The Sustainability Struggle in Cannabis with the COO of Native Roots Beth Kotarba
For this Episode we interviewed Native Roots COO, Beth Kotarba to talk about sustainability in the cannabis industry today. We cover everything from regulations that make sustainability a challenge, best farming and cultivation practices, how to be a smart consumer, and more.
How do Regulations in the Industry Complicate Things for Sustainability?
We operate in a highly regulated business, for good reason. Typically the driving factors are public safety and diversion – product being tracked and knowing that it’s staying within the legal system. How that manifests itself in sustainability in a big way is packaging and labeling and the amount of paper that is generated from those requirements.
In our packaging, we’re required to have all a whole host of information about the product, the flower, the pesticides, what you’ve used. The list gets very large and therefore your packaging starts to get large as well. We’ve tried to get creative and it’s a challenge because you want your packaging to look nice, you want it to be small, you want it to be appealing to your customers.
But it’s a small product, especially if you’re doing concentrates. So what regulation does is it creates more packaging than is probably needed.
Another thing that is the diversion related is you have to have physical paper manifests every time you move product. In our space we even have to have paper copies when we move cannabis from our grow to our MIP where we do the processing and you need two copies and it has to be paper.
The rules that are there for good reason, but they create a lot of waste.
As far as cultivation goes, disposing of our waste is difficult. We create a lot of waste just from the plants themselves. The rules are that it has to be unusable and unrecognizable. It makes it really hard to take that waste and use it for something else because it could have THC in it.
Regulations cause a lot of costs in the business and I think that makes it really hard for companies to try to be sustainable and also be cost-effective.
Would it be possible to just have a QR code that pulls up all that information possible?
Not legal, not in compliance yet. Our labels are very regulated down to the font of the print that you have to have on your label. When we buy third party products to put in our stores, our compliance group will make sure that that label is compliant. There’s lots of labeling. It has to be labeled when it leaves our facility, it has to be received into the store, and it has to have a label on it when it goes with the customer. There are multiple layers of labeling and again, good intention but a lot of waste.
Is Colorado Open to Change?
Colorado is pretty open. Every year we have a rule of making a season where we can weigh in as companies on changes. Just this year, starting in 2020, we are able to collect drams containers in our store for recycling. Up until now we weren’t even allowed to have customers bring those containers back in for collection purposes.
Tell us More About Recycling and Re-Use?
There was a company here in Colorado, I think it’s called Green for Green and they will actually take your containers, clean them, relabel them and then basically sell them back to you.
It can become cost prohibitive – that is really the challenge of these great programs.
What About Hemp Packaging?
We don’t see hemp packaging because of it’s cost and availability. You have to have vendors out there that will make it and make it child resistant. If more of our ancillary vendors start doing that we would definitely use them.
is there a lack of data supporting sustainability in the industry?
Because it’s not federally legal, it’s difficult to get a good collaboration of data and studies. It’s out there and it’s getting better. I think sometimes there’s a hesitation for cannabis companies to share some of that data, not sure quite how it might be used.
At Native Roots we are all for studies. We just did one with the Colorado department of health and environment. They approached us and they were studying Denver ozone levels.
In Denver, particularly out in the warehouse area, there are a lot of grows. So they were interested to know how are cannabis cultivation facilities contributing to DEnver Ozone Levels? And is there anything that we can suggest you do to help with that – especially when the ozone layer levels get really high cause it’s a public health issue.
So they approached us to do a study because we’re one of the larger grows. I just think we need to contribute, right? We are using a lot of energy and water and sustainability is a real thing.
So we participated in that study and they came and checked our output through our air filters. What they found is we use really highly sophisticated carbon filters and things and our levels were fine. They did that with a number of grows so that kind of data is available.
Excel publishes reports on electricity. It’s going up obviously from the use. We had a energy company come out and they were convinced that they were going to help us save all of this energy. They did a six month study on our electrical panels and they came back and said, you’re actually doing great!
Do you use any alternative energy systems like solar or wind?
No. A lot of the grows in Denver bought warehouses and retrofit a lot of buildings into grows and so they weren’t necessarily built with sustainability in mind. Existing infrastructure is just not workable.
Greenhouses are great. If you can make use of the sun that’s huge. A lot of townships don’t grant cultivation licenses. I think that’s why there was a flux in Denver. This summer we went up and looked at some greenhouses they were building in parachute.
They had very sustainable like heating and cooling. I think that that is probably where things are headed in the future for very large growers. Then there’s outdoor grows. That would be the cultivation method essentially with the smallest carbon footprint. Then number two would be greenhouses.
Farming and Cultivation Practices with the Smallest Footprint?
Water and electricity are probably two biggest uses. For electricity, your lights are driving a lot of energy consumption. So LED lights are making a lot of inroads. Making LED lights that are actually really good for growing is a newer technology. It takes time to do it and it’s more expensive but the, the payoff is that it is extremely energy efficient.
We are replacing all of our light fixtures in our bed rooms. These are where our plants are smaller and they’re growing on tiers and the lights are really nice. We replaced 1500 fixtures in our facility. It should reduce the use of electricity in those fixtures 60% from a regular light. That’s pretty significant. It’s a savings of over 1 million kilowatt hours.
We have an amazing facilities team. Your facilities crew is critical to the efficient running of your business, not only from a cost perspective but sustainability as well. They’re engineers and you’re running these massive building systems, coolers and chiller plants, HVAC.
Our engineer has found a number of things that he’s been able to do more efficiently.
Reducing water waste is important because we use a lot of water. Water use is huge, but you can control it with your irrigation systems.
We were budgeted this year to put in a new irrigation system that will water in smaller amounts so the plant gets just what it needs and not too much. This should result in less water waste and less runoff.
We also use reverse osmosis water. It’s kind of a best practice that purifies the water. Then when you put your nutrients back in, you know exactly what the plants are getting.
From a consumer side, what other approaches or tips would you have to be a conscious consumer in cannabis?
Probably a lot of the same ones in any industry. Asking budtenders in the stores about the grow practices. Shop in places where you feel comfortable that they’re doing their part.
Look at the packaging that’s in there. Make sure to recycle your packaging.
Getting a little into the politics of it, contacting your representatives and saying, we care about this in the cannabis world. Simply telling your budtenders as well can create change in the industry.
One year, five year and 10 year prediction for the cannabis industry?
In the next year I think in Colorado specifically we will continue to evolve the rules to make it easier to do business. For Native Roots specifically, hopefully we will have grown our retail locations. In the short run we want to continue to get locations.
Five years. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it’ll be federally legal in five years, but maybe. I would say it would be awesome if we could get banking on a federal level. There’s a safe banking act out there and if we could just get that through it would be a game changer for all folks in cannabis. That would allow us to do business like a normal business, and have banks and not have banks be afraid they’re going to get in trouble for doing that.
I think that’s possible within the next year – we’re starting to make inroads on that. It would be nice if more States would come on board with legalization.
I would say federally legal, more like 10 years.
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