnecessary legislation and financial burdens make it difficult to fulfill a commitment to creating an environmentally sound sector.
In October, the NCIA released a comprehensive report detailing several pain points, as well as best practices to remedy the issue. They include, the importance of resource use optimization and its beneficial impact on the environment and margins without impacting product quality; the importance of carbon filtration systems; and diverting waste from landfills.
Progress has been made, but sources say more could be done to make the industry more environmentally and socially sustainable.
The Path To Sustainability Faces Various Hurdles
Maia Wilson, Director of Marketing and Wholesale for Vermont's Zenbarn Farms, says cannabis is a nascent market that can be a beacon of light for sustainability unlike any other space.
Zenbarn touts a three-pronged approach to sustainability on its website, committing to environmental efforts, as well as social justice and economic equality.
Standard business practices hold back the space from making further progress, Wilson says.
"As legal cannabis becomes a reality, investors are entering looking for high returns, no matter the environmental outcomes," she added. "This puts pressure on businesses to exploit workers and use non-organic, unsustainable growing practices."
Certain state markets may be turning the corner to some degree.
Derek Gould, a spokesperson at Massachusetts-based Solar Therapeutics, noted that his state implemented cultivation baseline requirements, which he considers a step in the right direction even though cost remains a concern.
Solar had to absorb much of its sustainability efforts, including free cooling chillers and Fluence LED lighting, as upfront costs.
"These higher costs required us to raise additional funding in order to design and build a facility that could run at almost 90% emission-free," Gould says.
Cannabis product packaging is another space struggling to contend with cost and regulations.
Sana Packaging is a company attempting to change the narrative in the space by using hemp-based plastic.
The company also partners with Oceanworks to source reclaimed ocean plastic packaging for cannabis products. Sana's website reports that its efforts have removed 45 tons of plastic waste from the ocean so far.
Co-founder and CSO James Eichner feels the industry isn't living up to the commitment at this time but did note a continued uptick in efforts.
He cited state-by-state markets as a limitation. While noting their benefit in other aspects, he said the various regulations can strain sustainable cultivation and packaging efforts.
Eichner said regulations limit the packaging space from doing more. He considered childproof packaging and the shelf life of cannabis as hurdles.
Noting the need for childproof in edibles, Eichner wondered if the same set of standards needed to apply to other cannabis products.
"For products like flower and pre-rolls, these regulations may be over-the-top when we consider the fact that much more dangerous products, like alcohol and tobacco, are not subject to nearly as many packaging regulations," he said.
Signs Of Optimism
Sana's Eichner says the emerging cannabis space can create a sustainable industry and that there is an "exceptionally high willingness to pay for sustainable packaging materials compared to more traditional industries."
Today, packaging producers across the world are implementing innovative techniques and materials to lower carbon footprints. They include using recyclable parts, shifting processes, and relying on new technology, including printable packaging.
Solar's Gould says technological advancements are also helping cultivators go green. He called for an increase in upfront investments towards reducing energy use and other environmentally conscious efforts.
"It's imperative that we start to think and rationalize as responsible corporate citizens and focus on how we can move the needle forward," he said.
Zenbarn's Wilson urged people to think beyond what she called "a myopic vision of carbon neutrality, maybe coupled with a nod to social justice and a corporate giving program."
Citing the 1987 Gro Harlem Brundtland report on environment and development and its definition of sustainability, Wilson said that it is clear much more work is to be done, and it needs to happen fast.
Such efforts include regenerative farming practices, anti-racism and restorative justice parameters, as well as good governance and results-oriented giving programs.
"We must rewrite the playbook and utilize existing best practices to integrate mission into the foundations of cannabis businesses," Wilson said.
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