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The fourth annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium visits Denver Friday, October 4.EXPAND
The fourth annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium visits Denver Friday, October 4.
Kate McKee Simmons

Sustainability Symposium Back to Reduce Marijuana's Carbon Footprint

Sustainable business practices go far beyond recycling cans and turning the lights off at night. Efficient water use, biodegradable packaging and knowing your partners' ethics are all important steps to cutting your environmental footprint, according to Ben Gelt, chairperson of the Cannabis Certification Council.

Dedicated to sustainable and healthy business practices in legal cannabis, the CCC will hold its fourth annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium on Friday, October 4, in downtown Denver. To learn more about eco-friendly pot and how consumers can find their voices, we caught up with Gelt before the symposium starts.

Westword: How have sustainability issues evolved in cannabis since it was first legalized?

Ben Gelt: The biggest change is that it's now an issue that's getting addressed and acknowledged. Prior to legalization, it was not something that was discussed broadly — although I do have a great graphic from the Village Voice circa 1981 about toxic pot and black-market production methods.

Some of the functional changes, like LED lights, are becoming more common. You have more LED light producers now, as well as easier distribution. Highway lighting, stadium lighting, street lighting — all these types of lighting are actually controlled pretty tightly by a handful of manufacturers and distributors. That infrastructure is just starting to develop for cannabis. You're also seeing more of an emphasis on more efficient water and pesticide methods. If you look at how the industry impacts the environment, it's not always energy use.

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I'm glad you brought that up, because I was hoping you'd share some sustainability issues in cannabis that the average consumer might not be aware of.

The big categories are energy, water and waste. Beyond that, you get into environmental footprint and impact. That one is a little more complicated, because there's such a patchwork of laws around which things like pesticides are allowed, and then there's this incongruity between what's allowed and not allowed, and what it actually tested for. In Colorado, for example, only thirteen pesticides are tested for, despite there being a much larger list of pesticides that are banned.

So you get into not just environmental impact and public safety issues, but also consumer health questions. Particularly in urban environments like Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles, are these water utilities really set up for this influx of agricultural businesses within their urban districts? I suspect the answer is no, but it's not a broadly discussed issue. It's a very serious one, though.

How much of these issues are a product of lack of institutional knowledge within and around the cannabis industry?

Like many things with this industry, it's a byproduct of things going very rapidly. One of the realities that we understand but is not always articulated is that when a brand-new industry develops a relatively significant legal market, it's not as if this market was just created out of thin air. There was a pre-existing demand and market for this product and subsequent set of products. If you think about the timeline in which this has developed, there will always be things that won't be addressed.

I think that states immediately focused on controlling and taxing the industry, and kind of left public and environmental health questions on the side. But now you're seeing these states come back and start to look at these questions. California is doing that. Massachusetts — famously or infamously, depending on which circle you ask — created some very rigid standards around the amount of water and energy use. There are a lot of questions about how that is going to work.

A lot of best practices exist in other industries. Part of what we do with the symposium is invite people from agriculture, beer, wine and other industries to talk about their sustainable lessons, and what they've had to do to make their business plans more sustainable. There are a lot of similarities here with cannabis.

With the symposium being held in Denver — and all of the indoor growing operations that are concentrated here — how have Denver and Colorado set themselves up for sustainability going forward?

When you look at Denver, there are a lot of indoor grows, and likely over 90 percent of them are running high-pressure sodium lights. There's certainly room for growth there, but when you look more broadly at what Colorado businesses are doing, you'll find companies trying to find various sustainable solutions for a lot of problems. STO Responsible is a great example of that. Their plastic packaging is fully biodegradable, their practices are sustainable, and it's fairly priced.

When you look more broadly, I think you'll find a lot of leadership in Colorado, whether it's brands that are national or international. They're very serious about trying to make their businesses more efficient. Whether it's cost- or value-driven is secondary, as long as they're adopting these better practices.

How can consumers help make legal cannabis more sustainable?

I think consumers have yet to realize how powerful their voices are. Through the CCC, we run a project called "What's in My Weed?" It's largely focused on production issues, but soon we'll have more content on the full life cycle of cannabis products and what goes into them.

Consumers can go into stores and ask about products that are sustainably produced and packaged. It's the same things they've done in virtually every other consumer category, which is vocalize their demand. A campaign like #whatsinmyweed is a place for them to become a conduit for others to learn more about how these products are made.

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