With growing concerns around the globe due to rapidly increasing plastic pollution, governments and global companies are quickly finding solutions to this growing problem. Every hour almost 55 million plastic bottles are sold. Plastics found in these bottles are petroleum based and are made of our limited fossil fuels. However being cheap, lightweight, and, easily manufactured makes most companies turn a blind eye to the fact that most of these plastics are neither recycled nor reused. As of right now, only a mere 9% of all the plastic every made has been recycled, with a slightly larger portion incarnated and the rest dumped in landfills ultimately finding their way to our oceans. Global companies such as PepsiCo, the world’s second largest plastic polluter, are finding ways to reinvent their packaging by utilising recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic. However what if we can replace plastic all together and introduce environmental friendly options like Hemp.
What is Hemp?
Hemp or also known as industrial hemp is a type of Cannabis sativa plant which is grown for its fibres which has many industrial purposes. It is a form of bioplastic i.e plastics created from renewable sources, as compared to traditional plastics derived from conventional fossil fuels.
Cultivation of hemp provides farmers with three end products: fibres, seeds and pulp. This allows hemp to be used in a variety of industry such as ropes, fabrics, food, construction materials, biofuels and bioplastics. Hemp fibres are primarily used in the clothing industry to create durable articles of clothing or ropes for industrial purposes. Seeds have great nutritional value and are also used to extract hemp oil which is used to create biofuels and is also consumed. Hemp is also used as a building material and is often combined with other traditional materials.
However recent years has seen an increase of hemp used as a bioplastic. For instance the automobile industry is having a resurgence of hemp plastic, hemp bioplastic is lighter and stronger than steel. Also it is far more sustainable than the usage of continuous steel. Hemp was first seen in the automobile industry in the 1940s when Henry Ford made an entire vehicle out of hemp plastic. Now several popular automobile companies like BMW, Volkswagen, Audi and many more are incorporating hemp plastic into their designs such as door panels, dash boards and interior products. For instance BMW i3 electric car uses hemp in their door panels due to their lighter and envionmentally-friendly aspect as well as being dent resistant.
Benefits of Hemp
Hemp has great benefits as a crop and a bioplastic increasing its potential as a plastic replacement. As stated by the Hemp Pantry, hemp is an extremely sustainable crop.
1. Adaptable: Hemp can be grown in a variety of climates and is found all over the world. It also does not require much land to grow on and crops can be grown very densely increasing the yield. The fibres produced by one acre of hemp is equivalent to fibres produced by two-three acres of cotton.
2. Less pesticides: Hemp is far more resistant to pests and diseases than other crops. Hence it does not require the addition of chemical pesticides which is safer for farmers.
3. Easily Cultivated: Hemp is easily grown and can be harvested in four months. It also requires 50% less water than cotton.
4. Smaller environmental footprint: All parts of hemp can be used in a variety of industries reducing agricultural waste which is a growing concern. Also hemp helps absorbs carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, one ton of hemp grown can absorb around 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide from our air.
Hemp is an extremely adaptable and ‘no-fuss’ plant with several advantages. Apart from the plant itself hemp plastic is also known to be extremely beneficial.
1. Biodegradable: It’s extremely important to note that not all bioplastics are biodegradable. However hemp bioplastics only take 6 months to biodegrade as compared to regular PET plastic water bottle which requires 450 years. Figure 1 below shows a water bottle packaging made of hemp plastic completely degrade within 73 days.
2. Strengthens products: Products containing hemp plastic are far more stronger than conventional plastics. Hemp plastic is 3.5 times more stronger than common plastic and is also far lighter.
3. Non-Toxic: Hemp is non-toxic and will not contaminate soil or water bodies as it degrades.
Cost and Controversy of Hemp
With the several benefits associated with hemp and hemp plastic one may think why is hemp is not as commonly available and it’s due to two reasons: cost and controversy.
Products containing hemp plastic and most bioplastics at a majority are still considered a luxury with a high price tag. Despite containing zero THC, there is a heavy stigma associated with hemp being a cannabis variety and unfairly tied with cannabis related drug laws. However, slowly countries across the world are legalising the cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes only. The 2018 Farm Bill in the United States has now allowed the cultivation of hemp for not only R&D but as commercial products to be sold but of course with strict laws and restrictions.
Along with the lack of research and technology hemp is still a rarity. However farmers across the world are beginning to experiment with hemp varieties and its fibre content. Hemp cultivation is a labor intensive process which is another drawback to the wide commercialisation of hemp. With an increase in R&D and government support along with the destigmatisation of hemp, there is endless potential for this humble crop.
Current Hemp Products on the Market
Currently hemp bioplastic are mainly found in automobile, boat and musical industry but now several entrepreneurs across the globe have found innovative products with hemp plastic.
The Hemp Plastic Company is using hemp bioplastic to make a flexible bioplastic packaging materials which are both sustainable and cost effective. Zeoform has created an innovative and sustainable material containing hemp plastic and other cellulose fibres which are then used to create durable furniture, packaging and even surfboards. Hemp is also used as an eco-friendly alternative to straws, disposable cups and other packaging which is otherwise one time use. Despite the obstacles attached to hemp, many innovators are creating fascinating and necessary products and with the many governments slowly turning a leaf on hemp, there is definitely a promising future for this crop.