It’s official – our planet is in a mess. The wanton destruction of the rainforests, mass farming techniques, industrial-scale contamination, and out of control consumerism have wreaked havoc on this place we call home. But before we start planning our escape to another galaxy, could it be that the humble hemp plant, much-maligned throughout modern history, might provide some practical solutions to the impending environmental disaster we are facing?
This might seem too good to be true, but when you consider that hemp could replace practically any object made from petroleum-based plastic, we start to get a hint at the ecological potential of this versatile plant.
Why did the world fall out of love with hemp?
But before we delve into some environmentally tantalizing hemp uses, let’s take a quick look at how the plant fell out of favour in the first place.
Hemp also known as industrial hemp, has been grown and cultivated for thousands of years, not just for its medicinal properties, but also for the plant’s strong and versatile fiber. Historic remains include a 2000 year old hemp wig found in Sichuan, China, and right up until the beginning of the twentieth century hemp fibers were commonly used to make rope, sails, and paper.
There have been some pretty famous hemp farmers over the years. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both industrial hemp growers, with Jefferson writing extensively about hemp cultivation. Henry Ford built and designed a car constructed from hemp grown on his estate. He described it as “grown from the soil,” with its hemp plastic panels that were reportedly 10 times stronger than steel.
So where did it all go wrong?
As is often the case, what happens in the United States sets the pace for the rest of the world, and in 1937 the US Marihuana Tax Act came into being, effectively prohibiting the cultivation and sale of the cannabis plant. Set against the backdrop of a concerted slur campaign in which the newly termed ‘marijuana’ was portrayed as the root of moral decline, industrial hemp found itself lumped together with its psychoactive variant, bringing an end to hemp cultivation in the US.
Were there dark forces conspiring to end hemp’s future as a cost effective alternative for the paper industry? Was it just coincidence that hemp’s demise cleared the way for the newly patented petrochemical material nylon? No one will ever know. But what is clear is that hemp suddenly went from being a proclaimed ‘new billion dollar super crop’ with the potential to make 25,000 products, to an agricultural pariah.
BUT – Hemp is back. And with it, a potential environmental revolution. So let’s take a look at just how hemp can make up for lost time and potentially undo some of the catastrophic damage we’ve inflicted on our planet over the last 100 years.
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Plastic is the environmental scourge of modern times. Mostly derived from petrochemicals, according to Ecowatch it takes 500-1000 years for plastic to break down. When you consider that in just one year 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide and that plastic constitutes 90% of rubbish floating on the ocean’s surface, it’s clear that our compulsive plastic consumption is having a serious effect on the environment.
But here’s where hemp can step in. Hemp can be used to make cellulose, a constituent of plastics such as cellophane, celluloid and rayon. It can also form part of a biocomposite plastic – where it’s either mixed with a synthetic polymer or as part of a totally organic mix. Studies have found these hemp based plastics are 5 times stiffer and 2.5 stronger than traditional plastic made from polypropylene. No wonder then that almost 100 years after Henry Ford’s Hemp Car, hemp plastic is being utilized by some companies in the automobile sector, and in products as varied as sunglasses, plastic bags and dogs toysare being made from hemp plastic.
2. Hemp paper
Paper like plastic, is ubiquitous in the modern world. But how many of us actually consider the environmental impact of its consumption? According to the Paper Project, the pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial polluter to air, water and land in Canada and the United States, releasing well over 100 million kg of toxic pollution each year. Not only that but it takes more water to make a ton of paper than for any other product. And then there’s the environmental impact of chopping down the trees in the first place. An estimated 46-58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year, equalling approximately 48 football fields every minute. Reports suggest that if deforestation continues at the current rate, it will take less than 100 years to destroy all the rainforests on the planet.
So now is a crucial moment to find a more sustainable source of paper than wood chip, and our ecological hero hemp could just be the ticket. Not only does one acre of hemp produce the same amount of paper as 4 acres of trees, but the actual production process is cleaner as no chemical processing is required. Hemp paper lasts longer than paper made from wood pulp, and it can also be recycled more times. Plus, after the hemp harvest, it’s only a matter of months before the crop regenerates, compared to the logging industry where whole ecosystems are permanently destroyed.
3. Hemp building materials
It seems impossible that entire houses can be constructed from hemp. But thanks to hempcrete, a more sustainable alternative to concrete, it has become a reality. Made from hemp, lime and water hempcrete has a negative carbon footprint, meaning more CO2 is absorbed by the hemp plant during cultivation than emitted during construction. Not only that but walls made of Hempcrete continue to absorb carbon dioxide over their lifetime. So it’s a building material that just keeps giving back to the environment.
British farmer Nick Voase, who constructed his eco house from hemp grown on his farm says: “Because the hemp walls keep the humidity constant, it’s a better environment to live in; we also don’t need a plastic membrane in the walls. Hemp’s an excellent insulator and the walls keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter, so we don’t need any fires, log burners or even radiators.”
4. Hemp biofuel
Hemp can be made into fuel either by turning the pressed hempseed oil into biodiesel or taking the fermented stalks and making ethanol or methanol. So far, for economic reasons hemp biofuel hasn’t really taken off, but one advantage is that it can be used in any diesel engine without having to make alterations. That and of course the fact that it’s much kinder to the environment, with hemp emitting 47% less than carbon monoxide than ordinary diesel. According to Chris Conrad in his book, ‘Hemp: Lifeline To The Future’ the CO2 emissions from burning hemp as fuel matches the CO2 the plant has taken from the environment while growing, creating what’s known as a ‘closed carbon cycle’.
There are even reports of North Korean government officials instructing farmers to grow hemp in order to make biodiesel to be used as drone fuel.
5. Hemp clothing
Hemp cloth is probably one of the plant’s most well known uses, although maybe like me, you just associate it with au-naturelle, hippy attire. But right now it’s the hot eco-fabric of the moment due to its cleaner production process compared to cotton. Hemp needs hardly any pesticides, comparatively little water, and is more cost effective as it only takes 1 acre of hemp to produce as much as 2-3 acres of cotton.
The material made from hemp is not only stronger than cotton, but also lightweight, absorbent, UV resistant, and even flame retardant. Little surprise then that it is becoming popular for outdoor adventure gear, as well as fashion brands such as Armani, Polo Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta.
6. Hemp nutrition
You may or may not have noticed, but hemp has finally come out of the nutritional shadows and is being pronounced as a superfood. That’s because hemp seeds contain the perfect balance between the essential fatty acids (EFAs) Omega 6 and Omega 3. Our bodies don’t produce sufficient EFAs, so it’s vital that we source them from our food. Studies show that including good sources of Omega 3 and 6 in our diet such as hemp seed oil can strengthen our immune system, improve heart health, promote hormone balance, reduce inflammation, allow for better concentration, protect our brains from degenerative diseases, and also our minds from depression.
Hemp is as an excellent complete source of protein, packed with all 20 amino acids used in the body. It’s also an excellent source of fibre, as well as being rich in vitamin E, one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants.
7. Hemp as a soil decontaminant
This is my personal favourite environmentally friendly use of hemp. Modern industry pollutes. That’s just how it is. BUT the hemp plant cleans up pollution. How? Colorado State University has found what farmers have known for decades: that hemp can remove heavy metals and radioactive toxins from polluted soil. It’s through a process called phytoremediation, whereby contaminants are absorbed through the fast-growing roots of the hemp plant which stores or even transforms toxins into other harmless substances.
After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, industrial hemp was sown in order to clear the contaminants from the soil. Hemp has also been found to absorb the toxic, heavy metal cadmium, which is a common cause of industrial pollution.
It’s time then that hemp regained its place as one of the most versatile, sustainable crops on the planet. So, let’s join together and start a hemp revolution. We can all do this by seeking out brands that offer products made from hemp, and by consuming less plastic in general. As consumers, we are in a powerful position to make hemp popular again. Vive la Hemp Revolution!