Since nations like the U.S. and Australia have lifted their bans on growing hemp, a revolution is brewing.
Innovators are taking up the gauntlet to cultivate this versatile plant for a medley of biodegradable materials including plastic polymers, building products, fabrics, wood, biofuel, paper and even car components.
It’s not new. The fiber from industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa) – from the same species as its cousin marijuana but without the mind-altering THC – has been used for thousands of years to make paper, rope, cloth and fuel.
Although still used in China and Europe, hemp went out of fashion, by and large, as it was outlawed and replaced by plastic, cotton, fossil fuels and other profitable products. But as their damage to the Earth has reached crisis proportions, the race is on to produce sustainable alternatives.
Hemp is a weed, so it grows prolifically with little water and no pesticides. It takes up relatively little space, produces more pulp per acre than trees, and is biodegradable. Hemp crops even give back by returning nutrients to the soil and sequestering carbon dioxide.
Virtually every part of the plant can be used. The stalk’s outer bast fiber can make textiles, canvas and rope while its woody core – hurd – is used for paper, construction and animal bedding. Not to be overlooked, the seeds are high in protein, fiber, omega-3 fats and other nutrients. Their oil can be used for paints, adhesives, cooking and plastics. Even the leaves can be eaten and used to make juice.
Morris Beegle, co-founder and president of WAFBA (We Are For Better Alternatives) is a staunch advocate of industrial hemp.
He is passionate about replacing unsustainable agricultural practices. “Industrial agriculture is one of the greatest drivers, maybe even the biggest driver, of climate change,” he says.
“Hemp is a more sustainable, organic and regenerative agricultural crop, and most everything that you can make with cotton or soy or corn can be made with hemp – with way less impact on the Earth.”
Beegle set up his hemp company in 2012 and then launched the NoCo Hemp Expo, which has grown to be the largest in the world.
With a merchandising company called TreeFreeHemp, Beegle produces a vast array of custom products including paper, business cards, flyers, posters, CD and DVD sleeves and more. Drawing from his background in the music industry, he even produces boutique, custom-made guitars, using hemp for the body, straps, picks and volume knobs.
“It’s kind of a novelty thing,” he says, “but at the same time it’s an educational piece using the whole array of tools to show that, hey, hemp can do all these things.”
Another leader in the hemp industry is Paul Benhaim. He has made inroads with the plant’s rich nutritional qualities through Hemp Foods Australia and Elixinol – which also sells cosmetic products.
Benhaim has branched out into hemp plastic, with the lofty goal to “continue to grow as the largest Hemp Plastic manufacturer in the world,” delivering plastic polymers at competitive prices to replace petroleum-based materials.
According to Beegle, Benhaim and his partner, Kevin Tubbs, plan to process 50 million pounds of hemp plastic this year. “It’s a drop in the bucket to the world consumption of plastics,” he says, “but it’s a big thing for the hemp industry because it’s more than anyone has ever been able to do so far, and he’s got some pretty exciting technology that’s going to be released unto the world in the coming years.”
Currently, there are less than a million acres of hemp growing across the planet. Beegle sees this starting to grow exponentially over the next five to 20 years. “I don’t think there’s any way to stop it now.”
Last year, the global industrial hemp market was forecast to reach US$10.6 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research. Its compound annual growth rate is expected to expand by 14% during that time, largely driven by hemp’s nutritional and cosmetic qualities.
“But we don’t need hemp turning into another monoculture crop that’s GMO, going to be sprayed and farmed conventionally all over the planet and do the same shit that every other crop does,” says Beegle.
“We want hemp to be the steward of agriculture.”