The Earth Day Network estimates that more than eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year. Most of it sinks to the bottom and disrupts oceanic wildlife, while the rest floats around causing a myriad of other problems. There is a literal island of plastic the size of Texas which is always floating somewhere between California and Hawaii, and this represents only a fraction of the global problem.
The reduce, reuse, and recycle campaign has made some headway; increasing awareness of the dangers of pollution and the long-term impact plastic waste can have on the planet. However, this hasn’t been enough to stop, or even slow, the buildup of non-biodegradable plastics all over the world. New technology is making headway, and scientists are trying to find environmentally friendly alternatives.
Fortunately, we already have a way to get a head start on this process: it’s called hemp plastic. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Neither have many other people in areas where hemp is still stigmatized.
Going green, literally
A few decades ago, people were inundated with hyper-conservative messaging regarding anything associated with marijuana. Now, new medical breakthroughs, coupled with research into more uses for hemp as a commercially viable standalone product, have created a more welcoming climate for the plant-based problem solver.
Hemp is made from the fibers of the cannabis sativa plant. Industrial-grade hemp is harvested from a particularly sturdy breed of the plant, and is used for rope, paper, cloth, and a huge range of other durable products. In fact, a Forbes article claims that over 25,000 different things can be made from hemp. If even a fraction of that number is possible, then it makes sense to begin taking advantage of those capabilities.
Unfortunately, hemp-based products are still widely relegated to a niche market and a legal gray area. Taxation and legal issues have created a maze of red tape, slowing the process of legalization and making the production of beneficial products expensive. This includes a partially-biodegradable plastic that could slow down some of the damage that standard plastics do to the environment on a daily basis. But to really understand the potential in hemp plastic, we have to go into how it’s made.
How hemp goes from plant to plastic
Man-made (also synthetic or conventional) plastics are created using polymer chains made up of petroleum products. These polymer chains allow plastic to do all the awesome things that we need it for. They keep the product both pliable and durable—actually, as it happens, a little too durable: synthetic plastics can take over a thousand years to biodegrade, releasing small amounts of carbon the entire time.
Hemp contains about 70 percent cellulose, the natural material which separates and defines the cell walls of plants. Compared to other biological additives, this is an impressively high number. Cellulose is handy. It can replace the synthetic materials that are needed for plastic polymer chains. It’s also biodegradable, under the right circumstances (we’ll talk more about that later).
To make hemp plastic, cellulose is extracted from the stalks of industrial-grade hemp plants, used to finish the polymer chain and combined with a catalyst to speed up the polymer replication. Next, it’s mixed with additives and heated to make it more pliable. As it cools, the resulting hemp plastic material is usually cut into pellets and shipped off to manufacturing plants. Hemp is used to make everything from cellophane to rayon and it stands up to the same abuse as traditional plastics.
Plastics made with naturally occurring additives instead of synthesized petroleum are called bioplastics. Unfortunately, most “biodegradable” plastic products aren’t made with 100 percent hemp or even all-natural materials. And, because of the cost to manufacture, hemp plastic is often combined with petroleum-based plastic to create a product that is less harmful than traditional fully synthetic plastic and is still largely affordable. It’s not an ideal solution, but is it a better one than we had before hemp and other biodegradable plastics became popular.
The biodegradable debate
In optimal conditions, petroleum-based plastic products can take anywhere from 450 to more than 1,000 years to finally biodegrade. This doesn’t mean that they’ve gently returned to the land, either. These plastic bottles and others can leave behind a sludge or residue composed of toxic chemicals that can end up being ingested by sea creatures.
Biodegradable plastics that are made with a mixture of petroleum and plant-based cellulose usually break down in three to six months, under the right conditions. At first glance and compared to 1,000 years, that seems like a bargain! Unfortunately, that time frame requires that they be disposed of properly and that requires constant UV exposure and temperatures of around 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Hemp plastics are a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go before finding a more permanent solution.
The oceans aren’t safe from “environmentally friendly” plastics either. Biodegradable plastics don’t float, which means that they contribute to the destruction of the ocean’s environment. Coral reefs are already disappearing under the strain, and the pollution continues to threaten a very delicate ecosystem. Plastic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon: unfortunately, every bit of synthetic plastic ever made still exists somewhere on Earth.
Small changes could make a big difference
The solution is a careful mix of socially responsible choices and making the switch to products made from 100 percent bioplastic. But, as that result is still largely wishful thinking, right now, the best course of action seems to be to revamp our recycling efforts in order to reuse as much existing plastic as possible.
As long as the cost of fossil fuels remains relatively low and the cost of natural alternatives stays high, it will be difficult to make the switch to less destructive products. The challenge will be in pushing for more legal leniency with hemp plants and encouraging the production of hemp plastics on a wider scale. In reality, legalizing industrial hemp farming could likely boost the agricultural market and create an entirely new economic vein for farmers across the country as well as offering scope for more fully biodegradable plastic products.
An industrial hemp crop matures in 3-4 months. Ending the laws that ban its growth would allow enough production for the products to give fossil fuels a run for their money. The stigma surrounding hemp remains an obstacle, though. So take action: check out the Vote Hemp website and support the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2018 today!