Last weekend, 4/20 celebrations of unprecedented proportions took place in Hyde Park, London, alongside climate protestors’ – Extinction Rebellion (XR) – peaceful takeover of four key locations in central London.
While cannabis lovers were blowing clouds of smoke across the park, in support of legalising the plant, XR’s non-violent civil disobedience thrust the issues of climate change, pollution, waste and activism onto the airwaves and made national and international headlines.
After more than a thousand arrests, of XR members not cannabis users, legalising cannabis took a back seat, while environmentalism, the ethics of industry and consumer choices moved into the foreground.
What many might not appreciate is that cannabis, or more specifically hemp, has an important role to play within the environmental movement, that is often side-stepped because of its perceived inability to compete economically on the world stage and the prohibitive laws controlling the processing of the cannabis plant in most countries.
For example, in the UK, the processing of hemp leaves and flowers is not legally permitted, which means that hemp farms often have to send their biomass abroad for processing, hiking up the costs of the finished products.
Hemp’s green credentials derive from its natural resistance to pests and diseases, thus obviating the need for pesticides, its hardiness and ability to grow almost anywhere with less intensive input than other major crops, and its ability to naturally clean soils contaminated with toxins.
Furthermore, hemp can be used to produce an environmentally sustainable source of fuel, plastic, building material, paper, fibre and food.
Hemp can be used to produce two types of biofuel: biodiesel and ethanol. Biodiesel is made from the hempseed and can be used in regular diesel cars. Ethanol is made from hemp fibres and is commonly blended with petrol, with different ratios required for different car types.
Over the last decade enthusiasm for the mass production of biofuels has waned, despite the obvious advantages of a cleaner fuel and national control over the fuel source. This is because of the ethical issues involved in any large scale crop farming (deforestation, crop replacement, deterioration in soil health etc.), and the fact that the ploughing, sowing, harvesting, transportation, and processing of the crop could result in a greater carbon footprint than fossil fuels.
However, on a smaller scale, growing hemp may still provide a solution for greener and more sustainable farming by enabling farmers to clean and improve their soil and reduce their use and dependence on fossil fuels. Small-scale growing could produce a self-sustaining low carbon-emitting loop providing biofuel for farm vehicles and machinery, while other parts of the plant, such as the seed, can be used for animal feed.
Hemp cellulose can be used to make a variety of plastics. While 100% hemp plastic is still extremely rare, there is a growing market for hemp mixed with other plant sources to produce composite biodegradable plastics.
These plastics are stronger and lighter than conventional plastics and are being used in the construction of cars and boats among other things. For disposable plastic items, hemp plastic presents a problem: like other bioplastics, specific conditions are required for it to decompose.
Appropriate waste facilities are currently low in number and when thrown into landfill these plastics take years to decompose, much like conventional plastic. When put into regular recycling plants, they become a contaminant.
More than 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year, of which only 1% is bio-plastic (plastic made from plant sources). Plastic litters our land and oceans and makes its way into the food-chain harming animals and sea-life. While biodegradable bioplastics can provide a solution to plastic pollution, waste management will need to respond accordingly by establishing a sufficient number of specified composting sites in order to fulfil this potential.
Mixing the woody fibres of the hemp stem (hurds) with lime produces a concrete (hempcrete) that retains thermal mass, is highly insulating and is resistant to pests and moulds. It is unsuitable for load bearing blocks but works well as a breathable structural component around or within a building’s skeleton.
Hempcrete pulls carbon from the atmosphere and locks it in, making it a carbon negative building material (absorbs more CO2 than is used in its production). As the cement industry is a primary producer of CO2 and is responsible for approximately 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions, environmentally sustainable building alternatives are highly sought after.
The textile industry is characterised by high water usage, chemical contamination and the energy consumption required to run production mills and transport the fashion.
Cotton makes up 90% of the natural fabrics used, covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land and uses 10-16% of the world’s pesticides. It requires more water than any other single major crop. Hemp on the other hand uses less than half the water required for growing cotton, produces double the amount from a hectare than cotton does and requires little or no use of pesticides.
Hemp fibre can be used to produce paper, a practice that dates back 2000 years. Indeed, until the 1900s the majority of the world’s paper was made from hemp. Because the fibres are long, the paper is stronger, lasts longer and can be recycled more times than paper made from trees. An acre of hemp can produce 4-10 times the amount of paper as an acre of trees over a 20-year cycle, making this an environmentally sustainable source of paper, that can be produced locally, thereby reducing transportation costs.
The potential of hemp solutions to environmental problems is considerable. So why isn’t hemp farming more widely discussed and supported by environmentalists and agriculturalists, and why have governments been slow to incentivise the expansion of hemp farming? Part of the problem is the legislation surrounding the processing of the cannabis plant and its association with the psychoactive effects of smoking cannabis. For the UK hemp industry to expand, restriction on the processing of the flower and leaf of the hemp plant would need to be lifted, and incentives given to hemp farmers. Currently a license is required that is costly and time consuming, and only a few are awarded each year.
As consumers we can support hemp’s green takeover: the rising demand for hemp products will eventually lead to these changes being brought about and increasing the acreage of hemp farms.