In an industry that strives to be environmentally conscious, cannabis companies are discovering that it’s not easy being green.

Cannabis businesses across the country must operate within the confines of regulations covering everything from cultivation to packaging that vary from state to state and the rules change frequently.

In its report, Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: Impacts, Best Management Practices and Policy Considerations, the National Cannabis Industry Association breaks down the environmental impacts of the cannabis industry into five categories:

  • Soil degradation

  • Water

  • Energy

  • Air quality

  • Waste

“The waste has the largest impact on the environment,” says Kaitlin Urso, environmental protection specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Small Business Assistance Program. “It’s also the lowest-hanging fruit. This problem is solvable.”

During its 2020 summer rule-making session, the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division convened a Sustainability Workgroup to draft rules that encourage sustainable best practices in the cannabis industry. The group focused on waste, and the new rules became effective Jan. 1.

The new rules incorporate alternative methods for rendering waste “unusable and unrecognizable” that include on-site composting, anaerobic digestion, pyrolyzing into biochar, and biomass gasification. There also are more options for how waste that has been rendered unusable and unrecognizable can be used in cultivation operations.

Another big change coming out of the annual rulemaking session was allowing retailers to collect and reuse child-resistant containers provided any residual marijuana is removed and destroyed, containers are appropriately sanitized and disinfected and the licensee visually inspects the containers to make sure they’re still in good working order.

Under the previous rules, retailers were permitted to take packaging back from consumers, but the collection bin had to be in a restricted area in the store. But the businesses didn’t participate — the collection bins took up valuable space that otherwise would be used for products, and consumers couldn’t see the bins so didn’t realize that returning packaging was an option.

“Now we allow collection boxes to be in unrestricted areas — they can be in the waiting room — and they’re allowed to be clear so consumers can see inside them,” Urso says.

As cannabis businesses, states, and consumers push for more sustainable practices in all aspects of life, some companies are looking for ways to meet that demand. Denver-based Higher Standard Packaging introduced eco-friendly containers manufactured from milk-jug plastic specifically for the marijuana industry.

The R2 Containers are made in the United States from 100 percent high-density polyethylene. They’re BPA-free and approved by the Food and Drug Administration for food and pharmaceutical contact.

“There are lots of people who want to use recycled resins, and there are lots out there,” says Deb Baker, managing partner of Higher Standard. “The pushback is the cost. Marijuana companies are so heavily taxed that they try to watch their budget by watching their packaging. There aren’t that many people who go into these recycled resin jars.”

Chancey Martin, president of Newport Beach, California-based Hero Packaging and Taral Plastics, says whether they’re trying to purchase eco-friendly packaging or sticking to the status quo, working with cannabis companies is challenging because they don’t understand they need to order their products well in advance.

Manufacturing sustainable packaging also has its challenges. Milk jug plastic, for example, has to be formed into containers using blow molding as opposed to injection molding, which makes it much more difficult to work with. The temperature has to be turned up much higher and there’s a risk of breaking something in the mold. It also takes several hours to reconfigure the machinery to handle the blow-molding process, time that isn’t well-spent if the finished product doesn’t sell, says Martin.

It’s not just cannabis packaging that impacts the environment. Growing a marijuana crop can use lots of energy and water, impact air quality and degrade soil. Graham Farrar, president and chief cannabis officer of the Santa Barbara, California-based vertically integrated Glass House Group, says his company strives to have the lightest touch on the planet as possible. To that end, Glass House’s cannabis crops are grown in greenhouses, which are ideally suited to Santa Barbara’s climate. Temperatures inside the greenhouses can be controlled by opening and closing the roof, rather than using light created by fossil fuels or air conditioning.

“Sustainability is aligned with good business practices, not in opposition to business,” Farrar says. “The business has to be sustainable — you have to be sustainable as a business yourself, and you need to do that in a way that’s sustainable for the planet.”