Environmentally controlled cannabis cultivation research laboratories are ready for the growth of economic and scientific crops. Use artificial sunlight through UV lamps to illuminate a closed room.

Cannabis cultivation consumes high rates of energy and water and produces plenty of waste. Minimize your environmental impact by responsibly managing your harvest.

The cannabis movement has come a long way. Far removed from its origin as a seedling-sized network of like-minded cultivators and fringe believers, it has since sprouted to industrial proportions through accelerated acceptance and legalization. 

And this growth has been a fantastic thing for an untold number of people. From consumers who have discovered the plant’s incredible benefits to individuals who have found a career in cultivation or any number of related occupations, cannabis continues to enlighten and inspire. But there’s a dark side of the plant—one that’s hidden just beneath the surface but simultaneously staring us in the face. 

The environmental impact of cannabis cultivation is anything but mellow. Research has linked cannabis plant production to a host of alarming issues, ranging from water waste and degradation of land to wildlife disruption and pollution. The cannabis carbon footprint is not exactly befitting of a culture so connected to the color green. 

The Current Environmental Impact of Cannabis

While much of the damage inflicted on the environment comes from illegal growing outfits, legal cannabis cultivation bears some responsibility. 

Cannabis cultivation contributes to air pollution, as large outdoor operations can emit volatile compounds that pollute the air. However, some states are taking steps to mitigate this impact, with Washington state requiring growers to submit plans to offset the smog and Colorado tracking the pollution created by cultivation. 

Meanwhile, transforming any patch of land so that it’s suitable for farming often means clearing forests, diverting rivers, and even destabilizing entire ecosystems. What’s more, many of the pesticides and harsh chemicals used to protect the plants—including rat poison and some types of fertilizers—are deadly to the animals around grow sites. 

Indoor growing facilities face their own reckoning with the natural world. Growing indoors—in a greenhouse, for example—requires high-intensity lights, temperature/humidity control, and ventilation. All of which contributes to a staggering amount of energy consumption.

Research suggests that cannabis production in the U.S. accounts for 1 percent of the entire nation’s electrical output. While that doesn’t sound like a “staggering amount” (after all, one is almost zero), that’s the equivalent of the electricity used by 1.7 million homes with a price tag of $6 billion each year. 

Then there’s indoor facility water usage. Cannabis is a thirsty plant, and according to some reports, each plant requires close to six gallons of water per day. This can lead to waves of wasted water. 

There’s also packaging to consider, as many cannabis cultivators inevitably send their products into the market encased in petroleum-based plastic packaging. 

The Transition To Sustainable Cannabis Cultivation

Professional cannabis cultivation is not the only industry contributing to pollution, water shortages, and other negative environmental impacts—not by a long shot. Nearly every manufacturer could stand to be more conscious about how their actions are potentially damaging the planet. 

What’s different about the cannabis industry is its age. As a relatively young industry that’s just beginning to bloom, the pivot to sustainable practices might not be subject to the same bureaucratic red tape that slows progress in other sectors. In fact, many cannabis cultivators are already searching for ways to improve sustainability and reduce waste.

And the solutions being uncovered are sparking an all-new green revolution in the industry. In January 2021, a diverse group of leading cannabis cultivation and manufacturing experts formed the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC). The coalition seeks to change the industry from the inside, educating their peers and proliferating best practices.

“The SCC is uniquely poised to impact the industry as it continues to rapidly evolve,” co-founder Peter Dougherty said in a press release. “As leaders in this space, it is our responsibility to provide data-driven sustainability guidance to the industry while protecting both consumers and the environment.”

Sustainable Growth Practices You Can Start Right Now

Professional cultivators don’t have to wait for legislation to clean up their act. Achieving sustainability hinges on a company’s willingness to change right now. Here are a few immediate steps to set the course for total sustainability. 

Green Packaging

First things first, ditch the plastic. The planet is overrun with plastic packaging, which contributes to irreversible environmental damage and human health. Only use plastic when necessary. When you can avoid petroleum-based plastics, opt instead for recyclable materials like durable glass bottles. It protects purity without destroying the planet. 

Organic Pest Control

Pest-control chemicals can be especially brutal on the environment, decimating wildlife and even seeping into groundwater. Instead, consider natural defenses like organic sprays featuring essential oils. You can also fight bugs with bugs by employing critters like ladybugs and lacewings to guard your buds against plant-munching pests. 

LED Lighting

Lighting is one of the most energy-intensive aspects of the cannabis cultivation process. The answer shines through with LED lighting, which is far more energy-efficient than lower efficiency grow lights, such as metal halide or high-pressure sodium (HPS). 

Water Conservation

As we mentioned earlier, cannabis is a thirsty plant. Not only does using all that water go against all sustainability best practices, but it’s also bad for your bottom line. On the other hand, efficient water usage minimizes waste, which can help lower operating costs. Here are some ways to maximize your water usage:

  • Measure PPM and pH. A parts-per-million (PPM) test using a typical water pH meter determines if you’re operating at optimum levels. If PPM is running high, nutrient lockout is inevitable, which will waste valuable water. 
  • Use a pH booster or reducer. Better-quality water filtration—or liquid nutrient supplements—can get your PPM and pH to optimal levels. 
  • Observe runoff. Take note of how much water exits the growth area. Some water runoff is acceptable, but too much runoff indicates water usage could be more efficient. 
  • Reclaim water. Collect runoff, condensation, and even rainwater to recycle directly back into the watering system. In water conservation, every drop counts.
  • Practice drip irrigation. This system provides a more precise way of watering your plants. It’s the exact opposite of blasting plants with a hose, which immediately leads to wasted water. Drip irrigation, done at a steady rate, can easily conserve water. 

Takeaway

To truly make a difference, sustainability must move beyond mere buzzword and into actual practice. In this regard, the world of cannabis can be a proving ground for farming, cultivation, production, and distribution techniques that center on sustainability. 

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