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Plastic that's good for the planet, courtesy hemp

Plastic is usually made from dead dinosaurs (read fossils). They turn into crude oil, the oil turns into petrol, and we turn the petroleum into plastic.

However, what if I told you that we can make plastic that is biodegradable, from plants? Sounds far-fetched, but I promise you that it is true.

You’ve heard about the benefits that hemp textiles will bring to the fashion industry. This article is about the benefits that hemp brings to another  industry — plastics.

Plastic accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon and 65% of it ends up in the ocean. And the production is only going up.

Here’s how hemp bioplastics can solve (some) of our plastic problems.

Table of contents:

Through the course of this article, you will learn the following things.

  • What are the problems with regular plastic?

  • What are bioplastics?

  • How are hemp bioplastics made?

  • The pros and cons of hemp bioplastics

  • The future of hemp as a bioplastic

And without any further ado, let us get right into it.

What are the problems with regular plastic?

I know you've heard about the problems with regular plastic many times. It's bad for the environment, takes forever to break down, and causes pollution. But let me explain it clearly so we're on the same page.

The biggest issue is that regular plastic does not biodegrade.

It will just sit there for hundreds of years before it finally starts to break down. During that time, it can release toxic chemicals into the soil and water.

All the plastic we've produced and thrown away over the decades has really piled up. Some estimates say there is now over 8 billion tons of plastic waste on the planet. A lot of it ends up in the oceans, polluting the water and harming marine life.

A shocking 79% of all the plastic waste ever created has ended up in landfills or the environment. (National Geographic).

Marine life suffers with an estimated 8M tons of plastic entering the oceans every year. (National Geographic).

 Many animals mistake plastic for food, which can make them sick or even kill them.

The production of plastic is also a major culprit. It requires about 4% of the world's annual oil production (Plastic Oceans).

Making regular plastic also requires using fuel sources like oil and natural gas. This leads to more greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The production process itself generates additional pollution.

Using and disposing of so much plastic just isn't sustainable in the long run.

We're using up limited natural resources to make a use-and-throw material. And that material sticks around forever and damages the environment.

Plastic manufacturing released over 850M tons of greenhouse gases in 2019 alone. That is equal to the emissions from 189 coal-fired power plants. (Center for International Environmental Law).

Perhaps most frustratingly, only about 9% of plastic is actually recycled globally. (UN Environment).

The vast majority ends up as waste in landfills and oceans.

But there is hope, in the form of compounds called bioplastics. And the great part is that the production capacity is only set to increase.

What are bioplastics?

Bioplastics are plastics made from plants instead of fossil fuels. That's the simplest way to define them.

More specifically, bioplastics come from renewable sources. Examples include vegetables, corn, grains, and even food waste. The materials get transformed into plastic polymers using biological or synthetic processes.

There are different types of bioplastics.

Some are made entirely from plant-based sources. Others combine plant materials with a small portion of conventional plastic. But they all have less reliance on fossil fuels compared to regular plastic.

What's the advantage?

Unlike regular plastic, bioplastics are biodegradable and compostable. This means they can break down naturally by bacteria and fungi within a few months to years. Regular plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Bioplastics also have a lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics.

Their production results in much less greenhouse gas emissions. [66% lower according to European Bioplastics].

Does this make bioplastics sound too good to be true? Well, they have some downsides too.

More on that later. But first, let's look at where these plant-based plastics come from.

The most common bioplastic is made from polylactic acid or PLA. PLA comes from fermenting plant starches like corn, sugarcane or sugar beet pulp.

Another popular one is polyhydroxyalkanoate or PHA. This is made via bacterial fermentation of plant oils and fats.

Now you may be thinking - if we switch to bioplastics, won't that increase demand for crops like corn? It's a valid concern. This is where hemp comes in as a promising and sustainable source for bioplastics.

How are hemp bioplastics made?

Now that we've covered what bioplastics are, let's talk about how hemp bioplastics are made.

Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant species. But unlike marijuana, it contains only trace amounts of THC - the chemical that causes a high.

What makes hemp great for bioplastics is its high cellulose content - between 65-70%. [According to researchers at the University of Connecticut]. Cellulose is the key ingredient that allows Hemp to be used as a plastic alternative.

So how do we turn hemp into plastic? It's a multi-step process.

  • First, the outer bast fibers are removed from the hemp stem or stalk. This is through a process called decortication. This leaves behind the inner woody core known as a hurd.

  • Next, this hurd goes through processing to extract the cellulose from the plant. S3EJHSAHWAYSYYTHEEZHSBthAMNĒṬZ–XKIFIVarious methods like chemical treatment or enzyme treatment can be used.

  • The extracted cellulose is then transformed into plastic polymers. This step is called biosynthesis or synthetic conversion. Biosynthesis uses bacteria or other microbes, while synthetic routes rely on chemicals.

  • The result? You get a bioplastic polymer resin that can be molded, extruded or processed. And it is just like conventional plastics, and can be turned into a huge variety of products.

Now you may be wondering - why is hemp better than other plant sources like corn for making bioplastics?

Well, hemp requires much less water to grow compared to crops like corn. In fact, it would require only about 50% of the water. It's also naturally resistant to pests, eliminating the need for pesticides.

Plus, hemp is incredibly renewable.

It can be harvested and replanted in the same soil every 4 months without depleting the land. Contrast that to annual crops that need rotation.

And it gets better - hemp actively captures carbon from the air as it grows. Some studies show hemp can absorb over 15 tons of CO2 per acre crop. [According to the Hemp Industries Association].

As for bioplastics, high cellulose content and quick regeneration make hemp ideal.

So in summary, turning hemp into bioplastic is a sustainable, environmentally-friendly process. It avoids many of the drawbacks of other plant sources.

As for bioplastics, high cellulose content and quick regeneration make hemp ideal.

The pros and cons of hemp bioplastics

Here are 5 key benefits of hemp bioplastics.

  1. High Strength and Durability

Hemp bioplastics are stronger than normal plastics. Studies show some grades are 5 times stiffer and 2.5 times stronger. [According to research from UConnecticut].

This means we can make hemp plastics for demanding use cases. For example, in construction or automotive parts .

  1. Lower Environmental Impact

Making hemp bioplastics produces less gas emissions. Compared to normal plastics, the emissions impact is negligible.

Estimates suggest the carbon footprint is up to 75% lower. [As per Total Corbion PLA's life cycle assessment].

Additionally, hemp cultivation itself is highly sustainable. It requires little water and no pesticides. That is in addition to the carbon that hemp plants remove from the air.

A single hectare of hemp plants can absorb 22 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

  1. Fully Biodegradable

This is a big one. We know that normal plastics made from petrol last for centuries.  Hemp-based bioplastics however, are 100% biodegradable.

Hemp bioplastics will fully break down in six months or less. Not only do they leave behind no pollutants, they actually help the soil.

This gets rid of the waste that comes with normal plastic

  1. Affordable and Scalable

For the past seventy years or so, hemp was illegal to grow. Now, a few countries are allowing farmers to grow hemp. Only a variety called "industrial hemp" is allowed.

Now that growing hemp is legal, it means more people will grow it. And eventually, we can scale up production to factory levels.

Some experts recently also looked at the cost of hemp plastics. They compared hemp plastics to sugar bioplastics.

Currently, sugar plastic is the most common non-petrol bioplastic out there. What they found was that hemp plastics are 23% cheaper than sugar plastics.

It may not sound like much, but it is. For every 100 lbs of sugar plastic that we make, we can make 123 lbs. of hemp plastic.

This makes hemp plastic not only scalable, but affordable.

  1. Versatile Applications

Chemically, hemp plastic is almost the same as regular plastic. This means that hemp bioplastic can be used to create a huge variety of products. Examples include packaging, consumer goods, automotive parts, construction materials and more.

Despite these considerable benefits, there are also some key challenges with hemp bioplastics.

Despite these considerable benefits, there are also some key challenges with hemp bioplastics.

  1. Limited Supply Chain

The main problem is with the production capabilities of hemp plastics. Though we have the potential, the actual infrastructure is still quite lackluster.

This supply chain bottleneck limits availability and raises costs for hemp-based plastics currently. [As reported by the US National Hemp Association].

  1. Technical Limitations

Hemp bioplastics may not be ideally suited for all applications.

They have shown vulnerability to moisture. Thus, they could be impractical for situations where they are constantly wet.

And some formulations lack the flexibility/ bendability of conventional plastics. [Per a study from Pennsylvania State University].

  1. Unclear Regulations

There are no clear laws (yet) for allowable cultivation levels and commercial uses of hemp. This is also true for hemp-derived products like bioplastics.

These regulatory hurdles persist as barriers to market growth. [Based on analysis by Market Study Report LLC].

And those were the pros and cons of hemp bioplastics. As you can see, the pros far outweigh the minute cons.

So, are hemp bioplastics the future? Can they actually replace plastic?

The future of hemp as a bioplastic

The global bioplastics market is projected to grow from $10.7 billion in 2021 to $29.7 billion by 2028. [according to Grand View Research].

That's an impressive annual growth rate of 15.8%.

Currently, bioplastics currently make up only about 1% of total plastic production. However, experts and consumers alike expect that share to increase dramatically. Estimates suggest bioplastics could account for 40% of the plastics market by 2030. [As per European Bioplastics].

Driving this growth is consumer demand as well as new laws and regulations.

The EU aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable or compostable by 2030.

As the overall bioplastics industry expands, hemp will become a major feedstock.

The market for hemp bioplastics is forecast to reach $290.7 million by 2031, up from just $83.5 million in 2021. [According to a Fact.MR study].

Why is hemp so well-positioned?

For one, it requires far less water than traditional bioplastic crops like corn. One estimate finds hemp needs only 1/20th the water versus cotton [from the North American Industrial Hemp Council].

Hemp is also remarkably fast-growing. It can be harvested and replanted on the same land in just 4 months, allowing multiple crops per year. Contrast that to annually replanted crops like corn.

Perhaps most importantly, hemp cultivation has a strongly negative carbon footprint.

Hemp bioplastics are the ideal solution for meeting emission and pollution reduction targets. Given that hemp grows so quickly, and can be planted multiple times a year, it is a great feedstock for bio plastics.

The biggest hurdle right now is establishing efficient supply chains. When that is taken care of, the only happy problem we will have is keeping up with demand.

But as I've shown, the future certainly looks bright for hemp-derived bioplastics to make a major impact.




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