It is clear that our overuse of plastics in everyday life is having a devastating impact on our planet. Most plastics produced today are made using petroleum-based compounds that release unhealthy gases into the atmosphere. Waste solutions are inefficient, and harmful by-products toxify our land, water and wildlife.
It is estimated between 250 to 300 million tonnes of plastics are manufactured every year. 10% of plastics are recycled; the rest of it goes to landfills or ends up as litter in the environment.
At a time of unprecedented climate change and accelerating extinction risk, we need to establish eco-friendly approaches to plastic to help reduce our negative footprint on this planet. This will be no easy feat.
Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources. Depending on the manufacturing process they can be biodegradable, 100% toxic free, and sustainably produced. The idea for bioplastics is nothing new, but has been largely ignored for its cheaper, petroleum-based alternatives.
Bioplastics can be used for a huge number of disposable items including packaging, bowls, cutlery, straws, bags and bottles. These plastics can also be used for non-disposable items such as mobiles, piping, cars and more.
Resources used in bioplastics have far less impact on the environment, with studies showing they can reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 30-80% compared to traditional plastics. In addition, bioplastics can originate from carbon-negative resources (such as hemp) - giving a permanent removal of the greenhouse gas CO2 from Earth's atmosphere.
Hemp bioplastic is an affordable, natural fibre composite that can be used to replace oil-based materials. Biodegradable, recyclable and toxin-free - hemp bioplastic can help address many pressing environmental issues.
Hemp plastics are made from the stalk of the plant. The stalk provides a high cellulose count which is required for the plastic construction, providing both strength and flexibility. Cellulose is the most plentiful organic polymer found on Earth, and plays a fundamental role in the cell walls of plants and many algae species.
Hemp contains around 65-70% cellulose compared to wood 40%, flax 65-75%, and cotton up to 90%. What makes hemp really shine is its high cellulose count combined with its favourable growing characteristics and low environmental impact.
From seed to harvest (10-15ft tall), hemp plants take just 3-4 months to grow. Commonly referred to as "weed" for a reason, the hemp plant grows incredibly fast, and has adapted to grow on every continent except Antarctica. Hemp plants are experts at absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, this helping them to grow quickly and outpace competing plants. Hemp plants also require fewer pesticides, fertilisers and water than other bioplastic resources such as cotton and wood, providing a more environmentally friendly, low maintenance crop.
Today there are only a few companies making use of hemp in the production of bioplastics. With hemp often wrongly tied in with cannabis legislation, this can lead to sourcing difficulties. Hemp by-products are often imported from countries such as China and France where growing licenses are more easily obtained. This can add sufficient costs to the production process, and has undoubtedly slowed research efforts into hemps use as a bioplastic. Despite these difficulties, there are companies taking advantage of the diverse and favourable characteristics of the hemp plant, paving the way for more companies to learn and adapt on their success.
Let’s check out two progressive companies working in the hemp-bioplastic space.
Kanesis, a company based in Siciliy are producing a 3D-printer filament made entirely from the waste of hemp production. Their goal is to "Produce industrial products from natural raw materials, and stimulate research on the use of sustainable materials."
Entwined hemp filament uses no dyes, allowing it to maintain a true natural brown colour. "It’s almost iridescent in its ability to showcase different shades and densities within the same printed object. There’s also a large amount of visible bio-fill, something you don’t get with standard Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastics."
Called HempBioPlastic (HBP), it has shown to be more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing than other bioplastics on the market. HBP has shown to be 20% lighter and 30% stronger than PLA - the most common plastic used in 3D-printing filaments. HBP filaments are also seen as favourable to its competitors (ABS and PLA) not only because of its positive eco-foot print, but also due to its favourable weight/volume ratio.
Through the popularisation of 3D printing, consumers are now armed with the ability to manufacture objects in the comfort of their own home. As we search for sustainable solutions to plastic, the potential to do this with a 100% natural and eco-friendly by-product is very timely.
Australian based Zeoform have developed what they are calling “A revolutionary material that changes everything.” Made from only cellulose fibres and water, their patented process converts cellulose fibres into an industrial strength material capable of being shaped into an infinite array of products. It is made without any glues, binders, chemicals or synthetics.
Utilising hemp cellulose, Zeoform is 100% non-toxic, biodegradable and compostable. It can produce commercial and industrial grade materials ranging from Styrofoam, to hard and resilient building materials. Like Kanesis, Zeoform intend to produce a 3D printing ‘feedstock’, combing bio-polymers and other elements for an almost unlimited product range.
As a progressive species we need to change our relationship with plastics, if not for ourselves then for future generations. Plastics have become so entrenched in everyday life that it is easy to be oblivious to the negative impact they are having on our planet. Bioplastics provide a real solution to maintaining the functionality of plastics, while minimising our ecological footprint.
Making drastic changes to plastic manufacturing techniques on a global scale will not happen overnight. There are few economic incentives for companies to do so, with profitability and accessibility driving the decision process - maintaining the desire for cheaper petroleum-based, non-biodegradable plastics . What we need to initiate this positive change will be consumers and businesses that create innovative ways to support and champion such change.
Companies like Kanesis and Zeoform highlight some of the possibilities of using hemp in the production of bioplastics. Their innovative techniques demonstrate the versatility and aesthetically pleasing properties of hemp bioplastics, while taking advantage of the plants eco-friendly properties. Let’s hope they continue to pave the way for more companies to build upon this vision.
* At Hempme we love to find companies sharing a passion for the hemp plant and its role in the sustainability movement. We will keep a close eye on progress in this space and continue to share the fantastic work of these forward-thinking companies.
* Our face cream tube is currently made of a 100% biodegradable plastic. Although not made from hemp, we endeavour to find solutions to eventually allow all of our products to be housed in hemp bioplastic.