Toxic Waste, Carbon Emissions and Other Sustainability Problems for Legal Pot

Toxic Waste, Carbon Emissions and Other Sustainability Problems for Legal Pot (5)
Jacqueline Collins
Legal cannabis is growing fast. Since November 2012, when voters in Colorado and Washington approved legalizing the plant, seven more states followed suit, and two more have legalization measures on the ballot next month. And don't forget Canada, where marijuana became officially legal in mid-October.

All that growth brings a growing demand for energy and other resources, however. Cannabis business analytics firm New Frontier Data recently released a report showing that electricity consumption by America's pot industry will increase by 162 percent by 2020, with the industry currently consuming 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity annually, or enough to power 92,500 homes for a year.

To combat inefficiency and shape a more eco-friendly future, the Cannabis Certification Council continues to hold an annual sustainability symposium in Denver, and the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment serves as the event's organizing sponsor. Topics such as water use, outdoor growing, package recycling and electricity were all discussed during the conference on Friday, October, 26; here are five pressing sustainability issues before the pot industry right now:

click to enlarge Ladybugs are a common ally for cannabis growers. - JAKE HOLSCHUH
Ladybugs are a common ally for cannabis growers.
Jake Holschuh
Pest Control
Cannabis growers face two major obstacles that other farmers don't. Because of pot's federally illegal status, the pesticides that have been used on the plant for years were meant for other crops...most of them fruits and vegetables, not something humans smoke. "We're not smoking broccoli and potatoes," points out Washington commercial cannabis grower Casey Connell. To be on the safe side, Connell recommends using bugs — and in most cases, more than one species — rather than pesticides at cannabis grows.

Connell employs ladybugs and certain types of dirt mites and parasitic wasps to eat aphids, spider mites and other pests that can ruin a harvest, building a little ecosystem around his plants for protection. As with an aquarium or other small slices of re-created nature, though, you need to be sure the animals get along. "Some bugs will eat anything, including other bugs that are fighting something else," he notes.

Outdoor growers can amp up the protection, too. Robert Trotter, who operates a sustainable outdoor grow on his ranch in Eagle County, mixes nematodes in his plant soil to combat pest larvae, and he takes advantage of indigenous pholcidae (daddy long legs) for further pest protection.

click to enlarge Refining hash oils can produce unusable waste, but where is it disposed? - JACQUELINE COLLINS
Refining hash oils can produce unusable waste, but where is it disposed?
Jacqueline Collins
Cannabis Extraction Waste
It's not quite lagoons full of pig shit, but the cannabis industry is facing a growing waste problem, especially after extraction processes. According to Andrew Livingston, director of economics and research at cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg, the plant matter left over from extraction processes used to make butane hash oil and other solvent-based concentrates can't be disposed of in landfills, because it's toxic and, in some cases, flammable. "We don't have a hazardous flammable [liquid] waste disposal site here in Colorado," he explains. "Colorado is still sending this waste to other states."

The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and pot enforcement agencies in other states require extractors to make their cannabis waste and extraction byproducts "unusable" by mixing them with something that makes the result virtually impossible to consume. Extractors and cultivators alike often use bleach, cat litter or other toxic substances to make their pot waste unusable, Livingston notes, but none of those concoctions can be composted or recycled. Livingston suggests that research is needed to find new ways to reuse or minimize the amount of unusable cannabis waste. "There are some things that just aren't recyclable, but that's something we still need to figure out," he says.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell