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Can hemp make bioplastics stronger?

Discover how hemp can enhance the strength of bioplastics, offering a sustainable and durable alternative to traditional plastic materials.


Ever had a coffee in one of the cups you see above?

Well, they are supposedly made of the saviors of the world - bioplastic.


And sure enough. Bioplastics produce 70% less greenhouse gases than traditional plastics. They are good for the environment.


But all is not rosy in the bioplastic camp.

 

Bioplastics have a lower tensile strength than regular fossil fuel-based plastic.

 

This means:

 

  • They are simply not strong enough to have a longer shelf-life.

  • They don’t hold very well in heat or moisture.


Why are bioplastics weaker?

 

There are several reasons why bioplastics are less tensile than conventional plastics.

 

Disclaimer: Most of these reasons are related to the molecular structure and composition. Not interested in the geeky stuff? Skip to the solution that makes bioplastics stronger and better, in more ways than one.


1.   Polymer Chain Length

Popular bioplastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), have shorter polymer chains. (Compared to polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP)).

 

These shorter chains mean less entanglement and weaker intermolecular forces. That’s a key reason behind bioplastics being weak.

 

2.   Crystallinity

 

Crystallinity is how orderly and tightly packed the polymer chains are. It directly affects the material's mechanical strength and stability of a material.

 

Bioplastics have lower crystallinity than traditional plastics, which often makes them weaker.

 

3.   Hydrophilicity

 

Bioplastics often contain functional groups that are more hydrophilic (water-attracting) than those in petrochemical-based plastics. This can lead to weaker interchain forces and increased susceptibility to environmental moisture. This negatively affects degrade mechanical properties such as tensile strength.

 

4.   Biopolymer Sources

Bioplastics are made of natural substances. Like starch, cellulose, or proteins. These have inherently different properties compared to the petrochemicals used for conventional plastics.

 

The natural polymers are not as robust and thus contribute to a lower tensile strength.

 

5.   Molecular Structure

Bioplastics are designed to be biodegradable. Their molecular structure does not offer as much tensile strength as traditional options. This affects durability.

 

The solution? Hemp.

Yes, hemp can make bioplastics stronger.

 

Let’s see how.

How hemp makes bioplastics stronger

 

Wood is strong, right?

 

That’s because it has 40% cellulose content.

 

Cellulose is a natural polymer found in the cell walls of plants. It's crucial for making strong, durable materials.

 

Now, hemp has a significantly higher cellulose content as compared to other plants. Between 65-70%.



This high cellulose content is what makes a huge difference. That’s what makes hemp bioplastics stand out in terms of durability and strength.

 

To give you a clearer picture, let’s talk numbers.

 

Studies have shown that as compared to  polypropylene (the most common plastic) hemp bioplastics:

 

 

Just imagine that—five times stiffer! This level of robustness can truly change how we think about and use plastic materials.


So, when we say hemp makes bioplastics stronger, it is not just a bit stronger. We're talking about a significant leap in performance and durability. All thanks to its high cellulose content.

 

But it is not JUST about strength…

 

Hemp bioplastics are stronger and more durable. But that’s not all that hemp has to offer.

Humble hemp is a marvel of nature.

 

There are many other advantages of hemp bioplastics.

The advantages of hemp bioplastics

 

1.    Safe Composition

 

Traditional plastics are loaded with toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene. Hemp bioplastics are free from those. This makes them safer. Both for human health and the environment.

 

2.    Biodegradability and Compostability

 

Hemp bioplastics can biodegrade within six months to a year. This is a stark contrast to traditional plastics. (They can linger in the environment for centuries!) This is even better than other bioplastics, which aren't always easily biodegradable.

 

3.    Renewability

 

Hemp is a fast-growing crop that can be easily replenished. This makes it a highly sustainable raw material. Its rapid growth cycle ensures a consistent and reliable supply for bioplastic production.

 

4.    Low Carbon Footprint

 

The production of hemp bioplastics is environmentally friendly. It requires less energy. It emits fewer greenhouse gases compared to traditional plastic manufacturing processes. Plus, hemp is better at carbon sequestration than other bioplastic raw materials.

 

5.    Durability and Lightweight

 

Despite being lightweight, hemp bioplastics are exceptionally durable. This combination makes them ideal for use in industries where strength and lightness are both needed. Think automobile or aerospace.

 

6.    Promotes Sustainable Agriculture

Cultivating hemp supports sustainable farming practices and improves soil health. By promoting hemp agriculture, we encourage environmentally friendly farming techniques. This contributes to the overall well-being of the ecosystem.

 

The above advantages show how valuable hemp bioplastics are. We should be replacing all other plastics and bioplastics with hemp bioplastics, right?

 

So why haven’t we done it yet?

Because there are still some roadblocks to the widespread adoption of hemp bioplastics.

 

Roadblocks to the adoption of hemp bioplastics

1.    Cost

 

Hemp bioplastics are currently more expensive to produce than other bioplastics. Why? Due to limited infrastructure and smaller production scales.

 

But imagine this: Authorities start promoting hemp bioplastics with subsidies, grants, and awareness. This will quickly bring down the cost of hemp bioplastic production. With efficient processes and economies of scale, we can further make it economical.

 

2.    Processing Complexity

 

The technology and processes required to convert hemp into bioplastics are more complex. Also, the processes are less developed compared to other bioplastics.

 

All we need is proper investment in R&D to overcome this hurdle though.

 

3.   Competition with Other Bioplastics

 

Hemp bioplastics face stiff competition from more established bioplastics like PLA. The latter also benefit from mature production technologies and lower costs.

 

But if consumers understand the benefits of hemp bioplastics, we can overcome this. Fair market policies and balanced support for all types of bioplastics from the authorities are also important.


Why India Needs Hemp Bioplastics

 

India’s plastic consumption is staggering. In 2021, the per capita plastic consumption in India reached 15 kilograms.

 

Now traditional plastics, made from non-renewable resources like petroleum, are cheap and versatile. But they come with a massive environmental footprint.

 

The need for sustainable alternatives is clear. Also, it is more urgent now than ever before.

 

Hemp bioplastics offer a viable solution.



Now, we are an agricultural-driven economy. Plus, we have diverse climates across the country. This makes India perfectly positioned to become a leader in hemp bioplastic production.

 

Transitioning to hemp bioplastics will reduce our reliance on imported raw materials for traditional plastics. It would boost our economy and create more green jobs.


The Path Forward: Embracing Hemp Bioplastics

 

The production process for hemp bioplastics involves several steps.

 

There is harvesting and extracting cellulose from the plant which happens on fields. Then there's processing and molding it into desired shapes, which happens in industries.

 

Now the second process can be integrated with existing plastic manufacturing equipment. This makes the transition smoother for industries. But still, more support is needed. From everyone.

 

Here's what can you do:

 

1.    Support policies and initiatives

 

Have a say in policy-making? Advocate for policies that promote hemp cultivation and bioplastic production.

 

 

2.    Educate and Raise Awareness

 

Have a mass appeal or can reach a wider audience? Spread the word about the benefits of hemp bioplastics. This will help get customer support for hemp bioplastics.

 

3.    Choose Sustainable Products

 

If you are a general consumer, your shopping preferences can also make a difference. All you have to do is opt for products made from hemp bioplastics whenever possible.

 

It’s time for India to lead the way in sustainable innovation. Hemp is a wonder crop. And it is not a Western idea. It is a part of our rich cultural heritage. And it is time we bring hemp back into mainstream consumption. That’s the only way we can pave the path towards a cleaner, greener future.

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