Before the 1960s, plastic was virtually unheard of. Fast forward just six decades and plastic pollution has become one of the most critical environmental issues we’ve ever faced. Each year, some 8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean. What does 8 billion tons of plastic look like? Imagine five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of the world’s coastlines. Experts predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
As devoted as you might be to recycling and reducing the plastic you use, we need to do more to make a difference in facing the enormity of the plastic crisis. Plastic alternatives are vital to the future of our planet. Hemp plastic is one alternative that some suggest could be the replacement for petroleum-based plastics we so desperately need.
What Is Hemp Plastic?
Hemp plastic is a type of bioplastic — plastic material made from biomass material. While corn, sugarcane and sugar beet are most commonly used to make bioplastics, plastic made with hemp could well become the plastic of the future.
The basic foundation of the traditional plastic that has flooded the marketplace is essentially a cellulose derived from petroleum. These plastics can also be made from plant cellulose. Hemp hurd, the inner woody part of the hemp stalk, happens to be about 80-85% cellulose.
How Is This Plastic Made?
The cellulose found in hemp is the primary ingredient used to make this type of plastic. Once cellulose is extracted from the hemp plant, it is dissolved in an alkali mixture. It’s then put in a sulphuric acid bath, which creates a cellophane film. To create rayon, another type of plastic, the cellophane film is then put through a spinneret. Celluloid is another type of plastic that can be created with hemp.
Hemp Plastic is Stronger than Other Plastics
Not only is this plastic sustainable, but it’s also much stronger than petroleum-based plastic or other bioplastics. Hemp fiber is one of the strongest that exists and has a long history of use as an industrial product. Traditionally, hemp was used to make ropes and sails for ships.
A 2003 study investigated whether natural fibers could replace glass fiber in reinforced plastics. It found that hemp, sisal and kenaf showed comparable tensile strength (the resistance of a material breaking under tension). Hemp had the strongest impact properties of all natural fibers tested. Researchers of the study concluded that “natural fiber composites were found to compare favorably with those of glass.”
Different Types of Hemp Plastic
There are various types of this plastic that could pave the way for a cleaner environment in the future.
In Australia, Hemp Plastics is a company that works with partners who have created a material that is 100% biodegradable and made from hemp and corn. Using state-of-the-art technology, this completely natural plastic material can be molded or injected into any shape using prevailing plastic molds.
Zeoform, another Australian company, created a resin made from this plastic known as Hempstone, made only with water and natural cellulose fibers like you’d find in hemp. According to Zeoform, the proprietary process they use “converts cellulose fibers into an industrial strength molding material capable of being formed into an unlimited array of products.”
The most common plastics made with hemp, however, are traditional plastics that are infused with hemp fibers. This means that most plastics made from hemp currently available are a mixture of petroleum-based plastic and hemp plastic. What’s the point of mostly petroleum-based plastic infused with hemp fiber?
It’s a small step away from our reliance on fossil fuels. Infusing plastic with hemp fibers cuts down on the amount of petroleum-based plastic used, which equals less dependence on oil and less pollution. As it now stands, roughly 8% of the world’s oil is sourced to produce plastic.
Is Hemp Plastic Better than Other Bioplastics?
Most bioplastic currently available is made from corn. A 2010 study, however, found some concern with growing a food crop like corn to produce bioplastics. One issue was the land that was used for plastic production could instead be used for food. Another was the amount of fertilizer necessary to grow such crops.
Cultivating hemp for plastic could be the solution to such concerns.
Hemp grows virtually everywhere, except in harsh desert areas and high mountain regions. According to the Modern Farmer, hemp also grows more vigorously than corn, but requires less water, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer.
The Past, Present and Future of This Plastic
Hemp plastic isn’t anything new. In fact, Henry Ford built a car in 1941 that was made almost entirely of this plastic. Not only was it lighter than steel but it could also endure ten times the impact without denting.
Currently, several car manufacturers are using hemp to make various automobile parts. BMW, Ford, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Mercedes and Saturn all use hemp to create door panels, dashboards, boot linings, instrument panels and more.
While the hemp plastic industry is still in its humble beginnings, there are companies that exist that offer hemp water bottles, hemp plastic straws, cups and more.
What does the future of plastic made with hemp look like? With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp can now be cultivated on American soil. Could this lead to a revolution of hemp-based plastics that we so desperately need? It might.
There’s no doubt that the creation of plastic made from hemp and other bioplastics is increasing. According to Canopy Corporation, an American company that provides hemp processing services, “the possibilities are endless with hemp plastics.” They suggest that it’s only a matter of time before this plastic will substitute several plastic products including laptops, cell phone chargers, cookware, sockets, toys, construction materials and more.
Can Hemp Plastic Replace Traditional Plastic?
No matter how conscious you might be about the plastic you consume, there’s no getting around the fact that plastic has infiltrated practically every aspect of our lives. What we can do is become more mindful about our plastic consumption.
Imagine a world where this plastic replaced traditional plastic. Anything’s possible. Look at hemp’s recent history. Illegal for almost a century, today it is poised to become the country’s most coveted crop.
The process to replace traditional plastic with hemp plastic will be long and difficult. The global market for plastic is huge and is growing at about 3% a year. By 2020, the global market for plastics is estimated to be worth $1.2 trillion and there are huge enterprises that plan to continue to capitalize on plastic production.
Change, however, is the only constant. Considering how far we’ve come with hemp in such a short time, hemp plastic could very well become the wave of the plastic future.
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