Hemp For Plastic… But Which?

While the current discussion about hemp plastics is welcome, it is still mostly performative and aspirational because the real work of how to get from here to there is not part of the conversation. Which use of plastics should be targeted? Why? How would hemp be used? What type of hemp product? Who is the customer? What are their specifications? How many acres are needed to supply it? What kind of infrastructure is needed to process it? Are there better bio sources for the material, such as ag wastes or kenaf in the tropics? How does hemp improve performance or cut cost, if at all? While the obvious example to most people is plastic packaging, is there a better application in industry? If so, why is it better? How can governments encourage it? How does all that get financed?

One organization which looked at those questions is nova-Institute in Germany. They came to the conclusion that hemp’s greatest utility in regards to plastic is as a bio component displacing a petrochemical one, in a number of consumer and industrial products. They found that some plastics, such as geotextiles and control-release carriers for fertilizers, are 100% unrecoverable. They recommend those plastics which can be recycled continue to be, and instead focus on applications where all or most of the plastic is unrecoverable or unrecyclable.

For example, the bristles of most municipal sweepers are made of plastic, which wears out and remains irretrievably in the environment. Agricultural applications such as seed coating or flocculation aids in sewage sludge are often made of non-biodegradable polymers and systematically enter the soil. Or products in fisheries that are lost in the sea. Compost streams can also be contaminated by plastics.

“At the beginning of the project there was one question: Could there be applications where biodegradation is the best end-of-life option because collection and recycling is for example not practicable? The project was able to find and analyse 25 such applications,” said Michael Carus, Managing Director of the nova-Institute. “It was surprising to find that these applications total 1 million tonnes in the European Union – and most of this still ends up in the environment in the form of non-biodegradable macro- and microplastics. This is where biodegradable products made from renewable raw materials could make a significant difference to the environment. We hope that our comprehensive report with 25 fact sheets will both significantly raise awareness of the problem and substitution possibilities, and stimulate appropriate political action,” said Carus, who is also founder of the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA).

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