Water to Wine
Meet the company challenging the concept of waste with a microbe-based process that converts organic material into fertilizer
Phoebe Harkin | | Interview
Charles Smith, co-founder and CEO of Full Circle Microbes, is a self-confessed optimist. Smith believes that people working together can overcome any challenge. And, in this case, the challenge is waste – lots of it. The agricultural industry generates nearly 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – and treats a significant portion of each crop as waste. Smith and his co-founders found a way to help farmers and the environment by turning wasted organic material that harms the planet into sustainable fertilizer that helps it. Here, he tells us how.
What is Full Circle Microbes doing to tackle the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation?
We started Full Circle Microbes to address the environmental issues associated with wasting organic matter – and in recognition that there is great value potential in things that are treated as waste. Farms often produce organic “waste” in the same location that plants need to consume nutrients, making it a very natural fit for our on-site organics recycling process. In developing microbial inoculants that turn crop-residuals into bioavailable nutrients through on-farm recycling, we allow farmers to keep valuable nutrients where they’re needed, improving their financial and environmental outlook.
How can organic waste help with our indoor grow problem?
Recycling organic waste on-site allows growers to reduce their reliance on nutrients and Ag chemicals that they ship to their location, reducing emissions in three key ways.
- Less fertilizer consumption: synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is commonly made through the Haber-Bosch process – an extremely energy intensive approach to artificial nitrogen fixation that often relies on natural gas feedstocks that are sourced through fracking. Recapturing the nitrogen contained in the cannabis stalk and introducing beneficial microbes offers a much more environmentally-friendly alternative.
- Reduce emissions from transportation of nutrients and offsite disposal: recapturing nutrients with on-site recycling and using less fertilizer means fewer trucks are required to transport fertilizer and therefore less GHG emissions from hauling. Similarly, avoiding the need to dispose of wasted organic matter offsite eliminates transportation emissions.
- Eliminate emissions from incineration and improper disposal: some growers currently incinerate their leftover plant matter, releasing GHG emissions as smoke. Others render their wasted plant matter unusable and send it to the landfill, where organic matter often breaks down anaerobically, generating methane gas which is ~28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
Our research partners at University of Vermont recently generated data showing that recycling cannabis biomass with our inoculant also has pathogen suppressive effects, which can help growers reduce their reliance on chemical options that can be harmful to ecological and human health.
How do you transform harmful waste into valuable nutrients?
Organic matter becomes harmful waste when it’s improperly disposed of in landfills and burn piles. The key to our organics recycling process is the microbial inoculant we’ve developed to efficiently turn leftover plant matter into a fertilizer substitute within 3–5 weeks. Whereas traditional composting relies on input balance and ongoing maintenance (watering and turning piles) in an effort to indirectly cultivate the microbial communities needed for organics recycling, our approach directly introduces the microbial communities that we know are most effective in recycling organic matter.
Our inoculant contains microbes that break down lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose, the plant fibers that give the stalks its structure, but also shield the nutrients within it after the plant is harvested. Breaking through these tough polymers creates nutrient access, which is then increased by microbes that produce organic acids to further enhance nutrient bioavailability. Finally, our inoculant contains microbes that form beneficial relationships with the next generation of the plant and facilitate efficient nutrient uptake once the recycled biomass is reincorporated into the growth substrate.
Our inoculant can be applied to chipped up stalks and plant residuals either in a pile or a container – whichever works best for the individual grow.
What are your thoughts on cannabis’ impact on the environment more generally?
I think the attention being paid to environmental issues with cannabis and the fact that many industry participants and consumers care very much about sustainability bodes well for positive changes in the industry. The research by Hailey M. Summers, Evan Sproul and Jason C. Quinn at Colorado State University is very important in understanding where things currently stand – and the need for action. As noted in their paper, certain regulatory and industry factors have pushed cultivation indoors, where huge amounts of energy are needed for lighting, HVAC, and other aspects of indoor cultivation. I believe many cultivators would welcome the opportunity to generate this energy through alternative energy sources, and I know of some growers that have been able to implement solar energy, Powerwalls, and geothermal power to fully supply their cultivation sites without fossil fuels. I’m hopeful that industry dynamics, regulatory updates, and consumer preferences for sustainability will all help to move the industry in a more environmentally-friendly direction.
Do you feel hopeful that the industry can and will become more sustainable?
I do feel hopeful, as I see both a need and desire for increased sustainability. The recent IPCC report shows overwhelming data that every industry needs to immediately work to reduce GHG. As a relatively young industry, I hope that cannabis will respond quickly to incorporating environmentalism into its foundation as it continues to grow. I also believe that consumers of cannabis products tend to be environmentally conscious and that consumer preferences will reward cultivators that produce a high-quality product in an environmentally-friendly way.
What needs to happen for the industry to adopt more earth-friendly processes?
Many cannabis cultivators want to be sustainable and there are several factors that can help push the industry in that direction. The first is continued innovation. Our technology allows growers to increase sellable yields, while reducing nutrient costs and becoming more sustainable. There’s a myth that helping the environment means hurting your business, but this absolutely does not need to be the case.
The second is consumer preference. Cannabis consumers tend to care about the environment, and I believe we’ll see an increasing preference for sustainable practices as the industry matures and brand recognition increases. The third is a regulatory focus on sustainability. I am seeing regulatory entities paying more attention to the environmental impact of their policies and I’m hopeful that sustainable production can become a key tenant of future regulatory frameworks.