It’s weird to think of the cannabis industry in the U.S. as a thriving commercial market. Yet it is. Led by the likes of Colorado and California, 10 states thus far have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 33 now permit it for medicinal use. And get this. As a business sector in our country, cannabis generates billions of dollars in revenue and jobs — with no signs of letting up.

But from an environmental perspective, the industry’s emergence is spurring some important questions, such as:

What are the environmental impacts of growing marijuana? Are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions influencing ozone formation? How is the industry being regulated at state and local levels?

As an Environmental Protection Specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Kaitlin Urso has been a pioneer in developing a sustainability blueprint for the cannabis industry. She was even featured in a recent Forbes article on the topic. So when Kaitlin joined us for our latest Campfire Session video, she offered some unique insights on the industry’s environmental impacts, social impacts, and the new regulatory efforts she’s been spearheading.

“Despite people's opinions on marijuana or cannabis or hemp, it's a large industry sector here in Colorado. We have more marijuana businesses than we do 7-Elevens, McDonald's and Starbucks combined.”


Here are a few excerpts from our discussion (edited for conciseness)…

How are you helping the cannabis industry reduce their environmental footprint?

Part of my role at the CDPHE is to be a free environmental consultant for all small businesses in Colorado. I just happen to specialize in helping cannabis operations and craft breweries reduce their environmental impact, so I help both industries understand what those impacts are and what best management practices they can employ to reduce them. I also provide compliance coaching.

What are the major environmental impacts of the cannabis cultivation in processing?

It depends on if you're an indoor or outdoor grower. In Colorado, marijuana is grown primarily indoors, so the major environmental impact is energy use for artificial lights and HVAC systems. The second largest impact of indoor cultivations is the sheer amount of plant waste. In an outdoor setting, the impacts shift more to land impacts for soil and water. Where is your water coming from and are you disturbing the ecology of the area by diverting that water to your cultivation? Also with runoff of that water, are pesticides in it? Increased nutrients? Those kinds of things.

A bulk of the information you've been studying is air quality and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and emissions. Talk about the air quality study you’ve been working on.

Two questions we're trying to answer with this research are: How many pounds of VOCs are there per pound of marijuana, and then what's the resulting influence on ozone formation? When it comes to VOCs, odor does not always equate to concentration. In marijuana, there’s a really high odor, but a very low level of VOC concentration if you actually get to it at the concentration level. Because it's such a low concentration, it has very little impact on ozone formation in our urban environment. So we're not necessarily worried about the VOC concentrations that influence ozone. We're more concerned about odor ordinances and treating that nuisance odor.

What are the next regulatory steps for the cannabis industry in Colorado?

Marijuana is already highly regulated in Colorado. But I’m really proud of our marijuana enforcement division and that this year we had a sustainability rule-making hearing where we looked at our rules. We said, okay, now that we're a mature market and we have a lot of lessons learned, how can we keep our top priorities of safety and security and add in a layer of environmental sustainability? How can we become more environmentally efficient with maintaining our top regulatory priorities? Our 50-50 waste mixing rule was ideal for that. (The rule requires marijuana plant waste leaving a facility to be mixed 50-50 with non-marijuana organic waste to reduce the cannabis waste footprint.)

With new rules taking effect in January 2021, we allowed for more exemptions from the existing 50-50 waste mixing rule to bring the landfill footprint down and give cannabis marijuana operators a more viable alternative. So we’re addressing plant waste, and then also (marijuana) packaging waste. Our packaging footprint is driven by child resistant packaging standards, including multiple layers of packaging to keep the marijuana product safe from youth.

We'll be doing stakeholder outreach to educate the cannabis companies on rules changes, help them with implementation, and even coaching. “Now that we have these new regulations, how do I participate in them?”

I'm excited that Colorado is not being stagnant in its leadership of the cannabis industry. The industry is continuing to evolve, and we're constantly looking at our market and saying, what can we do better not only for the environment but for our citizens, for our community, and for the cannabis businesses themselves. You know, anything we can do to support this industry.

Thanks to Kaitlin for explaining the environmental side the cannabis industry. Watch this Campfire Sessions episode to get the full story.

Check out our previous Campfire Session episodes, too.