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Using cannabis and phytoremediation to clean polluted soils

Published May 11, 2023 01:00 p.m. ET
Unsplash / Zbynek Burival 

Phytoremediation is a futuristic technology that uses the natural cleaning ability of certain plants to clean polluted soil, air, or water. It’s cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and a great way to bring contaminated sites back to life, and cannabis has the potential to play a crucial role in the process. These plants grow quickly, which means they make the process fast, and they’re especially good at getting rid of elements that often make soil completely unusable such as heavy metals and other toxic substances.

Most people are aware of the pollution that seeps into our rivers, lakes, oceans, and the air, but few recognize how much of a problem contaminated soil really is. This issue is typically human-caused as we bury or spill hazardous chemicals at a disturbing rate, and we add trash to garbage dumps daily which leech contaminants into the surrounding areas. There’s no denying we’ve made mistake, but now we have the knowledge and understanding we need to fix it.

In this article, we’ll explore the science of cannabis and phytoremediation and explain how this combination may help to return poisoned land to a clean, safe, and healthy state so that it may be used for farming in the near future.

Understanding phytoremediation

Phytoremediation is a wonderfully effective process that uses certain kinds of plants to remove pollutants from soil, air, or water and it works because many plant species have the natural ability to absorb, detoxify, or accumulate toxins from infected areas. Those contaminants are drawn out by the plants and then stored in the roots, stems, or leaves, or they may be broken down through metabolic processes which can turn them into new substances that are less harmful to the environment.

How effective this process may be truly depends on several factors including how it’s done, the severity of the contamination, the type of plants used, and other conditions in the environment as the cleansing crop is grown. Typically, it works well as a treatment for pollutants that aren’t mobile or highly soluble, like organic compounds and heavy metals.

Cannabis and phytoremediation

Cannabis plants are a great choice in the phytoremediation process, especially in situations where the soil is polluted with heavy metals, as the deep root systems absorb these contaminants quickly as the plants feed on the water and nutrients in the earth. It’s also a hardy plant that can survive quite well in many different kinds of environments, including those with cooler temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight.

One of the main reasons cannabis is such a great phytoremediation plant is due to the way it’s able to accumulate some of the most toxic heavy metals that are also commonly found in contaminated soil such as mercury, cadmium, and lead. The process of hyperaccumulation for cannabis is unique as it soaks up high concentrations of pollutants, enough to kill most other types of plants, without showing much if any ill effects. For this reason, it’s a great phytoremediation species.

Another important fact to consider is how quickly cannabis plants can grow, and how easy it is to cultivate them in relatively large numbers with minimal effort. They’re also compatible with indoor and outdoor settings so they can be ideal for different scales of remediation efforts, and the right technology can be used to recover more valuable metals from harvested flower, creating what could be a brand new revenue stream that may help to cover some of the costs associated with cleaning soil.

Phytoremediation methods using cannabis

Cannabis can be used in phytoremediation  in a few different ways. The most commonly implemented method is called phytoextraction which is cultivating the plants in polluted soil and then harvesting the crop to remove the toxin from an area. In this case, the plant's roots work to absorb pollutants effectively moving and storing those contaminants above the soil, in various parts of the plant from the stem to flower, and even the fan leaves. From there harvesting the biomass is the easiest way to remove it completely from an affected plot of land.

The second most popular process is called rhizofiltration and it’s a little bit different in that the plants are grown hydroponically in contaminated water, using the root systems as a filter to clean the liquid. Once the water is cleansed, it can be used or released somewhere in the environment.

The benefits of phytoremediation

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Phytoremediation offers several unique benefits and adding cannabis to the mix only makes the process better. Below we highlight a few of the primary reasons why this process should be considered over other methods of remediation.

Cost-effectiveness

Phytoremediation is the most cost-effective remediation method out there and that quickly becomes clear once you compare it to traditional techniques like disposal and excavation.

Environmental-friendly and sustainable

Most remediation techniques come at the expense of the surrounding environment since most methods spread pollutants around rather than removing them completely or disturbing nature and wildlife. However, the natural processes that occur in phytoremediation effectively clean affected soil in a way that is both sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Efficiency

Cannabis is a versatile phytoremediation plant that is capable of removing incredible concentrations of toxins from soil in a short period of time. Whether the earth is polluted with heavy metals, harsh fertilizers, or harmful pesticides, cannabis roots will work quickly to absorb and store these elements in the plant’s tissues, and since it’s a fast-growing plant, they save time when compared with other alternative species that may be equally as effective, ensuring the cleansed soil is healthy and useable as soon as possible.

Cost-effective

Last but not least on this list of benefits is the way phytoremediation is a much more affordable choice than excavation and disposal which are often expensive, and risky since they may cause more environmental damage than the remediation efforts are worth. Harvested biomass also has the potential to contribute to the local economy, as it may be used to create new products like biofuels or construction materials.

In conclusion

Using cannabis for phytoremediation is a promising solution that should be fully explored, as we continue to learn more about this amazing plant’s potential. With it, we clean up the world we live in to achieve a healthier more sustainable future. By harnessing the natural capabilities of cannabis, it’s possible to reduce many of the problems caused by contaminated soil, and as research continues, we’re likely to discover even more ways this powerful plant species can make it easier for us to clean the earth, air, and water in the future.

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