Can hemp help save the environment? With a history that spans thousands of years, hemp is one of the oldest cultivated crops that exists. It’s also one of the most versatile. Hemp has served as one of the most respected and valued resources throughout the passage of time, playing an integral role in several cultures around the world.
Although criminalized for almost a century, hemp has made a huge comeback in recent years. The 2018 Farm Bill changed everything, and hemp is now being cultivated widely throughout the U.S. Not only is this creating a plethora of products sourced from the versatile hemp plant, but many contend that hemp could help save the environment.
Could hemp be part of the solution to the environmental damage that’s been done to our planet? It’s certainly possible.
As Jack Herer once famously said, “I’m not sure that hemp will save the planet…but I know it’s the only thing that can.”
6 Ways Hemp Could Help Save the Environment
1. Hemp Can Replace Plastic
There are over one million plastic bottles sold around the world every minute. Almost 18 billion pounds of plastic waste make their way to coastlines around the world each year. Around 500 million straws are used (then tossed) in the U.S. each day. It’s estimated that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish.
There must be another way. In our modern lifestyles, plastic is everywhere and it’s almost impossible not to use it. Considering that only about 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled and that it can take at least 400 years to decompose, it’s vital that we find sustainable alternatives.
In steps hemp. Were you aware that much of the plastic produced on a massive scale could be replaced with hemp plastic? Hemp is the largest cellulose-producing plant that exists, and cellulose can be used to create bioplastics when extensively modified. Research shows that hemp plastic is 2.5 times stronger and five times stiffer than plastics made from petroleum-based sources. Then there’s the fact that it’s completely biodegradable. While it definitely won’t happen overnight, hemp has the potential to become the eco-friendly plastic of the future.
2. Hemp Could Help Decrease Deforestation
In a 2015 study, it was revealed that an estimated 15 billion trees are cut down each year. Almost half of the trees that once covered the planet are gone. Across the globe, deforestation accounts for around 12% of greenhouse emissions.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), expanding agriculture, due to an increase in population and a shift in diet, is responsible for most of the world’s deforestation. Other major causes of deforestation include harvested timber to produce paper, furniture and building materials.
Here’s where hemp could help. Hemp can be used to create similar wood products to what is sourced from trees. Considering that hemp only takes around four months to harvest and can produce four times as much paper per acre than trees, it should be considered an extremely viable alternative to paper products. Hemp timber is 100% renewable, stronger than oak and offers a sustainable alternative to traditional wood building materials.
3. Hemp is a Natural Soil Decontaminant
Did you know that hemp is extremely adept at cleaning polluted soil? Through a process known as phytoremediation, hemp helps to remove radioactive material and heavy metals from contaminated soil.
In 1986, the worst nuclear disaster in history took place in Chernobyl, Ukraine. It heavily contaminated the soil in a 30km radius. Hemp is so proficient at soil decontamination that, in 1998, hemp was planted in the area to absorb radioactive material. Research has discovered that hemp “is as good as sunflower” at removing radioactive waste, and sunflowers “remove as much as 95% of toxic contaminants.”
Other research shows that hemp is able to absorb heavy metals such as nickel, cadmium and chromium from soil, without a significant effect on plant morphology. Hemp can also be used to clean up solvents, pesticides, hydrocarbons, crude oil, explosives and harmful toxins that seep from landfills.
4. Hemp is an Eco-Friendly Alternative to Conventional Building Materials
It’s no secret that we live in a heavily industrialized society. New buildings and materials are constructed every day to satisfy the seemingly endless industrial boom. Just as hemp can be used to create environmentally friendly plastic alternatives, it can also be used to create sustainable building materials.
Hempcrete is not only seven times lighter than conventional concrete, drywall and insulation, but it also provides better thermal regulation and increased fire resistance.
Hemp can also be used as an alternative to steel, which is known to produce harmful emissions, hazardous wastes, wastewater contaminants and solid wastes. Hemp is ten times stronger than steel and six times as proficient at molding and bending than steel.
As was mentioned earlier, hemp can replace timber when constructing homes and other buildings. From flooring and roofing to insulation and other building materials, hemp offers a sustainable alternative to conventional building materials.
5. Hemp Can Be Used as an Eco-Friendly Fuel Alternative
Our dependence on fossil fuels (including coal, oil and natural gas) is staggering. According to a 2018 report by the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), fossil fuels will be responsible for 77% of energy consumption by 2040. Petroleum and oil account for approximately one-third of the total use of fossil fuels.
Hemp is a viable alternative. Hemp can be used to produce two types of fuels: biodiesel (made from hempseed oil) and ethanol (made from hemp stalk). Hemp oil is the only oil that can be used in unmodified diesel engines, offering a clean alternative to the gasoline we’ve become completely reliant on. By some estimates, one acre of hemp can produce roughly the same amount of energy as 1,000 gallons of gas.
6. Hemp Might Help Save the Bees
Bees are one of the most important species on the planet. They pollinate 70 of almost 100 crops that are responsible for feeding the entire world. Unfortunately, bee populations are declining at a rapid rate. If the bee population continues to decline to the point of extinction, as some experts predict, we’d have about half of the fruits and vegetables that are readily available to us at our local grocery store.
It’s estimated that more than 700 species of bees in North America are declining. Hemp might be able to help.
According to Colorado research, in places where there are few other flowering plants, hemp could help attract bee populations. Dr. Whitney Cranshaw of Colorado State University College of Agricultural Studies says that in areas of the country where there are low populations of flowering plants, cultivated hemp could be a solution to declining bee populations.
“In this part of the country where there’s not a lot of alternative flowering plants,” says Cranshaw, “hemp is a godsend for bees. I don’t think it’s that big a deal if you’re on the East Coast where there’s lots of other flowers, but you grow it in an arid place like Colorado — particularly in a drought year like this year — I mean the bees are going nuts in the hemp. It’s a wonderful resource.”
Is Hemp the Answer?
The environmental crisis we face is unprecedented. In 2000, the United Nations Environment Program published their Global Environment Outlook Report, which focused on two repetitive themes in the assessment of the global environment.
One was a threat to the global human ecosystem due to productivity imbalances and the distribution of goods and services. The other was the fact that improvements of environmental protection are, in a sense, “cancelled out” by the scale and pace of economic development and population growth.
Reversing the damage that’s been done to our planet won’t happen overnight, and it certainly isn’t going to be easy. Together, however, we can make a difference. You can do your part by choosing eco-friendly alternatives whenever possible. Cut down on your plastic consumption and recycle the plastic you do consume. Make a commitment to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Even the smallest changes can make a big difference.
With hemp cultivation bound to exponentially increase in the coming years, hemp could play a major part in helping combat the environmental crisis we face. From hemp plastics and paper to biofuel and alternative building materials, hemp holds promise for significant environmental change.
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Hannah Smith is Joy Organics Director of Communications. She is driven by her passion for providing clear and accessible wellness and CBD education. In 2015, she received her BA in Media, Culture and the Arts from The King’s College in New York City and before Joy Organics, worked as writer and photographer in the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Vice, Vox, Denver Post, and the Coloradoan.