Hemp Alternative to Plastic? Hemp Plastic and Other Uses

We live in an age where we have made many technological advances. Yet we still get through huge amounts of polluting plastic material. Plastic made, mostly, from non-renewable sources. However, one of the many advances that now presents viable alternatives is bio-plastic. Or plastic made from organic matter rather and oil-based polymers. Of the suitable plants to produce bioplastic hemp is fast and efficiently grown. We do have options and the hemp alternative to plastic looks set to become a feasible option that could gain traction. 

Plastic is a commercial product that we find almost everywhere. From plastic bottles to car parts and toys as well as construction. Of course, there is no denying that it is very useful and versatile material.

Meanwhile, hemp is a relative of cannabis that has many potential uses such as clothing and even paper. Due to the makeup of hemp fibres, it also has real potential to be instrumental in our search for alternatives to plastic. 

As we are now at the point where climate change is taking place, we need to change our behaviours. We can no longer continue depleting our finite fossil fuel reserves but instead, we need sustainable alternatives. For every single plastic bottle, straw or packaging tray that doesn’t need to be made and consumed we save a small amount of our finite non-renewable resources. 

Fortunately, things are changing fast. Hemp is already being seen in common objects and cars are now even being manufactured using it. These are positive signs that we can further develop and scale up the use of hemp-based plastics. In this article, we take a look at the potential for hemp to step in as a replacement for at least a chunk of our plastic consumption5Hemp is the Future of Plastics. Ali Asghar Modi, Rehmatullah Shahid, Muhammad Usman Saeed and Tanzila Younas. E3S Web Conf., 51 (2018) 03002. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1051/e3sconf/20185103002 .

Why We Need Alternatives to Plastic

Plastics come with a serious downside which is the way in which they are damaging our planet. They take hundreds of years to break down, they enter the food chain and they have an impact on animal health and our health.

Further, the production, disposal and recycling of plastic throughout its life cycle all contribute to global warming and its harmful effects in some way2Nielsen, TD, Hasselbalch, J, Holmberg, K, Stripple, J. Politics and the plastic crisis: A review throughout the plastic life cycle. WIREs Energy Environ. 2019;e360. https://doi.org/10.1002/wene.360

Plastic has found its way to landfill, it has entered our oceans and it is finding its way onto beaches. With 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans each year, the impact is huge.

The oceans are in dire need of help. Microplastics are polluting the waters and are being consumed by marine life4Anthony L. Andrady, Microplastics in the marine environment, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 62, Issue 8, 2011, Pages 1596-1605, ISSN 0025-326X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.05.030 . We only have to take a look a the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to see how much damage we have done. According to reports, there are around 1.9 million plastic particles per square mile.

Hemp, Cellulose and Plastic

In order to replace or reduce our need for oil-based plastic, we need alternatives that offer similar features. 

Fortunately, hemp can provide an alternative raw material because of something known as cellulose6Bo Madsen, Preben Hoffmeyer, Anne Belinda Thomsen, Hans Lilholt, Hemp yarn reinforced composites – I. Yarn characteristics, Composites Part A: Applied Science and Manufacturing, Volume 38, . Cellulose is an organic molecule often found in the walls of plant cells. Its cellulose that helps plants maintain their rigidity. Helping, for example, flowers stand tall or trees grow strong. 

Manufacturers can use cellulose to make plastic flexible, moldable and durable, which are the characteristics that we associate with traditional plastic.

For decades, our go-to material for plastic production has been petroleum. However, as Hemp contains a high yield of cellulose at around 70-80% it makes an ideal crop to provide this vital building block for new innovative bioplastics. What this means is that we can now organically grow hemp, a renewable raw material and reduce our need for petroleum.

In fact, some of the original plastic that we made came from organic cellulose fibres. Old film, hairbrushes and even dolls have in the past been made from cellulose. 

It is possible to extract hemp cellulose in order to produce cellophane and celluloid as well as other types of plastics such as bioplastic which is usually a blend of traditional plastic and plant-based materials.

As it stands, plastic that is made from 100% hemp is still rare. However, composite bioplastics that include hemp are in use7Bioplastics from natural polymers. Muneer, Faraz (2014). Bioplastics from natural polymers. Alnarp: (LTJ, LTV) > Department of Plant Breeding (from 130101), Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet. Introductory paper at . These plastics are strong and rigid and we use them in boats, musical instruments and cars.

Bioplastic Alone is Not The Answer to Our Problems

Don't let coke choke our oceans
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The majority of plastic products are manufactured using polymer resins. This includes the likes of PET of which common uses include packaging and the ubiquitous soft drink bottle. 

Of course, we would all love to see plastic bottles that are100% hemp-based. The truth is, the technology is not quite there yet. Companies are experimenting and the likes of Coca Cola have tried manufacturing 100% plant-based bottles.

Despite this, many of the commercial products we see contain no more than 30% of plant-based materials. This means that the rest of the bottle is made from non-renewable sources.

Whereas this is certainly a step in the right direction, there is other positive news. A number of companies are investing in alternatives to PET, which is particularly important given the health implications with various studies finding they can leach chemicals into their contents1Paul Westerhoff, Panjai Prapaipong, Everett Shock, Alice Hillaireau, Antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used for bottled drinking water, Water Research, Volume 42, Issue 3, . Therefore, as developments progress wholly plant-based plastics look increasingly possible

The problem remains however that biodegradable plastic can still pollute. When placed in landfill it won’t wholly biodegrade because of the blend of materials. 

As it stands, whereas new less polluting plastics improve the situation, we still need to take a responsible attitude towards the way in which we dispose of all plastic. We should all consider the importance of the 4Rs, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle. Adhering to their principles as much as we are able. And ideally, reduce consumption in the first place.

Other Hemp Alternatives to Plastic

Due to hemp’s qualities, we can now also find it used across a range of other applications. Hemp seeds are variously used in vegan recipes and more due to their nutritious qualities and provide a great source of protein. 

Hemp t-shirts now abound and last for ages. And when looking for plastic-free gifts you could do a lot worse than exploring the wide range of hemp products now available. Everything from shoes to beauty products. 

We can even produce bioenergy and biofuel from hemp. With the best bit that biofuels can be used to power normal cars, just from cleaner sources. Thus, perhaps like the other material of the moment, Bamboo, we will see many future eco-friendly applications of hemp in the coming years. 

The Benefits of Hemp

Hemp leaves
Photo by Roberto Valdivia on Unsplash

It is Biodegradable

Single-use plastic is decimating our environment. When single-use based plastic is discarded yet it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. When you consider that we purchase one million plastic bottles a minute in the world, it is clear to see why the environment is suffering.

Not forgetting the problem of single-use carrier bags, although progress has been made in phasing out this kind of single-use plastic3Ritch, E. , Brennan, C. and MacLeod, C. (2009), Plastic bag politics: modifying consumer behaviour for sustainable development. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 33: 168-174. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.2009.00749.x . Many countries and retailers are even moving to ban plastic straws. All steps in the right direction. 

In contrast to this, hemp plastic can take as little as six months to decompose. Along with this, we can recycle it indefinitely. Even if we make a gradual switch, we can slowly help to ease the burden of plastic waste and pollution on our planet.

Durability

Regardless of how quickly hemp decomposes, hemp plastic is stronger than traditional plastic. It is also heat resistant, which makes it possible to use for food-based applications

It Eases Pollution

We make traditional plastic from fossil fuels and petroleum. During the production of plastic, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

Purely hemp-based plastic and the products that go into producing it do not release C02. In fact, the more hemp plants we grow, the more C02 we can capture. For every ton of hemp that is grown, it can prevent as much as 1.6 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere.

It is Better For Our Health

Plastic is harmful to our health. In the US, around 93% of people over the age of 6 have been found to have traces of BPA in their body. This is a chemical that can change the way in which hormones are produced in the body. Along with this, it can lead to problems such as cancer and heart disease.

Hemp is non-toxic which makes it a lot safer, particularly where it is used for storing food and liquids.

It is Versatile

Hemp plastic possesses the same level of versatility as standard plastic. This means that it can be moulded into almost any shape making it ideal for a wide range of uses. As it is versatile, we can use it to replace a huge array of items that we use on a daily basis.

It Grows Like Crazy

Hemp grows fast. Some varieties can reach up to 4 meters in height in 3 short months. During this time it requires little care other than water. An adaptable plant, hemp also can be grown in a wider range of conditions and soil types. 

What is Holding Hemp Plastic Back?

Because Hemp has an association with cannabis it faces several challenges. Due to restrictions and laws across the world, the infrastructure to grow and process hemp is often prohibited. 

However, hemp is a great alternative for plastic production because of the way in which it leaves a smaller carbon footprint. It also requires fewer pesticides. 

It does, however, require high levels of labour to grow. What’s more, it also requires a not-insignificant amount of water. However, far less than cotton which has resulted in many eco-friendly clothing brands turning to hemp in order to produce more sustainable fashion.

With labour, water and land cost the economic argument can also weigh against hemp. Sadly traditional plastic production is so cheap due to production at a massive industrial scale. Farming any organic raw materials to replace fossil fuels can prove more costly. And that’s something us consumers might have to wear at some stage if we are to really do our bit. 

Despite all of this, hemp definitely has potential. The technology is improving and farmers in the US, where hemp production is allowed in many states, are now beginning to grow and experiment with different varieties in order to achieve a greater fibre content.

Is Hemp Plastic a True Potential Replacement For Plastic?

The truth is, we now need to seek alternatives to conventional plastic. The research is out there and we only need to wander along a beach to see the problem we have with bad-plastic. Plastic is a useful material but with so many downsides, it is no longer a material that we take for granted. 

It seems as though hemp contains all the correct characteristics that we require to create a potential replacement. However, it comes with its challenges. These challenges relate to growing and production but they also relate to our attitudes. Governments, manufacturers and consumers all have to show that they want to make a change.

Once we begin to make a change, momentum will more than likely turn hemp plastic into a mainstream material. This can help us move one step closer to protecting our planet and reversing the damage we have caused.

Rick Proctor

Further Inspiration:

Sources & References:

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1Paul Westerhoff, Panjai Prapaipong, Everett Shock, Alice Hillaireau, Antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used for bottled drinking water, Water Research, Volume 42, Issue 3, 2008, Pages 551-556, ISSN 0043-1354, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2007.07.048
2Nielsen, TD, Hasselbalch, J, Holmberg, K, Stripple, J. Politics and the plastic crisis: A review throughout the plastic life cycle. WIREs Energy Environ. 2019;e360. https://doi.org/10.1002/wene.360
3Ritch, E. , Brennan, C. and MacLeod, C. (2009), Plastic bag politics: modifying consumer behaviour for sustainable development. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 33: 168-174. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.2009.00749.x
4Anthony L. Andrady, Microplastics in the marine environment, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 62, Issue 8, 2011, Pages 1596-1605, ISSN 0025-326X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.05.030
5Hemp is the Future of Plastics. Ali Asghar Modi, Rehmatullah Shahid, Muhammad Usman Saeed and Tanzila Younas. E3S Web Conf., 51 (2018) 03002. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1051/e3sconf/20185103002
6Bo Madsen, Preben Hoffmeyer, Anne Belinda Thomsen, Hans Lilholt, Hemp yarn reinforced composites – I. Yarn characteristics, Composites Part A: Applied Science and Manufacturing, Volume 38, Issue 10, 2007, Pages 2194-2203, ISSN 1359-835X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compositesa.2007.06.001
7Bioplastics from natural polymers. Muneer, Faraz (2014). Bioplastics from natural polymers. Alnarp: (LTJ, LTV) > Department of Plant Breeding (from 130101), Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet. Introductory paper at the Faculty of Landscape Architecture, Horticulture and Crop Production Science ; 2014:4

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