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Hemp Plastic - Can Hemp Replace Oil-based Plastics?

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

Plastic is a commercial product we find almost everywhere, from plastic bottles to car parts, toys, and construction. Of course, there is no denying that it is an advantageous and versatile material.

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

We can no longer continue depleting our finite fossil fuel reserves to produce endless amounts of plastic-based goods. Instead, we need sustainable alternatives. We save a small amount of our finite non-renewable resources for every plastic bottle, plastic straw, or packaging tray that doesn’t need to be made and consumed.

Fortunately, things are changing fast. We can already see hemp used in everyday 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. This article looks at the potential for hemp to step in as a replacement for at least a chunk of our plastic consumption5.

Why We Need Hemp Plastic and Natural Alternatives

Plastics come with a severe downside: how they damage our planet. They take hundreds of years to break down, enter the food chain, and impact animals 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 way2.

Plastic has found its way to landfills. It has entered our oceans and is finding its way onto beaches. The impact is enormous, with 11 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans each year1.

The oceans are in dire need of help. Microplastics are polluting the waters and end up consumed by marine life. We only have to look at 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

We need alternatives that offer similar features to replace or reduce our need for oil-based plastic.

Fortunately, hemp can provide an alternative raw material because of something known as cellulose3. Cellulose is an organic molecule often found in the walls of plant cells. Cellulose 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. This means that we can now organically grow hemp, a renewable raw material, produce hemp bioplastic, and reduce our need for petroleum.

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

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

As it stands, plastic made from 100% hemp is still rare. However, composite bioplastics that include hemp are in use4. 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

Manufacturers produce the majority of plastic products using polymer resins. This includes the likes of PET, whose common uses include packaging and the ubiquitous soft drink bottle.

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

Despite this, many 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.

This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but there is other positive news. Several 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 contents. Therefore, as developments progress, wholly plant-based plastics look increasingly possible.

The problem remains, however, that biodegradable plastic can still pollute. When placed in a 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 possible. 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. The hemp industry grows hemp seeds that 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 available hemp products. Everything from shoes to beauty products better for the environment. Check out our guide to the best hemp backpacks for hemp's solution to carry everything from laptops to school books.

We can even produce bioenergy and hemp biomass. The best bit is 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 illustrating the versatility of the hemp plant in the coming years.

Why Make Plastic from Hemp?

Hemp leaves
Photo by Roberto Valdivia on Unsplash

It is Biodegradable

Single-use plastic pollution is decimating our environment. When we discard single-use conventional plastics, they 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 countries have made progress in phasing out this kind of single-use plastic. Many countries and retailers are even moving to ban plastic straws—all steps in the right direction.

In contrast, hemp plastic can decompose in as little as six months. Along with this, we can recycle it indefinitely. Even if we make a gradual switch, we can slowly help 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, making it possible 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. Every ton of hemp grown 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 bodies. This chemical can change how hormones are produced in the body. It can also lead to problems such as cancer and heart disease.

Hemp is non-toxic, making it much safer, mainly when storing food and liquids.

It is Versatile

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

It Grows Like Crazy

Hemp grows fast. Some varieties can reach up to 4 meters in height in 3 short months. During this time, hemp 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?

Are we on the verge of a hemp-plastic revolution? Unfortunately, because hemp is associated 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 an excellent alternative for plastic production because it leaves a smaller carbon footprint. The plants used for hemp plastic products require fewer pesticides than other organic materials used in bioplastics.

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

With labor, water, and land costs, 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 we consumers might have to wear at some stage if we are to really do our bit.

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

Is Hemp Plastic a True Potential Replacement For Plastic?

The truth is, that 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 our problem with lousy 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, including being a renewable natural material, that we require to create a potential replacement. However, it comes with its challenges. These challenges relate to growth 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.

 

1

An estimated 11 million tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year. (updated 2022)

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
3Bo 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
4Bioplastics 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
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
Photo by Mayur Sharma on Unsplash
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