Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Pledged money not going to Indigenous causes

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Of the billions of dollars pledged to Indigenous “causes” during COP26, little may actually reach Indigeous peoples themselves, Mongabay reported.

Indigenous communities in the Amazon, for example, have 90-percent less deforestation than the average, the World Resource Institute has found — but less than 17 percent of funds for Indigenous conservation actually reach such communities, according to Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Instead, it’s sopped up by middlemen: NGOs, national governments and institutions, regional development banks and U.N. agencies, Mongabay reported. That has indigenous organizations arguing they could make the money go further themselves. 

“We need to stop being treated as mere ‘beneficiaries’ or almost ‘objects’ of cooperation, and instead be treated as implementers and protagonists of our realities, which are little known to third parties,” Jorge Perez, president of AIDESEP, the main union of Indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, told Mongabay.

Today we have something a little different for you heading into the long Thanksgiving weekend: we’re letting our hair down and taking a look at the legal cannabis industry, a rapidly growing agricultural sector with an equally large ecological footprint. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

Even legal cannabis has a green problem

 

The cannabis industry has a green problem. Along with rapidly growing revenues and political support — in 2020, the legal marijuana business hit $17 billion in sales, according to Forbes — comes an equally impressive ecological footprint.

Growing cannabis is energy intensive, generates tons of hard-to-recycle plastic waste and requires big inputs of water, fertilizer and even carbon dioxide, said Elizabeth Lee, health and sustainability officer for Denver-based Veritas Fine Cannabis.

First steps: Lee’s position is a new one for the craft cannabis retailer, said her boss, marketing manager John Spadafora. 

After pushing her bosses to institute a container recycling program, Lee was promoted up from packaging and fulfillment to help Veritas address a company desire to be “better than we need to be in an industry that’s a tremendous waster,” Spadafora said.

Lee sat down with Equilibrium to discuss the hidden ecologic cost of cannabis, and what Veritas — and the city of Denver — are doing to cut it down.

Top line: The cannabis industry faces three principle sustainability issues, Lee said: packaging, electricity and carbon dioxide. As Veritas’ new health and sustainability officer, she’s taken steps to reduce the impact of each.

Wait — how did you get a job like that? Luck and interest. Lee came to Colorado in 2018 with a bachelor's in environmental health and safety from American University — and was swept into Denver’s sustainable cannabis scene while working at a small dispensary and pursuing her master's at University of Denver.

“I’d moved to Colorado on a whim — I enjoyed consuming cannabis, but I didn’t think it could be a job,” Lee said. “But I immersed myself into the [city-run] Cannabis Sustainability Work Group, with people from the business across Colorado.”

Lucky break: Wanting to learn more about the background of the industry, she applied to Veritas, which supplies dispensaries like the one she worked at. 

“Once a month, the executive team sits down with a different mixture of employees,” Spadafora said, and Lee’s ideas around recycling got them to create a position for her.



A MESSAGE FROM SOUTHERN COMPANY

 

At Southern Company, we achieved our interim net zero energy goal ten years early. Today, we continue our work toward a net zero future. Learn more.



THREE PRINCIPLE ISSUES

#1: Waste: The legal cannabis market has long relied on ubiquitous zippered plastic bags and snap-top plastic containers, which are mandatory in many markets to keep cannabis products out of the reach of children.

“The bags can’t be recycled at all, so they end up in landfills, which harms the environment and releases methane,” Lee said. The hard-shelled containers, meanwhile, come from #5 plastics which are hard — though not impossible — to recycle, and which tend to end up in landfills as well.

How can dispensaries address it? “It helps having someone on board who actively searches for sustainable packaging,” Lee said. 

Veritas sells its product in glass jars, and Lee has led a pilot project to switch their regulars to recycling them. “I want to create an initiative for consumers to return their jars to the dispensary, drop in a receptacle where we can sanitize and reuse.”

Part of the push is coming from the customers themselves, she said. “We have a big push of customers asking how and when they can recycle and reuse their jars. They have realized how much packaging waste is created through this industry, and they want to be in the forefront of reducing it.”

#2: Power: Then there is the high amounts of energy required to run a growhouse — a particular issue in Denver, where zoning and odor control restrictions mean that outdoor growth is prohibited.

Barred from using the sun, cannabis growers have to use a lot of electricity to power grow lights, which tend to be concentrated in retrofitted industrial and manufacturing facilities “where the HVAC and energy aren’t necessarily as good as you’d see in other facilities,” Lee said.

A 24-hour grow cycle makes this worse: “At home, you turn off lights — but in cultivation, we need 12-16 or 18 hours a day of lights, 20-30 rooms. So energy usage is substantial,” Lee said.

The lighting and HVAC problems also go hand-in-hand, Lee said. “We’re currently using high-pressure sodium lights, which use a lot of energy and put off a lot of heat, which we then have to run the HVAC to cool off. So that’s a lot of strain on our power grid.”

The power company steps in: A local power utility, Xcel, has been working for years with cannabis growers to transition them to more efficient alternatives, according to MJBizDaily

Veritas is working with Xcel to convert their facilities from high-sodium lights to more efficient LED lights, which the utility helps provide support for. The power company sends a third-party auditor out to the facility, who advises them on the conversion and helps submit a proposal to the utility.. 

“We installed a full room of 20 LED lights. Then they cut us a rebate check for those lights we installed — we got about a 18 to 20 percent reduction in our bill.”

Why would the power company do that? Because the cannabis industry tends to run lights 24 hours a day, “Xcel can’t reduce the times we’re having the lights on, but if  we can pull less power from the grid, that’s a benefit from their perspective, because then they can offer more power to other businesses.”

#3: Carbon dioxide: The cannabis industry also depends on carbon dioxide, which is used to both improve yields and to boost the production of terpenes, the aromatic organic compounds that give different marijuana strains their distinct flavors — as well as their differing psychoactive effects, according to Healthline.

Veritas relies on commercially produced carbon dioxide, but would rather buy from a source with waste carbon dioxide to get rid of — which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

They’re in talks with Oskar Blues Brewery, which produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct in virtually every step of the beer-brewing process, to capture the gas from their fermentation tanks and bring it to Veritas growhouses.

Won’t it still end up in the atmosphere? No, Lee says. “It will be transferred to our facility to be used by the plants in their growth. The plants will sequester them as they grow.”

 

WHY DO THIS?

Is this a marketing opportunity? Colorado is more environmentally conscious than a lot of locations,” said marketing director Spadafora. “This is something the market wants and expects leaders to do: if you’re wasting, you shouldn’t waste.”

But that’s not why they’re doing it, he said. “None of this was done for marketing purposes. Our desire as a company is to be the best citizen we can be, in terms of energy, waste and how we treat our team.”

Creating a safe environment: That last issue is a key sustainability concern for the cannabis industry as well, because the fact that the industry is federally illegal means that federal protections provided by the Clean Air Act and or administered by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) aren’t enforced.

Last words: “OSHA won’t come into our facilities,” Lee said, “but we want to set standards in Veritas which are in line with OSHA standards.”



VIRTUAL EVENT ANNOUNCEMENT

Join The Hill's Virtual Event — Regulating Cannabis — Wednesday, December 1 at 1:00 PM ET

Public support of marijuana legalization and reform has been steadily on the rise over the past decade, yet cannabis remains highly regulated and criminalized at the federal level. From disproportionately impacting communities of color through racially targeted arrests, to a lack of federal protections for financial institutions serving marijuana businesses – the federal marijuana prohibition has impacted both individuals and businesses across the country. With bills circulating in both chambers, what does federal reform of cannabis look like in the 117th Congress? What guidelines could a sensible policy framework contain? Join The Hill on Wednesday, December 1 as Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons sits down with Sen. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperHickenlooper: Law preventing cannabis business banking 'a recipe for disaster' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to tackle omicron risks with new travel rules Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Shipwreck sends waste thousands of miles MORE (D-Colo.), Rep. Nancy MaceNancy MaceGOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level McCarthy laments distractions from far-right members Democratic caucus chairs call for Boebert committee assignment removal MORE (R-S.C.), NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow and moreRSVP today.



A MESSAGE FROM SOUTHERN COMPANY

 

At Southern Company, we achieved our interim net zero energy goal ten years early. Today, we continue our work toward a net zero future. Learn more.



Wednesdays around the World 

 

Environmental groups see no contradiction in Biden oil release

Intensive farming isn’t green, investment group tells EU

  • As the European Commission — the bloc’s executive branch — weighs which measures to call climate friendly, a group of global asset managers representing $3.5 trillion argues one sector should be left out: intensive farming, according to Reuters.
  • “It is deeply concerning to see a proposal that would count E.U. agricultural subsidies as green, when we know that many of these subsidies are harmful," said Helena Wright of the FAIRR Initiative, which coordinated the letter.
  • Calling those subsidies “green” risked undercutting E.U. policy goals before they began, Wright said.

Germany’s new government to phase out coal by 2030

  • Germany’s three governing parties — the Greens, Social Democrats and Free Democrats — have agreed to a coal phase-out as part of their move toward coalition, Reuters reported.
  • The parties also agreed to phase out sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, and to explore the production of “blue hydrogen” — generated from methane and with its carbon captured — which some scientists believe is worse than natural gas.
  • September’s elections failed to give any party an overwhelming majority, forcing the two left-wing parties — the Greens and Social Democrats — to caucus with the right-leaning Free Democrats if they want to form a government.

Equilibrium will be off for Thanksgiving and Black Friday — but we’d like to express that this year, one of the things we’re thankful for is you as readers. When we launched this project in June, we had no idea that it would elicit such an enthusiastic following, and we’re delighted you’re here.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you back here on Monday.

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