Hemp Plastics: What the Future Holds

By Kyra Heenan
Jonathan Chng, Unsplash

As consumers and industry professionals recognize the impact carbon-based plastic has on the environment, people are seeking out more eco-friendly alternatives to cut down on waste and live more sustainably. Hemp products might just hold the answer to these needs.

Historically, the hemp plant has been used globally for thousands of years to make a variety of supplies, for everything from clothes to paper to building materials. It was even a staple crop at the beginning roots of American culture, since the sturdy fibers of the plant were incredibly valuable for making a variety of goods.

With the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, and then the even more restrictive Controlled Substances Act in 1970, it became for more difficult to grow hemp.

In December of 2018, the Agriculture Improvement Act was signed into law, meaning that hemp is no longer a controlled substance. Now that it is easier to grow and sell hemp-based products, a door has opened for hemp plastic to emerge on the market.

Hemp as a Replacement for Traditional Paper

Hemp offers a tree-free option for paper companies looking to manufacture paper products in a more sustainable way. This is because hemp grows faster than trees. Farmers can get more out of a field, or turn over a crop more often. According to some sources, with hemp fiber and hemp pulp, one acre of hemp may produce more paper than four acres of trees.

This is a return to our roots. Hemp paper, versus tree paper, was common in the early United States. Many said that our Declaration of Independence was written on a sheet made of hemp fiber. Though this has since been disputed, early schoolbooks were made of hemp and Benjamin Franklin himself owned a hemp paper mill. 

With the passage of the recent Farm Bill, hemp paper is poised to make a comeback. Just think about the number of paper products—everything from business cards to bank notes—that we could replace in a sustainable way. With the coming revolution in regenerative farming, hemp may offer a clear path to true recycled paper.

Hemp as a Sustainable Plastic

Any plastic material requires a substance called cellulose, which is responsible for the durable and pliable feature of plastic. Typically, the plastics industry has turned to petroleum as a source of cellulose. While it is a common practice, petroleum is toxic and can’t be organically sourced.

This is where hemp comes in. Hemp has a high concentration of this cellulose fiber that is necessary for plastic material—hemp hurds can be up to 85% cellulose. Not to mention, hemp can be organically grown, isn’t toxic like petroleum is, and consumes approximately four times more carbon monoxide from the atmosphere than other plants.

Since the mass production of synthetic plastic, we have amassed over 9 billion tons of the matter—6.9 billion of which has become waste. This synthetic plastic requires over 400 years to fully decompose. Plastic made from the hemp plant, on the other hand, can be 100% biodegradable.

The future of bioplastics (plastic that made from plant material and/or is biodegradable) is looking promising. They are predicted to take up 5% of the plastics market by 2020, which is expected to grow to 40% by 2030. Plastics made entirely from hemp are still fairly rare, but there are many plastics made by combining hemp and other plant sources (called “composite bioplastics”). In fact, these plastics are actually more common than you may think. Many car manufacturers, for example, have begun to make door panels, dashboards, and other car plastic needs out of composite bioplastics.

Setbacks in Hemp Plastic Production

While hemp plastics are a promising, environmentally-friendly alternative to synthetic plastics, there are still some setbacks—the main one being that the technology isn’t quite there yet. Some soft drink and water bottle companies have toyed with the idea of 100% plant-based bottles, but currently you will find bottles with no more than 30% plant materials in store.

Another setback is that, even if more available to consumers, hemp plastic may still get disposed of in landfills, where it is extremely difficult for waste of any kind to biodegrade. Commercial composting facilities would need to become more widely available for consumers to more intelligently use and dispose of hemp-based plastics.

The future of hemp plastic is promising, but there are still some steps that need to take place before we see 100% hemp plastic products become widely available.

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