Believe it or not, the very first paper in the world was partially made of hemp. Our ancestors may have been on to something. Today, Americans use 850,000,000 tons of paper per year, which translates to 680 pounds of paper per person. That’s a massive amount of trees being cut down to produce disposables like grocery bags, junk mail, and – yes – toilet paper. Could hemp paper be a more eco-friendly alternative to wood-based paper? Many signs point to yes.
Industrial hemp paper offers many advantages over traditional wood-based paper and the current challenges to widespread adoption of hemp paper products seem surmountable. Best of all, hemp paper may offer yet another income stream for CBD and CBG farmers looking to monetize their hemp biomass.
We’ve been digging into some of the most promising new uses of hemp, especially as it relates to supporting environmental sustainability. Hemp paper may just be the most exciting possibility yet.
How Is Hemp Paper Made?
Hemp plants contain fibers that can be turned into paper. The process of hemp paper production is similar to traditional paper-making methods. Most hemp paper is made from short hemp hurds, which come from the inner core of the hemp stalk. The process begins by separating the pulp from the rest of the plant. This pulp is then broken down by shredding, beating, or boiling it into a resulting pulp slurry.
After mixing some additives into the slurry, it is removed from the water and spread onto a screen where it is pressed and dried. The result is a roll of strong, soft paper that can be used in numerous ways.
Hemp paper can be used in nearly every way as traditional paper. In fact, its greater tensile strength makes industrial hemp paper especially useful for items like paper money, stamps, paper towels, and other products that need to hold up against a lot of usages.
The History of Hemp Paper
If hemp paper sounds too good to be true, it’s not. In fact, our ancestors have been using it for centuries.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that hemp paper has been around the block of human history and has even played a role in some of our most important historical events. Around 200 to 150 BC, ancient Chinese inventors in the early Western Han Dynasty recognized that smashing hemp fabric and other plant matter into thin sheets was a great alternative to recording information on clay tablets.
Hemp paper only grew in popularity from there. It was an important resource in the American colonies. Thomas Paine wrote his famous pamphlets on hemp paper and early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were inked on hemp paper.
Industrial hemp paper continued to enjoy high esteem in the new country throughout the 19th century. In fact, Mark Twain’s novels were all printed on hemp paper. However, the fortunes of hemp changed in the 1930s. This might have been due to strong lobbying from textile and newspaper companies that wanted wood-based paper to dominate.
These special interests got their wish. Eventually, industrial hemp cultivation was outlawed in the United States all the way up until the 2018 US Farm Bill finally allowed for the production of industrial hemp once again. Though hemp cultivation has been stuck on the sidelines for over five decades, renewed interest in hemp paper is building rapidly.
Hemp Paper Benefits
With an infrastructure already well-established to process and produce paper made from trees, is there any reason to even consider switching over to hemp paper? The answer is yes. When comparing hemp paper vs. wood paper, hemp comes out on top in many ways.
Hemp Makes Better Paper
Probably the biggest advantage hemp has over trees is that it simply makes better quality paper. As the Ministry of Hemp reports, hemp paper is more durable than wood paper and “does not yellow, crack, or deteriorate like tree paper.”
Hemp Produces More Paper Than Hemp
It takes trees 20 to 80 years to grow to full maturity, while a hemp plant hits adulthood in 100 to 120 days. As a result, it takes four to 10 acres of trees to produce as much paper as a single acre of hemp over a 20-year period. While a new crop of trees are still in their infancy, a hemp crop can be grown and harvested over and over again.
Hemp Can Prevent Deforestation
Even with the growing use of regenerative lumber harvesting, it still takes decades to re-establish a forest that has been harvested. The average American uses seven trees worth of paper products every year, adding up to over two billion trees per year. That loss is staggering.
Trees are crucial to absorbing and storing carbon dioxide as well as maintaining rich, healthy soil. They play a part in the natural water cycle that helps keep land cool. They also provide a habitat for a large portion of Earth’s land animals and plants.
Every year, huge swaths of trees are being cut down around the globe. The switch to industrial hemp paper can help slow deforestation.
Hemp Paper Production Uses Fewer Harmful Chemicals
The production of wood-based paper is a surprisingly dirty process that requires the bleaching of wood pulp. The chlorine bleach, (which is, fortunately, beginning to fall out of favor), contains nasty sulfur compounds and nitrogen oxides that can be released into the air. The process also discharges wastewater that includes bleaching compounds that can harm land and water.
The production of hemp paper, on the other hand, does not require bleaching, which can lead to less chemical waste in the environment.
Hemp Paper is Easier to Recycle
With its higher tensile strength, hemp paper can be recycled many more times than wood-based paper. The more a paper product can be recycled, the less paper needs to be made altogether.
Hemp Paper Offers a Variety of Uses
Hemp paper can be made into many of the products that currently rely on tree-based paper, above and beyond writing paper. Imagine a world of money, paper towels, and toilet paper all made from the hemp plant instead of trees.
The Challenges of Switching to Industrial Hemp Paper
Hemp paper sounds great, right? It’s a wonder that we don’t immediately demand that all paper made from this point on come from hemp. As much as that might sound like a good idea, it’s not practical. The biggest challenge to the widespread adoption of hemp paper is the huge head start wood-based paper production gained over the past decades when industrial hemp was illegal to grow.
As of today, we don’t have the infrastructure or nearly enough hemp to cover the vast paper needs of the country. Because the infrastructure isn’t available, hemp paper is currently a specialty product that is often priced much higher than traditional paper.
Here’s some good news. Things are beginning to change. As hemp farming explodes across America, interest in hemp paper is growing along with it. And as demand for hemp paper grows, paper mills may be incentivized to update their equipment and processes to begin processing hemp.
One big component of bringing hemp paper mainstream will be growing enough hemp to supply the increasing need. That’s where CBD and CBG farmers might be able to step up to the task.
Opportunities for CBD and CBG Farmers
After harvesting hemp flower for CBD or CBG, hemp farmers find themselves with acres of leftover hemp stalks. This isn’t waste that should be discarded — instead, it could represent an additional source of revenue. With interest growing in hemp-made products, including hemp paper, this hemp biomass could turn into a secondary income stream.
Hemp farmers may want to reach out to a hemp broker to connect them to a biomass buyer. They can also do a little legwork to try and reach biomass buyers directly. The results could be well worth the effort, especially if the leavings in your field can save acres of trees.
New Opportunities Are Everywhere
We are still at the precipice of what is possible with the 2018 legalization of industrial hemp in the United States. As more and more farmers enter into the business, the market for hemp biomass should continue to grow. Some companies are already producing and selling hemp paper products. It’s a mere matter of time before innovative organizations begin to scale up hemp paper production. Today’s CBD and CBG farmers could be at the forefront of that exciting and environmentally friendly development.