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Hemp plastic is increasingly becoming a viable option as an eco-friendly alternative to carbon-based plastic. Not only is this bioplastic sourced from safe and sustainable hemp plants, but it is also typically both biodegradable and recyclable.
The need to develop biodegradable, compostable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics is pressing. With today’s consumption rates, it’s simply not feasible to keep pumping out conventional plastics, each with a lifespan of 500 years or more.
Although many companies around the world are well into hemp-based plastic production, the United States is only now getting into the game. It was only since the passing of Farm Bill (Section 7606), in 2014, which allowed for real innovative leaps in hemp production in the United States.
Now, companies can legally grow, harvest, and process hemp for research purposes. There are already an estimated 19 states participating in this program, all pursuing new potential applications for hemp. When it comes to plastic specifically, companies like American Hemp, c2renew and others are already striving towards better, more sustainable hemp-based products.
Hemp plastics are a return to the innovations of the old days, after all, hemp has been around for thousands of years as a building material. Even America consumed roughly 3000 tons of hemp a year before the prohibition era, which started in the early 20th century.
Durable rope, cloth, industrial building materials and more were all made from hemp. The word canvas stems from the word cannabis because hemp was the most common material used for canvas sails in the past. Up until the 1930’s, hemp was already in use in products such as a cellophane film, and a sort of compostable styrofoam.
Henry Ford famously designed and built a car almost entirely made out of hemp plastic in the 1940’s. There is even a rumor he wished to fuel it from ethanol eventually. Ford's finished vehicle only relied on metal for the frame. It was therefore over 1,000 pounds lighter than a comparable model and the hemp plastic paneling was far more resistant to damage.
The reason why hemp lends itself so well to plastic production comes down to something called cellulose. All plastics, no matter where it's derived from, require cellulose to structure the uniquely moldable, yet durable, characteristics.
Petroleum has long been the go-to ingredient to source this cellulose, but now companies are branching out in the quest for more sustainable materials. Hemp is a perfect replacement for petroleum, considering hemp hurds are roughly 80 percent cellulose in nature. Unlike petroleum, hemp can be organically grown and is non-toxic.
Although in the past there have been many problems with supposedly biodegradable plastics, the recent innovations are putting these issues to bed. Hemp plastics are quickly proving equally as diverse as regular plastics.
According to Canopy Corporation, the future of hemp plastic is bright. Automotive companies across Europe are moving away from petroleum-based plastics entirely for the dashboards, paneling and other design touches in new models. The sheer number of parts molded from hemp plastics demonstrates its usability as a material.
The benefits of hemp plastics far outweigh their petroleum-based counterparts. For example, its estimated that hemp fiberglass costs only .50 to .70 cents per pound, in comparison to upward of 5 dollars per pound for carbon-based fiberglass. On top of this, hemp products are continually shown to be more durable in accidents and are always much lighter than a metal equivalent.
Hemp plastics, alongside a host of other biodegradable plastic alternatives, are on the rise. It’s entirely feasible that in the very near future, all plastics will come from a sustainable, biodegradable resource. Currently, hemp plastic is used to make speaker systems, guitar picks, 3D printer filaments, and thousands of other items.