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A study by researchers at Colorado State University links indoor marijuana growth to increases in greenhouse gases and concludes that the state’s pot industries generate emissions at levels similar to garbage disposal and coal mining.
The study, published in the March 8th issue of Nature Sustainability, found that 1.3 percent of Colorado’s total annual emissions come from the marijuana industry. The greenhouse gases are largely generated by indoor growing, which relies on HVAC systems, artificial light and CO2 fertilizers to increase crop yield.
Like other forms of indoor farming and consumer-centric farming, growing marijuana requires numerous resources to function at optimal levels. To better understand the impact, lead researchers Hailey Summers and Jason Quinn of CSU’s Mechanical Engineering division modeled an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse to mimic the conditions of indoor grow facilities. Summers and Quinn analyzed commercial marijuana yield under storage conditions and other modeling data such as temperature and humidity, and then ran that model on the U.S. marijuana markets to scale their results appropriately.
Summers believes that Colorado’s cannabis boom is a positive thing, but argues that growers and entrepreneurs can hold themselves and policy makers more accountable by implementing better environmental practices. The state marijuana enforcement department relaxed regulations for manufacturing waste disposal and recycling of packaging in the marijuana industry over the past year, but has found that overall business owners have been slow to adopt them.
According to MED, there are currently 720 retail grow licenses in Colorado, the vast majority of which operate indoors. Moving to greenhouses, LED lights, and being more conscious of energy use are a good start, but moving to more sustainable growing environments presents other challenges. Outdoor growing, which Summers believes is better for the environment, is not a realistic option right now for many growers looking for the best potency and flavor. Additionally, the majority of Colorado’s municipalities prohibit outdoor growing, and the weather is turbulent at the beginning and end of the marijuana growing season. Snowfalls are common in April and October.
Access to cleaner sources of energy is another problem, Summers adds. According to their study, Southern California has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions from growing cannabis indoors because of the large amount of solar energy available in the state. Although Colorado’s pot industry is billed as a state with 300 days of sunshine, it pumps around 45 percent more emissions than Southern California’s, their research shows.
A map of greenhouse gas emissions from indoor cannabis grow facilities in the United States
Sustainability in Nature / Hailey Summers
Summers believes that new environmental laws and regulations, as well as policy enforcement, are important factors in improving the marijuana industry’s carbon footprint. “It’s more about how we can help inform and improve a fast-growing industry,” she says.
Ben Gelt, chairman of the City of Denver’s Cannabis Sustainability Work Group and founder of the Cannabis Certification Council, an organization that hosts the annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium in Denver, says that while the CSU’s research is important, it does not adequately recognize the work done Prioritize sustainability in the marijuana industry. Unlike other agricultural production lines, marijuana growing lacks federal government support and environmental regulations specific to cannabis, and those produced by the state are still limited.
“It seems a bit premature and also persistent,” he says, arguing that growing operators who want to pursue more sustainable practices need more help from local and state regulations while they wait for federal legalization.
Amy Andrle, co-owner of L’Eagle Pharmacy, a member of the Denver Cannabis Sustainability Work Group, has made several changes to her manufacturing facility over the past four years to become a Denver City Certified Clean Green company. They used LED lights and composted waste and worked with local suppliers to reduce travel. But strict, state-mandated production, labeling, and packaging rules create additional layers of waste, she says, even with the new rules passed by the MED
“We don’t have all the resources we need,” she explains. “Cannabis was forced to be grown indoors. We try to solve our problems wherever we can. ”
Summers believes that more sustainable farming practices could help growers make more money in the long run, but ultimately agrees that it is up to state lawmakers to pass laws and guidelines. “We’re just trying to work together to make this industry as good as possible,” she says.
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Hilal is a Metropolitan State University of Denver alumni with a degree in political science. She has written for Denver Life Magazine and 303 Magazine, and is the current cannabis intern for Westword.