A Run-Down on Hemp Bioplastics
So, we love hemp.
We love it a lot.
In fact, if we had our way we would clothe the entire world in the goodness of one of the planet’s oldest and most sustainable textiles.
Look at it over there.. All comfy and strong and durable and eco-friendly. We love it so much.
But some say that love is blind.. If we were to tell you that hemp could also become a major source of the world’s plastic would you think that maybe we need to have a cold shower? To calm down a touch? Fair enough, but stick with us for a few minutes.
We’ll put our throbbing hempy desires aside for a little bit while we look at the facts.
Why Hemp Plastic?
You don’t need us to tell you that traditional plastic is not very good for our planet. But we will anyway.
It’s nasty. Just ask the dolphin that is at this very minute getting her snout tangled in a woolies bag that my great grandmother used in 1939. Or the person being diagnosed with cancer or type 2 diabetes because the water they’ve been drinking out of disposable plastic bottles has been contaminated with BPA.
Traditional plastic takes 500-1000 years to break down. It relies on the earth’s fossilised resources which are now running low. The process of making the stuff pollutes the earth badly. It takes a stack of energy and water to produce.. the list goes on and on and on and we all know that it sucks.
Hemp on the other hand can be used to create what is called a “bioplastic”. That means that it’s a plastic that is made out of biomass material. That means mashed up plants and trees and stuff.
Plastic made out of hemp is completely non-toxic. Unlike traditional plastic it doesn’t have any nasties that make us sick by messing with our hormonal and endocrine systems. And hemp bioplastic is strong. Real strong. It’s 5 times stiffer and more than twice as strong as traditional plastic. It’s also much more resistant to heat and UV radiation.
Most importantly, hemp is really easy to grow and it grows really quickly. It doesn’t need the harsh chemical fertiliser and pesticide treatment that other bioplastic options need. And guess what, the hemp plant is a gluttonous CO2 pig. One acre of it will devour around 20 tonnes of the stuff in a year. Four times more than any other crop.
Biodegradable Hemp Plastic
You see, to be technically defined as ‘biodegradable’, a plastic only needs to be able to break down ‘naturally’. The problem here is that a plastic that breaks down ‘naturally’ over the course of, say, a millennium or so can still technically call itself ‘biodegradable’.
Because of this there is a perception in the community that supposedly biodegradable plastics aren’t really that biodegradable at all. A perception that turns the concept of biodegradable plastic into a myth.
Hemp bioplastic proves that truly biodegradable plastic is not a myth at all. It’s possible, and it’s here. When produced properly hemp plastic breaks down in just 3 to 4 months (unlike the pieces of my great grandmothers plastic bag which will be terrorising wildlife for another 500 years). It can also be recycled just as easily as traditional plastic, but with less impact on our planet.
How are Hemp Plastics Made?
So the hemp crop is planted. It grows (quickly), does its cute CO2 gluttony pig thing, then is harvested.
It contains around 70-80% cellulose. This is the stuff that plant and vegetable cell walls are made out of, making plants strong and sturdy. Hemp plastic is produced using this cellulose that is extracted from the hemp plant.
Most of the best hemp cellulose goodness is in the stalks of the hemp plant. The stalks are processed to isolate all of their biomass.
Further processing isolates the cellulose and there you have it – hemp bioplastic.
Modern Uses of Hemp Plastic
Hemp plastic use could have been commonplace by now if people like Henry Ford had their way.
He created a new Ford prototype whose panels were made out of a lightweight and strong hemp plastic in 1941. It was 450kg lighter than his current model and 10 times stronger.
Powerful people with a vested interest in the use of steel and petroleum products ensured Ford’s car never left the production line. (Read more about Ford’s Model T, and his ideas for Biofuels here.)
Growing hemp was outlawed completely. That was until recently, when the USA signed into law something called the farm bill; legalising the growing of hemp.
That’s because many more people are starting to realise what we’ve known for a while now – that hemp plastic has a huge future.
Some companies are getting in nice and early..
Companies like Sana Packaging in the USA. Working to a “circular economic model where packaging is designed to help heal the environment”, they are making significant inroads with their range of containers, tubes and packaging options made 100% out of hemp plastic.
The Hemp Plastic Company in Canada are coming at it from a slightly different angle, supplying 100% hemp bioplastic to manufacturers who want to continue to produce the same products but are willing to swap out traditional plastic with the hemp alternative.
And old Henry Ford’s vision is starting to re-materialise. Leading luxury car manufacturers such as Lotus and Porsche are jumping on board.
Porsche’s 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport features doors made mostly of a hemp plastic instead of carbon fibre. The Lotus Eco Elite chassis is comprised largely of hemp plastic, as is a lot of its interior panelling.
Stories of companies waking up to the benefits of hemp plastic are becoming more and more frequent. But the widespread production still faces barriers. Growing hemp has been illegal for a long time in the states, so companies have been restricted in how much research and development they have been able to do on the process of hemp plastic production. As a result, hemp plastic is still a financially expensive undertaking when compared to costs associated with producing traditional plastics.
But that’s changing, and hemp plastic has a massive future.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t face the same powerful obstacles that Henry Ford encountered in 1941.
Look at it over there, all strong and non-toxic and CO2 hungry and biodegradable…