In 2017, more than 300 million tons of plastic were used by manufacturers worldwide. We rely on plastic in almost every industry, and plastic is now one of the most widespread pollutants. 91 percent of all the plastic we produce worldwide is not recycled. But that might be about to change — thanks to hemp plastic.
Recent technology has opened the door to a new type of eco-friendly polymer, one that’s no longer reliant on petroleum, but on cellulose. Bioplastic is renewable, sustainable, and sometimes cheap because it’s made out of agricultural waste. Hemp is a great source of cellulose, and hemp plastic could change our planet.
From seed to flower, every part of the hemp plant can be used
Hemp is a type of cannabis sativa that’s used in industrial settings. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive compound of marijuana, so it’s legal to cultivate it in every country of the European Union.
But probably the most important aspect of the hemp plant is its versatility. Hemp is a multi-purpose crop, and every part of it can be used in various ways. Hemp fibre is commonly used for the production of lightweight paper, insulation material and biocomposites.
Hemp shivs — the woody inner cores of the stems — are used for animal bedding and construction. Hemp seeds are very nutritious, and you can consume them raw or press them into hemp seed oil. Both the raw seeds and the hemp seed oil are used in human and animal food.
And last but not least, industrial hemp is used in the production of cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabinoid that has shown great promise in the treatment of epilepsy, anxiety and insomnia.
Even though the hemp plant is versatile, only a few manufacturers are willing to use all of its parts. Some farmers grow hemp for its seeds, others for its stems and so on. So at the end of the agricultural season, nearly all the hemp farmers have some leftovers they can sell for a small profit to a bioplastic producer.
Hemp plastics might be popular nowadays, but the truth is that they’ve been around nearly as long as plastic itself. Hemp is easy to cultivate and it contains high cellulose concentrations (up to 70 percent), so people started making plastic out of it before the Second World War.
In fact, Henry Ford — none other than the creator of the Ford automobile brand — was impressed by the quality of hemp plastic, so he designed a car that used hemp plastic for various components back in 1941.
Given the historical events that took place at the time, it’s not very clear if Ford was truly a supporter of hemp plastic or if he turned to plastic because the war industry needed all the steel it could get and he still needed to build his cars out of something. Nevertheless, Ford used hemp plastic in a car prototype that was never mass-produced.
Nowadays, European consumers are always pushing for more sustainable goods, so the production of bioplastic in Europe is on the rise. Around one-fifth of the global production of bioplastic is based in Europe, which is quickly becoming a major hub for the entire bioplastic industry, not only for hemp plastic.
But thanks to the booming CBD market, hemp could become the main source of bioplastic in the following years. And hemp plastic certainly has its advantages.
The advantages of hemp plastic
1. Hemp plastic is biodegradable
One of the problems with petroleum-based plastics is that they’re extremely resilient. Since only a small portion of plastic is actually recycled, most of it ends up in landfills. Common plastics can take thousands of years to break down, but there is no exact figure for the amount of time it takes plastic to decompose. And to make matters worse, the byproducts of their degrading can be toxic to the environment.
Meanwhile, hemp plastic is completely biodegradable. It takes around six months for hemp plastic to decompose, and its byproducts are not toxic to the environment. In the right conditions, hemp plastic can break down in as little as two or three months.
So even if you don’t recycle hemp plastic, it will still break down into its basic components, meaning it won’t create mountains of garbage in a landfill.
Hemp plastic is biodegradable, so it won’t create mountains of garbage in landfills.
2. Hemp plastic is not toxic to humans and animals
Hemp plastic is not toxic to the environment, and it’s also not toxic to humans and animals. Petroleum-based plastics contain substances that act as endocrine disruptors. Now, you probably know all about the endocrine system and how easy it is for some substances to disturb its fragile balance but if you don’t, you can read more here.
Conventional plastics contain substances called bisphenol A, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (that’s a tongue twister) and phthalates. These substances interfere with the human and animal endocrine system.
We’re not going to get into a lot of details here, but endocrine disruptors have been linked to a series of problems, such as birth defects, the development of tumors, learning disabilities, cancer and more.
As a curiosity, these endocrine disruptors are one of the reasons why your bottled water has an expiration date. While the water does not expire, the plastic bottle will eventually leak chemicals into it, which could be bad for you. So the expiration date serves as a security measure, among other things.
3. Hemp plastic is strong and versatile
Hemp plastic is strong. Like, very strong. Plastic made out of hemp is up to three and a half times stronger than polypropylene, one of the most common types of petroleum-based plastic. But hemp plastic is also lighter.
Thanks to these qualities, hemp plastic is versatile and can be used in different ways. Some of the industries that started relying on hemp plastic include:
- Car parts
4. Hemp plastic helps the environment
Hemp plastic helps the environment because it’s made out of hemp since hemp is beneficial for the environment in many ways.
Industrial hemp is a sturdy plant that has deep roots. Hemp crops prevent soil erosion, which reduces water pollution. The crops can be cultivated in the same soil for multiple seasons without damaging the soil’s quality. Hemp also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduces the greenhouse effect.
In addition, every part of the hemp plant can be put to use, so none of it goes to waste. Growing hemp is a sustainable process, and since even the plastic made out of it is biodegradable, the entire process and its results are environmentally-friendly.
Hemp absorbs carbon dioxide and reduces the greenhouse effect
Why can’t humanity make all the plastics out of hemp?
You might be wondering why humanity doesn’t make all the plastics it needs out of hemp since the plant is obviously such a great alternative to petroleum.
Well, there are several reasons why this will never happen. First of all, and I can’t stress this enough, you wouldn’t want the ‘small’ companies in the petroleum industry to stop making a gazillion euros per day, would you? They might decide to increase the price of petroleum to make up for their loss, and you will end up paying for it out of your own pocket.
Second, and this is probably more important, cultivating hemp to replace petroleum in the plastic industry might not be as helpful as you would think. Hemp is an extraordinary plant that shows great promise in multiple industries. But if you’d want to replace all the plastics in the world with hemp plastic, you would actually harm the environment.
In order to cultivate enough hemp to meet the demand of the plastics industry, humanity would have to plant hemp on great swathes of land. But our planet’s diversity is already at risk because we are cutting down forests and turning them into farmland to feed the livestock that we, in turn, feed ourselves with. What do you think would happen to the forests if we needed space to cultivate all that hemp?
Hemp plastic – Final thoughts
Hemp plastic is a good alternative to conventional plastic. The plastic made out of hemp is strong, durable, and lightweight, so it will prove useful in a lot of industries.
Most Europeans believe that biodegradable plastics will play an important part in the future, and that’s likely true. Slowly, but surely, bioplastics will become part of our lives. But that doesn’t mean that petroleum-based plastics shouldn’t exist any longer.
Instead of dreaming of an improbable future where garbage won’t be toxic, landfills won’t pollute and plastic will not harm the environment, we should be encouraging people to sort their plastics responsibly and send them to recycling instead of dumping them in the garbage.
Less than a third of the plastic waste in Europe is recycled. Improving that figure might do more good for the environment than biodegradable plastics ever will. Most of the plastic humanity produced so far is still around us. Unless we do something about that, most of it will be around our children and our children’s children as well. Because at the end of the day, plastic doesn’t pollute the environment. People do.