Hemp Makes Great Plastic, So Why Isn’t Hemp Plastic Everywhere?

Plastic is an inescapable part of our everyday lives, so why is almost all of it still made from polluting, non-renewable petrochemicals?

You may have heard that agricultural hemp, the non-mind-altering cousin of cannabis (commonly known as marijuana), has dozens of potential uses from clothing to paper.

Since virtually all climate scientists agree that we must replace our dependence on fossil fuels, and given that hemp can even make the soil cleaner, it’s surprising that this miracle crop isn’t in wider use.

When we looked into the topic, we found that hemp is already appearing in some commonplace objects, including cars, and could soon find its way into more. But there are also remaining barriers that keep hemp plastics more expensive and less versatile, for now.

Alternatives Needed As Plastic Pollutes Water & Land

plastic pollution

Researchers found 38 million pieces of plastic waste on one uninhabited island in the South Pacific. That’s just one island.

Not only are the harmful effects of global warming increasingly clear, conventional plastics linger in the environment and can even enter the food chain to detrimental effect on human and animal health.

In one especially shocking recent example, researchers from the University of Tasmania and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found 38 million pieces of plastic waste on Henderson Island, an uninhabited coral island in the South Pacific.

“I’ve travelled to some of the most far-flung islands in the world and regardless of where I’ve gone, in what year, and in what area of the ocean, the story is generally the same: the beaches are littered with evidence of human activity,” Jennifer Lavers, a marine scientist from the University of Tasmania, told The Guardian.

The oceans are in a similar or even worse state, thanks to the risk of microplastics, or tiny fragments of plastic that pollute the waters and are often eaten by marine life. The infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is actually largely composed of millions of these tiny particles — as much as 1.9 million per square mile — according to a 2014 report from National Geographic.

Hemp Cellulose Fibers A Good Source For Many Plastics

Some of the earliest plastics were made from cellulose fibers obtained from organic, non-petroleum-based sources.

“Hemp cellulose can be extracted and used to make cellophane, rayon, celluloid and a range of related plastics,” reported Seshata, a writer at Sensi Seeds in 2014. “Hemp is known to contain around 65-70% cellulose, and is considered a good source (wood contains around 40%, flax 65-75%, and cotton up to 90%) that has particular promise due to its relative sustainability and low environmental impact.”

While 100% hemp-based plastic is still a rarity, some “composite bioplastics” — plastics made from a combination of hemp and other plant sources — are already in use. Thanks to their high strength and rigidity, these plastics are currently used in the construction of cars, boats, and even musical instruments.

could hemp be used for plastic bottles

Bioplastic Is Promising, But Can’t Solve All Our Pollution Problems

Many plastic products are made from polymer resins, including polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, found in everyday products like plastic bottles. While advocates hope to someday see 100% hemp-based plastic bottles on supermarket shelves, the technology just isn’t ready for prime time.

Companies like Coca-Cola have experimented with 100% plant-based bottles, but commercially available products are made from no more than 30% plant-based materials, while the remainder is made from traditional fossil fuel sources.

The good news is that many corporations are investing heavily in researching replacements to traditional PET. It’s likely the first company to produce a viable commercial product could stand to earn millions.

Unfortunately, even plastic that’s deliberately designed to be biodegradable can still be a source of pollution. Almost nothing biodegrades in a landfill, and hemp microplastics could still cause problems when introduced to the oceans. Biodegradable plastics need to be sent to commercial composting facilities for efficient disposal, and these facilities aren’t available to everyone. In addition to creating better alternatives to plastic, we’ll still to create more responsible attitudes toward disposable products.

Cost And The War On Drugs Are Biggest Barrier To Hemp Plastic

While fossil fuel costs are kept low with subsidies, hemp products for the most part remain costly luxury items. While some hemp is grown in the United States under pilot programs legalized by the 2014 Farm Bill, most is still imported from other countries.

Though hemp requires fewer pesticides and has a smaller environmental footprint than many other crops, growing and harvesting it remains labor intensive. Another drawback is that hemp requires “significant fertiliser in some soils, and also has relatively high water requirements,” as noted by Seshata.

However, hemp prices would almost undoubtedly come down, and technology improve, if we ended the war on drugs — particularly the many restrictions on legally growing hemp and cannabis.

could hemp plastic be used for legos

One of the most provocative examples of hemp’s potential plastic future could come from LEGOs, the ubiquitous building block toy. which is promising to phase out fossil-fuel based resin by 2030.

“Hemp might just be the cost effective, environmentally sustainable alternative material that LEGO is looking for,” speculated Emily Gray Brosious in a February 2016 investigation from the Sun Times.

Whether or not we’re ever able to build a spaceship from hemp bricks, the full promise of hemp plastic remains tantalizingly close, but just out of reach.

Kit O'Connell

Kit O'Connell is the Editor in Chief of Ministry of Hemp. His writing has also appeared at The Establishment, Firedoglake, YES! Magazine, the Texas Observer and Truthout.

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Latest Comments

  • Avatar Bill Burnes says:

    Hi I live in n c l my Great Grand father farm i wont to grow Hemp l want to jont venture with please call me they are Building a plant to process Hemp 11 mile from my house if you want to help me please call me at+12124913403 thanks Bill Burnes

  • Avatar Zed Kay says:

    Yes, hemp grows without the need for pesticides and in many areas 3 to 4 crops a year.
    In reply to Allen, the Hemp plastic that was used to wrap soaps I used to sell (also made with hemp) would break down very quickly when exposed to the sunlight. On hot days, we had to shade it on our stall to prevent that from happening. So, it is most definitely compostable and biodegradable. The laws that prevent farming hemp are in place to protect the massive profits of the petrol companies & the greedy corporations that control so much of this world. Hemp is a “gift” to this planet that we have been denied the use of since it was demonised alongside cannabis. It is a wonderful plant that could have continued as it was when farmers in the US were subsidised to grow it. They had to set aside a percentage of their land to grow it. It was used to make uniforms, ships sails and rigging, paper etc and cannabis was used as a medicine. If we had continued with its many possible uses, this world might not have got to the shocking state it is in now.

  • Avatar Mark Karlon says:

    Hemp grows like a weed. Not labor intensive at all!

  • Avatar John Jude says:

    If we combine hemp with cannibus in legislation you will be extending the time it can get approved by our legislators. It was outlawed in the first place because of the fact there was no distinction between hemp and cannibus! We need to promote hemp and the many beneficial benefits it has to get the laws changed to be able to produce it. Right now if you grow hemp and are caught transporting it by Federal Authorities you will go to jail. Cannablis and hemp look the same and cannot be distinguished from each other except by testing in the lab. We can now grow hemp in Tennessee but have to be approved by the state and only grow a variety that can not be used for its mind alternating effect. Still if caught transporting by Feds you will be in trouble.

  • Avatar Christian Caron says:

    I have questions? Would it be possible to use hemp as substitute to press records there called Vinyls after all and as far as I know it use a fossil fuel plastic component could we replace it with a hemp plastics components?

  • Avatar Fern Patterson says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  • Avatar Randy W. says:

    So I’ve been telling a lot of people about the advantages of Hemp and it’s replacement value in the world of petro plastics. The first thing that needs to happen is to get it of the controlled substances list. And your article mentions a problem that I actually see as a benefit; the fact that it’s labor intensive. It seems to me this would be a great way to put more people to work!
    Next, the subsidies for petro products needs to be transferred to the Hemp industry. Farmers are going broke and this would be an excellent way to turn that situation around.
    Following this vein, stop importing the product and grow it here. Let China go broke importing petro chemicals and at the same time begin making all these stupid plastic toys, etc. here and put them totally out of business!
    As for the recycling issue, so little of what should be recyclable isn’t because of the inks and other coatings that are added to packaging. Sure your cereal box is made from recycled paper, but it can’t be recycled again because of the inks and plastic coatings on the box. A great deal of what goes into your recycle bin is rejected for just this reason.
    Surely our scientists can solve the problem of fertilizer needs and a massive push to start using Hemp, along with educating producers on how they can make their products from Hemp, plus some clever marketing will be more than enough to bring the costs down.
    But you’re correct that companies like Monsanto are the real reason none of this is happening. The same process from the newspaper industry was what led Hemp and Cannibus to be listed as Schedule 1 drugs in the first place.
    Lobby your Congress folks. Dick Schumer is a great one to start with; he’s pro-cannibus. And all the anti-drug folks can feel good about Hemp because their kids won’t get high. (Though they might become addicted because Hemp products are just so cool!)

  • Avatar Michael says:

    I have always thought that the worlds governments are run by a conspiracy of greedy,selfish @ mostly stupid individuals. By not taking advantage of hemp& bamboo products confirms my opinion.Is there anybody there who remedy this situation? Do not tell me GOD as I am an evolutionist. I am willing to assist.

  • Avatar daniel says:

    Do you have any hemp plastic supplier / manufacturer resources you can share with us?

    Thank you.

  • Avatar ... says:

    I hope that one day Hemp plastic will be just as normal as our plastics today.

  • Avatar Issac Basonkavich says:

    As with most things, the main obstacle to developing hemp as a viable replacement for fossil fuel sourced plastic, is the status quo. The oligarchs that fund the candidates for election and therefore control them when they are elected, wish to maintain their sources of wealth. When one considers the advances made in the armaments industry, it is not inconceivable that hemp could easily replace fossil fuels for most products. It’s not whether we can or cannot but whether a very few wish to or not.

  • Avatar Hippie Butter says:

    Great article, hope you don’t mind me sharing it with all my friends and family.

  • Avatar Sarita Beach says:

    This is exciting to me! Have absolutely no first hand knowledge about the hemp industry. I recently viewed articles concerning plastic in an ocean and in the Ghanges River in India. Since then I have needed ecotherapy. And am considering Skyping an online therapist. No kidding I am disabled and spend to much time recycling every day. Now I’m realizing how much small plastic pieces I have not recycled over the years. Depressing????. I’m googling Trump on this issue to see where he stands. ” And they shall beat their weapons into plow shares. And there shall be war no more”. The Bible.

  • Avatar Peter Zielenski says:

    What are we waiting for? There’s the fire! You are holding the blinking hose! There’s no reason that all of out planes, trains, buses, trucks, boats, cars, home heating devices, and anything with a motor, power plants! should not be running on biodiesel from hemp seed oil, but we are still waging war in other countries to protect pipelines that ultimately fail and contaminate soil, sea life, and fresh water sources. How many more plants, animals, and humans have to die before the people rise up and demand that we stop killing the planet?

  • Avatar Allen says:

    I’m all for hemp but two questions/concerns:
    1. I don’t follow how a plastic made from hemp would be more environmentally friendly on the disposal side.

    2.
    “However, hemp prices would almost undoubtedly come down, and technology improve, if we ended the war on drugs — particularly the many restrictions on legally growing hemp and cannabis.”

    There are over 30 countries where hemp is legal to grow and is currently a crop. There are real cost/benefit problems to turning hemp into products otherwise, these countries, such as Romania, need income sources desperately, would be grabbing that gold. And countries with the science and means (such as China) who imports most of their petroleum would be all over this for both plastics and fuel.

    Of course, it is just stupid for the U.S. to not allow this crop. I’m just saying that there is no real magic here otherwise someone would be out there picking up easy money where it is legal to grow.

    • Avatar Rene Reeves says:

      But what do we really know about how much secrecy is going on? What are the real development s? You mean to tell me that you really think we know anything of what another country has when our government does all it can to keep us in the dark about its own innovations. Hemp has a higher biodegradable faster than all Petri products and the extraction is eazy. It grows, now we can talk about ozone layers in the atmosphere,… It go s on and on. If hemp was good then governments(us) is evil. Evil should be kept to the minimum.

  • Avatar Daymon says:

    The water, soil, and cost could be brought down by indoor growing and or recycled water as they do in Holland. there are ways to make this very cost effective.
    The greed factor could play the biggest role despite what we are being told. No doubt there will be problems to over come. but I for one think we are close
    than we really think we are.