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Industrial Hemp and its Sustainable Benefits

Updated on May 1, 2014
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For thousands of years cannabis has been used in a variety of ways: from the medicinal and spiritual, to the practical. Hemp, a form of cannabis, was used to make rope, boat sails, rigging, clothing, oil for lanterns, paper, oil paints and much more throughout the course of history. Today, industrial hemp carries the potential to alleviate much of the environmental degradation and pollution issues that our planet is currently facing. Industrial hemp is a highly sustainable resource and environmentally friendly crop that should be legalized and grown in the United States. This is because industrial hemp fiber has proven to be a sustainable and efficient alternative to wood pulp, petroleum plastics, building materials and clothing--as well as a variety of other products and materials.

The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana

There have been many misconceptions in the last century involving marijuana and hemp. Many people do not realize the differences between the two. While they both are a form of cannabis, marijuana is the female plant; it produces tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the chemical that causes a change in one’s state of mind. The male form of the plant, however, contains an extremely small amount of THC and is referred to as hemp because it is the type of cannabis grown for industrial hemp fiber. In fact, the countries that do currently allow the production of industrial hemp often require strict laws that use only strains of the plant containing less than one percent THC, thus eliminating any possibility of the plant being used for drug or medicinal purposes (Caulkins et. al 227).

Hemp crops are planted close together to encourage height growth. This also helps prevent other plants and weeds from growing within the crop.
Hemp crops are planted close together to encourage height growth. This also helps prevent other plants and weeds from growing within the crop. | Source

Why Hemp Is So Sustainable

Hemp plants are environmentally sound for a variety of reasons. Not only are they an extremely fast growing plant, usually ready for harvest within three to five months of planting, but they thrive in even poor quality soils, and can be grown at an altitude of up to eight thousand feet (Booth 3). Hemp seeds germinate in roughly six days, and once established, hemp can grow at a rate of two to five centimeters a day; at it’s best the plant can grow up to fifteen centimeters per day (Booth 3). For every acre of hemp harvested there is a yield of five tons of fibrous material and product (Rosenthal and Kubby 45). Perhaps the biggest benefit of hemp lies in the fact that it requires no pesticides or herbicides to grow a healthy crop. According to an article written by April Luginbuhl, there are only a small amount of insects that target hemp, and the plant’s thick growth prevents weeds from thriving near it, thus eliminating the need for both pesticides and herbicides (7). Luginbuhl further claims within her article that “If hemp is planted the rotation before soybeans it acts as a pesticide by reducing up to 80% the damaging nematode cyst that kills soybeans” (7).

Alternative to Plastics

Hemp is capable of replacing many products that leave a negative impact on the environment, with perhaps the most important being petroleum plastics. Not only are they made up of fossil fuels, harsh chemicals, and create large amounts of toxic waste in production, but plastics also take hundreds of years to break down and decompose. One can rarely travel anywhere and not see a bit of discarded plastic on the street or along the road. Industrial hemp provides a good alternative to traditional plastics, as it can be used to create a chemical free, biodegradable, strong plastic using hemp cellulose.

Alternative to Tree Pulp

The planet today is also facing serious issues of deforestation. Forests can no longer sustain the ballooning population with its demand for wood products. Trees, while technically a sustainable resource, require at least sixty years between harvests, with eighty years being the preferable number. Trees also have the very important task of providing fresh oxygen, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and filtering and holding fresh water. It is long past due for a sustainable alternative to be made available. Hemp fiber is an environmentally sound alternative to wood pulp. Not only can it be used for paper products, but it can also be used to make particle board and press board (Rosenthal and Kubby 46). That it is such a fast growing plant and can be harvested at least twice a year, makes it an ideal alternative to tree pulp. Hemp paper is also proven to be more durable than traditional paper, as it resists tearing and is not ruined if it gets wet (Luginbuhl 7).

The Wales Institute for Sustainable Education, constructed partly with Hemcrete materials.
The Wales Institute for Sustainable Education, constructed partly with Hemcrete materials. | Source

Hemp in the Construction Industry

Over the last few decades there have been many great strides made with industrial hemp in the construction business. Hemcore, a company in the UK, has recently created a substance known as hemcrete. Made from industrial hemp fiber and a lime binder, hemcrete is sprayed onto the wooden frames of buildings to create airtight walls (Hargreaves 24). This technology is environmentally friendly for a number of reasons. Because the hemcrete is made from a natural substance, it allows the walls to breath, preventing problems with moisture and condensation within the building (Hargreaves 24). Hemcrete also creates homes with a stable internal temperature, reducing the need for heating and cooling use, which is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. According to Ben Hargreaves’ article, it is estimated that currently fifty percent of carbon pollution in the UK is from the energy used to build and heat homes and buildings (25). He also goes on to state that it is possible to “save up to one hundred and fifty kilograms of C02 for every square meter of wall, which means up to thirty tons per house” (25). The potential that hemcrete offers in energy reduction is massive, and should be made a common construction material.

Other Uses for Hemp

Hemp offers a variety of other uses from a quality food grade oil containing essential fatty acids, to a safe alternative to fiberglass in surfboards (Rosenthal and Kubby 46). In the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, author Jack Herer claims that there are over “50,000 non-smoking commercial uses for hemp that are economically viable and market competitive” (58). Non-narcotic hemp seed oil also offers possibilities for both edible and non-edible products. According to authors Rosenthal and Kubby, “hemp seed oil is a nonpolluting and drying oil that can be used for paints and varnishes” (45). It can also be used as a lubricant, and can be made into a quality motor oil (Herer 57). The uses mentioned above for hemp are just a fraction of products and materials that hemp has the possibility to replace or improve.

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Opposing Viewpoints

Those who argue opposing hemp often claim that it is not the miracle plant that it is made out to be. According authors Caulkins, Hawken, Kilmer and Kleiman, “global trade and technological progress have produced superior alternatives to hemp” (229). They go on to claim that the reason plastics replaced hemp was because of its “greater longevity and resilience” (229). However, there are flaws within this argument. Hemp has not been given the chance to prove itself as a sustainable and profitable industry as it was made illegal before any strides could be made in hemp technology and production. The fact of the matter is, growing industrial hemp has the potential to boost the struggling economy, and give farmers a sturdy sustainable crop that rejuvenates the soil. Opponents also fail to take into account the desperate need to make only cradle to cradle products.

The term “cradle to cradle” refers to the life cycle of material goods. Rather than products that get made from new materials only to be wasted at the end of its life, cradle to cradle creates products with an everlasting life cycle, always taking into consideration and making sure that a product can be recycled. With this process, waste becomes eliminated, and resources are preserved through recycling. Hemp is an ideal material for making cradle to cradle products because it can both be recycled, as well as biodegrade back into the earth if recycling is not performed. While it may be true that plastics offer longer longevity of a product, this comes with the cost of clogging landfills for several hundred years before the plastic even begins to break down.

Economic Potential

The potential hemp carries to help revitalize the economy can not be ignored. Until the recent elections, it was (and still is federally) illegal to grow any hemp material in the United States, however it was not illegal to sell hemp products. This means that companies within the United States were--and still are--paying other countries to import their hemp products and materials. According to authors Rosenthal and Kubby, the United States imported close to five hundred million dollars worth of raw hemp materials and hemp products in 2002 (46). If it were legal the grow hemp materials in the States, that money could instead stay within the U.S. and help to revitalize the economy from the influx of new jobs and consumer spending that would result.

Conclusion

The benefits presented through the legalization and use of industrial hemp are vast and plentiful. The products created with hemp often use less energy, don’t require harsh chemicals, and are recyclable and biodegradable. The hemp plant itself is capable of high production and rejuvenates the soil with each crop rather than degrading it. It is easy to grow and resists pests and disease. Industrial hemp should be legalized and no longer treated as a drug, because it simply is not one. It is a beneficial fibrous plant that contains an enormous potential in finding a sustainable balance in producing material goods and protecting the environment.

Do you think industrial hemp should be utilized as a sustainable resource?

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Works Cited

Booth, Martin. Cannabis: A History. New York: Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Print.

Caulkins, Jonathan P., Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A. R. Kleiman. Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs To Know. New York: Oxford University, 2012. Print.

Hargreaves, Ben. "High Hopes." Professional Engineering 20.15 (2007): 24-25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

Herer, Jack. The Emperor Wears No Clothes. 11th ed. USA: AH HA Publishing, 2000. Print.

Luginbuhl, April M. "Industrial Hemp (Cannabis Savita L): The Geography Of A Controversial Plant." California Geographer 41.(2001): 1-14. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

Rosenthal, Ed, and Steve Kubby. Why Marijuana Should Be Legal. Philadelphia: Running, 2003. Print.

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