The first thing that comes to mind when most people think of hemp is the plant… and not plastics. Yet amongst hemp’s numerous uses and applications, it can be used to create a bioplastic with its cellulose. Hemp contains 65-70% cellulose compared to the likes of wood which is around the 40% mark, so is considered a great source from which to make plastics. However, 100% hemp plastic is still quite uncommon, despite its fantastic properties. Why? We investigate.
Composite plastics, that is, those that are part-hemp and part other substances, are already in use in a variety of household products including cars, boats and musical instruments. Yet plant-based hemp plastics and other similar substances seem rare. There is undoubtedly an environmental need for more sustainable plastic production than the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) that is mainstream today, yet for a few reasons, it seems not to have taken off.
Back in 1941, Henry Ford produced the ‘Hemp Automobile’, which was made entirely of hemp and other organic substances, but seemed at the time just a novelty. It was 1000x times lighter than other Ford models and could withstand 10x the impact force of comparable car models, but unfortunately a second prototype was never made.
Hemp cellulose fibres are organic and non-petroleum based, so are considerably more sustainable than other commercially available plastics. The most eco-friendly plastics currently on the market in the likes of single-use plastic bottles and straws are around 30% plant-based, with the rest of the product being made from fossil fuel sources. One of the biggest reasons for this is purely cost. Big corporations usually opt for the lowest price packaging they can in order to maximise their profit margins, and with few hemp plastics available, the more eco-friendly alternative is rarely the most cost-effective option. Most hemp is still imported into the US, so fees and additional costs are rife. Furthermore, the harvesting of hemp plants to extract the cellulose can be labour-intensive without the correct technology in place.
Secondly, despite hemp plastics being biodegradable, there’s a lack of understanding around the disposal of them, and so they’re often sent to landfill: where even the greenest of products will struggle to break down naturally!
Of course, the biggest barrier to hemp plastics being produced on a mass commercial level is the legality of growing hemp. It remains illegal in several states and territories and the societal impact on opinions and misunderstanding toward hemp as a result often hinders farmers’ attitudes toward growing it and corporates toward utilising it. What remains certain is that hemp plastics are, at the moment, significantly under-utilised despite their great potential. If you have the opportunity to research into plastic options, consider hemp as an alternative to more mainstream substances and learn more on how a bioplastic could work for and benefit you!