As we edge closer and closer to an irreversible climate crisis, more consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of the products they consume—and cannabis is no different.
Even though it is a seemingly harmless plant, its commercialized production and consumption may not be as eco-friendly we hoped. From packaging waste to chemical extraction processes, there are a number of ways in which cannabis may negatively affect Mother Earth. Here, we’ll discuss share some information on the environmental impact of cannabis and what you can do to help move the industry toward a more sustainable future.
The Environmental Impact of Cultivation
When you think of a lush green plant, you don’t usually think about it being harmful to the planet—and you would usually be right. However, the commercialization of cannabis and the sheer scale of many grow operations can have a major effect on the environment.
Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation
Even when growing weed outside as nature intended, researchers have found that cannabis itself may be a significant source of pollution when grown in large quantities.
The University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health, the University of Colorado Boulder, and England’s Lancaster Environment Centre led a comprehensive study examining the environmental significance of terpenes, the natural plant oils that give marijuana its signature funky scent. Despite the fact that terpenes may be able to produce certain therapeutic effects when consumed, they may also be a form of volatile organic compound (VOC).
In this particular study, the team grew four strains of marijuana in an enclosed environment over a period of 90 days. During that time, the researchers measured the terpene release and used their findings to calculate the emissions potential in a full-scale outdoor grow.
The team of researchers found that cannabis has the potential to more than double the existing rate of VOCs in the atmosphere. This may be a cause for concern because VOCs interact with other contaminants in the environment to create ozone, otherwise known as an unstable toxic gas. Their findings estimated that the added VOCs caused by cannabis cultivation could produce more than 2,000 metric tons of ozone per year—from the legal cannabis market alone.
Fortunately for us, ozone levels are less likely to spike in plant-rich environments that are typically used for outdoor growing.
Indoor Cannabis Cultivation
Air pollution is one potential impact of growing outdoor cannabis, but indoor grow operations have their drawbacks as well—mainly water and energy.
A commercial grow op typically consumes electricity 24 hours a day to power necessary lights and fans. To put things in perspective, in 2015, an average household in Boulder County, Colorado, consumed 630 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per month. By contrast, a 5,000 square foot indoor grow facility in the same county used 41,808 kWh per month. That’s nearly 7 times the amount of the average home.
To even out the scales, some jurisdictions are taking steps to encourage more eco-friendly energy usage in cannabis cultivation facilities. In Boulder County, for example, growers are required to use renewable energy or pay a higher rate for every kWh used. That money is then used to fund green energy initiatives, like the development of eco-conscious equipment for cannabis cultivation.
Water usage can make a major impression on the environment as well. According to a 2015 BioScience report, cannabis requires a minimum of 22 liters of water per plant per day during the prime June-to-October growing season. That equals an impressive 3 billion liters per square kilometer of greenhouse space.
Because of these massive water demands, some grow ops are seeking out green alternatives, like filtering and recycling their water through a filtration or reverse-osmosis system. Others are turning to hydroponic systems, which solely rely on recycled water and nutrients instead of traditional soil and water methods.
So even though growing weed takes up an incredible amount of energy and water, many growers are looking for more green ways to make this plant magic possible.
The Environmental Impact of Consumption
Yes, even smoking weed leaves a footprint on our precious planet. The act itself may be relatively harmless, but even consumption is filled with wasteful practices.
To start, think of all the packaging you get when you purchase any cannabis product. Whether it’s an eighth of weed or a childproof bag of edibles, each and every product comes in some sort of packaging. To reduce waste, remember to thoroughly clean your packaging and recycle what you can. You can even get creative by reusing some of the jars as mini planters or candy bowls—we all get the munchies right?
Beyond the issue of packaging, the legal cannabis market is rife with disposable products that leave a lasting impression on the planet. Take disposable vapes for example: Once you’re done with the cannabis concentrate inside, it gets thrown out. Same thing with disposable lighters. Once the little bit of butane is gone, it gets thrown into the trash as well.
If you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, opt for a rechargeable vape pen where only the cartridge gets thrown out rather than the entire pen. You can also invest in a classy reusable or rechargeable lighter that will last you a lifetime, rather than the cheap ones you might find at the gas station. This option not only helps the environment but also makes you look incredibly cool.
The Bottom Line
Even though cannabis cultivation and consumption may have a negative impact on the environment, the power is in our hands to encourage the industry to move toward a more earth-friendly future. Invest in reusable cannabis products, recycle what you can, and ask our budtenders about brands that support green initiatives. Mother Earth will thank you for it later.