Cannabis today is being used and promoted as part of a healthy, environmental, “woke” lifestyle.
Compounds found in cannabis like cannabidiol (CBD) are marketed for their health benefits just as delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is for its relaxing qualities. And people who buy and consume cannabis are interested in environmentally sound options, concerned with consistency and safety in how their weed is grown and processed and whether it’s been tested for quality and impurities.
Yet cannabis, for the most part, is grown and cultivated indoors, often in retro-fitted industrial warehouses, with all the attendant concerns about energy wastefulness. Growers are always on the lookout for ways to make it less expensive to grow cannabis indoors.
As the environmental protection specialist for the small business assistance program at the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Kaitlin Urso is tasked with making growing cannabis indoors in the state more viable and environmentally and financially sound. “Everything we do is based around three pillars: the economy, the environment, and the community,” she says. “In order to work, it’s gotta be good for all three.”
A recent pilot project shows promise on all levels. Urso learned that craft beer brewers, during the fermentation process, create carbon dioxide (CO2). This has to be vented, often into the atmosphere, which doesn’t really need more CO2. Although larger beer conglomerates have the equipment and ability to capture some of that CO2 for re-use, carbon-capture technology is expensive and prohibitive to most craft brewers. At the same time, cannabis growers use CO2 to accelerate plant photosynthesis and add nutrients to their plants.
Enter Amy George, who started Earthly Labs in 2016. “I knew there was technology that would scrub power companies, and I wanted to do it in small applications,” she says. Earthly Labs came up with CiCi, a technology that allows small brewers to recover CO2 and reuse it for their carbonation and packaging. It also allows captured CO2 to be transported elsewhere. “Kaitlin approached me about helping the cannabis industry partner with the brewing industry,” George says. “I had no idea growers used CO2 to stimulate growth.”
Chris Baca is operations manager for The Clinic, a cannabis company with three Denver dispensaries and its own line of products. He got to know Urso at an industry sustainability group. “Kaitlin brought this to our attention,” Baca says. “Amy knew there were beer and cannabis industries in Colorado.” A connection between those two isn’t so easy to make because both industries are so highly regulated, says Charlie Berger, cofounder of Denver Beer and a participant in the pilot project. “However, CO2 is a link. You tell me if you can find another one,” he laughs. “We had heard about the technology. Big companies were doing it, but there is an investment involved. With Earthly we can make it cost effective.”
Planning began in fall of 2019 on the CO2 Capture and Reuse Pilot Project, with initial results released at the end of June 2020. The Clinic was able to follow the entire 60-week production phase from clone to finished product. “We wanted to give it a fair shot, take it through the full cycle,” Baca explains. The Clinic found that the reclaimed CO2 it got from Denver Beer was both cost-effective and improved the plants’ yield, potency and terpene profiles. ”We were able to isolate and see the full growth of the plant from clone to its finishing end product. I’ve never had a situation like this, of this caliber.”
There were unforeseen obstacles along the way, Urso admits. “One unforeseeable thing was that the tanks had to be transportation rated and have wheels and be less than 500 pounds.” But the pilot program, which proceeded even during the pandemic lockdown, showed favorable results across the board.
The pilot found that Denver Beer was able to keep the equivalent of approximately 93 trees worth of CO2 from the atmosphere, while the waste CO2 it supplied the Clinic came at a cost that was 15 percent cheaper than commercial CO2. “The exciting thing is that the Clinic identified improvements in yield and potency, and they agreed to expand from the pilot to an everyday partnership,” says George. “Other clients have responded favorably to the launch. Growers we’re talking to now are thinking of adopting this. It’s a little tricky because you have to have a partner.”
Urso is heading up a study, with results due this spring, to quantify how many pounds of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are released per pound of marijuana grown to determine the industry’s overall impact on the state’s air quality. “We’re interested because even though it’s an agricultural product, it’s zoned industrial,” Urso says. “And the ozone layer is bad in Denver.”
She also worked with the National Cannabis Industry Association on a white paper released this fall that documents industry environmental impacts and how those impacts might be addressed. “A successful, socially responsible cannabis industry will require best practices for environmental sustainability. This paper is a vital first step in that effort,” Urso says.
Earthly Labs has an ambitious goal of capturing one billion metric tons of CO2 through its scalable and affordable carbon capture technology. This program is but a tiny part of that mission. But because these are baby steps doesn’t make them any less important. “It’s a win-win, says Denver Beer’s Berger. “We use CO2 in our process. We didn’t have a way to capture that — it’s just blown off into the atmosphere. We’re saving 10,000 trees this year. Every brewery needs to get on board, and cannabis growers should be buying from these sources.”
George sees it as a great example of small businesses working together in a way that benefits all parties, which is, after all, the state’s goal. “Both industries are super innovative and willing to push the envelope,” she says. “To be able to have them be at the forefront of climate change is really cool.”