Paper has been one of the most important commodities since the 1800s. It’s a versatile material with many uses, including printing, packaging, currency, and filter papers. Hemp paper is a paper variety that has been around for centuries. In fact, the first paper in the world came from hemp. This article discusses hemp paper, the history of the hemp paper industry, the use of hemp to produce more sustainable paper, and everything you need to know about paper made from hemp.
We’re familiar with paper made from wood pulp or tree paper. However, how do we come about paper products from hemp plants?
The paper industry is a wide and global one. Despite being in the digital age, paper consumption continues to grow and has increased by around 3% since the 1990s2.
To start with understanding the role of hemp as a wood pulp counterpart in the paper industry, let’s examine hemp itself. Hemp is a variety of cannabis Sativa plants that people grow for various industrial purposes. Hemp is a versatile and fast-growing plant with wide-ranging applications in making
Read more: All About Hemp - Definition, History & Uses
Also, the chemical composition of hemp hurds is similar to that of wood. As a result, the hemp plant is a good choice as raw material for producing paper.
Hemp paper is a type of paper produced from pulp obtained from the fibers of industrial hemp- hemp pulp. Manufacturers use it to make rolling paper, canvas paper, currency, hygiene products, and many more items.
Hemp paper’s production process is quite similar to that of regular paper. However, these processes still possess differences. The most obvious is that hemp paper uses hemp pulp from hemp plants rather than wood pulp from trees.
Most hemp paper comes from short hemp hurds extracted from the inner core of hemp stalks. Hemp stalks have an 85% cellulose composition - the primary source for making paper. Compared to its mainstream alternative, trees, with a composition of 30%, making paper with hemp is easier. Simply put, hemp yields more paper from the same amount of raw materials.
Manufacturers can make Hemp paper from hemp fiber or pulp. Hemp paper made from hemp fiber tends to be brittle and rough. On the other hand, those made from hemp pulp are softer. Producers beat, shred or boil hemp into tiny fibers. They then process them to make a pulp. Afterward, this pulp is spread into sheets, pressed, and dried to make paper.
Hemp paper production dates back to the Western Han Dynasty. Though people were already using hemp as fabrics, canvas sails, ropes, and food, we didn't see paper applications of hemp until around 150-200 BC.
Ancient Chinese investors in the Western Han Dynasty found that smashing hemp fabric and other plant matter into thin sheets was a great alternative to recording information on clay tablets, wood tablets, and stones. By the sixth century AD, the process of making hemp paper had spread to Korea and Japan. From here, discovery spread worldwide and reached Europe from the Middle East in the 13th century.
Paper became a primary way of recording information and transferring knowledge between cultures. People were also using it to wrap valuable items like porcelain. These values of paper spurred the Chinese to build the world's first paper mill. Vital documents and writings like the Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet of the declaration of independence, and the Magna Carta were printed on hemp paper.
Starting in 1818, The Goznak Paper Mill in Saint Petersburg, Russia, used hemp as its primary raw materials to produce bank notes, postal stamps, bonds, stock, credit bills, stamped paper, and other watermarked paper.
However, the use of hemp paper dwindled due to the prohibition of cultivating hemp in the 1930s. This prohibition was because hemp comes from the same species as marijuana. However, hemp is a different strain and doesn't have THC - the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis Sativa.
The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act made the cultivation of hemp and cannabis illegal. Not only that, the textiles and newspaper industry used their lobbying power to end the cultivation and production of hemp.
Fortunately, the hemp industry now has a resurgence owing to the recent passing of the 2018 Farm Bill in the United States. Even though hemp cultivation dwindled or even halted over the past five decades, people are gaining renewed interest in hemp paper.
Right now, the vast majority of the world's paper is from wood pulp or fibers from trees. Does this make it better than hemp paper? Below are the comparisons between hemp paper and wood paper.
Recyclability is a crucial point to consider when comparing hemp paper and wood paper. Regarding recyclability, we can recycle hemp paper seven times, while we can only recycle tree paper three times.
As such, using hemp paper results in benefits like fewer greenhouse gas emissions, lower energy use, and less pollution. Here, hemp paper and other recycled paper are preferable to wood paper due to the significant energy use of traditional paper mills.
The hemp papermaking process uses far fewer chemicals than tree paper production1. The tree pulp contains less cellulose but more lignin than hemp pulp. Hemp contains 85% cellulose and 5 to 24% lignin, while tree-based paper contains 30% cellulose and 18 to 35% lignin.
Removing lignin to create white paper requires using hazardous chemicals during manufacture. On the other hand, manufacturers can whiten paper from hemp fibers with hydrogen peroxide, which is far less harmful.
Owing to its pure, long, and strong fiber, hemp paper lasts longer. On the other hand, tree papers end up in poor shape because of their short fibers and acidic characteristics.
Also, tree papers readily react to environmental factors like sunlight, dampness, and heat, turning the paper yellow and brittle.
Hemp grows at a faster rate than trees. When comparing hemp paper with wood paper, it takes 20 to 80 years for a tree to reach maturity. In contrast, it takes hemp just 100 to 120 days.
While a new tree crop is in infancy, a hemp crop is ready for harvest, making it have a much faster crop yield. Therefore, a hemp crop can produce as much paper as 4-10 times a tree crop using the same amount of land. Hemp harvested for paper also produces a faster return, meaning companies can produce more paper from hemp than from trees in a shorter period.
Hemp fibers are amongst the strongest natural fibers we have in our world. The bast fiber on the outside of the hemp plant's stalk provides the strength that high-quality paper requires. As a result, hemp paper is durable.
Also, hemp papers' ability to stand the test of time further enhances their quality. Paper from hemp fibers resists decomposition compared to tree paper or paper made from wood fibers.
As such, hemp can provide better quality paper than that made from wood fibers, given similar production processes.
Despite the points in favor of hemp paper, it also has some hindrances. Legal restrictions still make hemp cultivation and production difficult. Similarly, the technology for processing it isn't as advanced as that of tree papers. At present, it’s relatively cheaper to create paper from wood pulp, a process we’ve perfected over the years, making it more affordable.
Additionally, hemp paper production is not widespread, and therefore when choosing hemp paper, both the shipping costs and the carbon footprint can increase as a result of long-distance shipping.
Hemp is a material famous for its versatility in many countries. Industries use it to produce clothes, paper, and textiles. Hemp contains a higher percentage of cellulose, making it suitable for paper production. Also, extracting its fiber requires fewer chemicals than traditional paper.
Even though hemp is a more suitable material for paper production, today, over 90% of the world's paper comes from wood. This still doesn't nullify the uses of hemp paper in some sectors. Below are more uses of hemp paper.
Today we can find hemp paper used for many different specialty applications. You likely won’t find reams of office paper made from hemp unless you pay above the odds.
However, you will find innovative manufacturers championing hemp sustainability to make everything from eco-friendly business cards, notebooks & journals, diaries and planners, gift cards, and so on. We can also find hemp paper used as a replacement for bubble wrap and in various eco-friendly packaging applications due to its high yield and strength.
The fact that hemp is highly resistant to tears and breaks makes it suitable for producing durable hygiene products. Further, its hypoallergenic trait minimizes the chances of irritation to sensitive body parts. Some of these include diapers, tampons, eco-friendly toilet paper, and tissues.
Filter bags must be porous and hold up in wet conditions regardless of their usage - coffee, oil, etc. The porosity and resistance of hemp paper in wet conditions make it befitting for producing filter bags. Furthermore, hemp paper tends to have better filtration than other filters from polymers or metals.
Hemp paper has the unique characteristic of adding strength and resilience to thin papers. As a result, it’s ideal for producing rolling papers that must be thin but also resistant. In Europe, manufacturers largely use hemp paper to create rolling papers.
Owing to their low acidity and lignin level, tree paper can yellow with age. It also becomes brittle over time. This makes it not ideal for archiving papers as people need to preserve documents over a long period. Hemp paper, on the other hand, preserves itself and withstands the test of time.
Regular tea bags often come from a blend of both wood plastic polymers and sometimes hemp. Manufacturers include a blend of hemp because of its porosity and wet-resistant trait, a trait common to tea bags. Some manufacturers also produce reusable tea bags made from hemp, which are easy to clean and refill.
Currency undergoes different handling and folding and so must be highly durable. The strength of banknotes comes from the addition of hemp, which in turn, enhances their durability. However, the increase of plastic or partly plastic currencies has made this application of hemp paper redundant. Nonetheless, most of the money printed in the United States through the 1900s included hemp.
Bibles are traditionally made from hemp paper. The first major printed moveable publication, the Gutenberg Bible, comes from hemp paper. Because of their durability, copies of these books exist today in good condition.
While hemp paper isn't particularly common, it’s not new. Paper consumption instigates the move to revive hemp paper as a sustainable choice in our world. Also, with people and companies being more environmentally aware, there is a growing consciousness of environmental conservation.
You’ll find that many sustainable companies incorporate this paper type in their packaging, for instance. With hemp plants growing faster than trees and hemp’s lower use of chemicals, it presents an eco-friendly choice in the world.
Naithani, V., Tyagi, P., Jameel, H., Lucia, L., & Pal, L. (2019). Ecofriendly and Innovative Processing of Hemp Hurds Fibers for Tissue and Towel Paper. BioResources, 15(1), 706-720.
IEA (2021), Pulp and Paper, IEA, Paris
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.