Could hemp plastic save our planet?

Culture

We need to embrace Hemp or suffer the consequences.

Michelle Janikian
Mar 26, 2018
Rubbish at garbage dump and icebergs at Ilulissat
Rubbish at garbage dump and icebergs at Ilulissat / Jakobshavn, Disko-Bay, Greenland. (Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)

Hemp plastic is a biodegradable, sustainable, and non-toxic alternative to petroleum-based plastics that are littering our environment. So why aren’t more people talking about it?

Hemp is one of the most versatile plants on the planet. Not only can it be used to make medicine, like CBD oil, but it can be turned into fiber for things like clothes and paper, its seeds are incredibly nutritious and it can be used as a fuel source. But did you know that its stalks can be used to make hemp plastic? As plastic continues to pollute our environment, many are looking to hemp plastic as an alternative.

Plastic and the Environment

Plastic production began less than 80 years ago, but we’ve already produced more than 8 billion tons of it since the 1950’s. Sadly, only 9 percent of that plastic has been recycled. About 12 percent has been incinerated, but the remaining 79 percent just sits on our planet, either in landfills or as litter, like in our oceans. Yet, more than 300 million tons of plastic are still manufactured every year.

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Plastic Water Bottle Floating in Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica, California, USA (Photo by Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year and it’s ruining our environment. In fact, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.  What’s more, a 2006 study found there might not be any saltwater fish at all by time. Due to a combination of pollution, climate change, and other factors, all ocean fish could be extinct by 2048. We’ve already seen a 90 percent decrease in 29 percent of edible fish and sea species.

But plastic in the ocean is more than just running out of seafood. These species filter toxins from the seas, protect the shorelines and reduce the risk of dangerous algae blooms. So when they go, the sea, the coasts, and the entire planet will suffer immensely.

According to the UN Environmental Program, more than 600 species of animals, including fish, turtles, marine mammals, and birds, have consumed plastic debris. There’s also the famous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” that floats between the West Coast of the U.S. and Japan. It’s an enormous mass of non-biodegradable plastic bigger than some islands.

These plastics don’t break down, they’re just broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. Fish confuse microplastics for algae and plankton and eat them. Since humans consume fish, we are also eating these microplastics. Current plastics are commonly made from petroleum and contain toxins and chemicals like BPA. According to the CDC, 93 percent of people have BPA in their urine, and it can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

How Can Hemp Plastic Help?

There are a few ways hemp plastic can help, the most critical being that hemp plastic is non-toxic and biodegradable. Therefore, hemp plastic wouldn’t pollute our oceans, groundwater, and landfills as much because it would eventually disintegrate.

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West End Colorado Economy
NUCLA, CO – OCTOBER 18: Hemp farmer Buck Chavez, left, and master gardener Cory Columbo working for Paradox Ventures, process new crop of Hemp in the gymnasium of the old Nucla Colorado schoolhouse October 18, 2017. This crop produced in upwards of 450 pounds. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

However, it’s not that easy. Biodegradable plastics, like hemp plastic, still need to be sent to special commercial composting facilities to be recycled, which are expensive. Plus, nothing biodegrades very well in landfills. Not to mention, hemp plastic could still harm the oceans because it biodegrades at high temperatures. However, it’s still more sustainable than the petroleum-based plastics we use today.

The hemp plant itself has a relatively small carbon footprint. Studies have shown hemp plastic can reduce CO2 emissions by 30 to 80 percent when compared to oil-based plastics. That’s partly because hemp requires a lot of CO2 to grow, which can help remove the greenhouse gas from our planet’s atmosphere permanently, known as a “carbon-negative” resource.

Hemp can be considered more sustainable because it requires less pesticides to grow than many other crops. However, it does need a significant amount of water and labor to thrive. And even though hemp plants can require a lot of fertilizer, they can actually leave the soil cleaner than how they found it.

That’s because the hemp plant has the power of “phytoremediation,” which is the ability to decontaminate soil. Hemp is being used to clean the soil near Chernobyl and neighboring Belarus. Not only does it decontaminate soil, it’s an exceptional phytoremediation tool because once hemp has absorbed toxins, about 75 percent of the harvested plant can still be utilized.

Is Hemp Plastic Legal?

Hemp is still difficult or outright illegal to grow in much of the world. In the U.S., some farmers can grow hemp through special state-sponsored programs, thanks to the 2014 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill redefined hemp as having less than 0.3% THC or less, differentiating it from the illegal Cannabis Sativa L. plant.

How is Hemp Plastic Made?

Hemp plastic is made using hemp cellulose. Cellulose is the most common organic polymer on the planet and is used to make different plastics, including celluloid, cellophane, and rayon.

Hemp stalks are up to 77 percent cellulose, making them an ideal source. For some perspective, wood contains about 40 percent, flax contains about 70 percent, and cotton has up to 90 percent cellulose But hemp is especially handy because it grows so much faster than most trees and needs less pesticides than flax or cotton.

Plus, hemp is both strong and flexible, so hemp plastic is as well. Hemp cellulose derived from female plants is particularly durable with tons of impact resistance.

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Colorado hemp production
FORT LUPTON, CO – JUNE 10: Lignin made from industrial hemp, which can be used in the production of plastics, fuels and other chemicals, sits on a table in a lab at PureVision Technology on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. PureVision Technology Inc., a Fort Lupton biofuels company that is processing hemp stalks into sugars, lignin, pulp and CBD extracts. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Do Any Products Use Hemp Plastic?

Not really, but it doesn’t mean companies aren’t trying. There are a few Kickstarter campaigns for start-ups using hemp plastic. Plus, there are also companies selling hemp plastic 3-D printing filaments so anyone with a 3-D printer could make their own hemp plastic items.

One of the most famous brands considering hemp plastic is LEGO. In 2015, LEGO announced it was investing about $150 million into the research and development of sustainable materials to make LEGOs. The plan is to fully implement sustainable “bio-based” LEGOS by 2030. Like other plastics, LEGOs are currently petroleum-based and therefore can release toxins into the environment.

Could hemp plastic be the future? We sure hope so! But hemp plastic will not solve all the world’s plastic pollution problems. In fact, saving the environment starts with you and your plastic consumption. The real answer is for individuals to dramatically decrease their use of everyday, convenient plastic items, like bags, bottles, and straws.

Michelle Janikian
Mar 26, 2018