5 Sustainable Uses of Hemp that Could Help Solve Our Environmental Woes

As I suggested in my previous article, Brexit could provide the UK an opportunity to diversify its economy by encouraging the widespread cultivation of hemp. One of the things that might stand in the way of this, however (notwithstanding the legal restrictions), is the high initial cost to farmers of getting production off the ground. We can’t let financial barriers get in the way of a potentially planet-saving material.

Here are 5 uses of hemp that could help transform our relationship with the planet, and hopefully prove that the costs are worth it.

1. Plastic

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Hemp’s remarkable durability is among its most attractive qualities, and is one of the reasons people have been utilising it as a building material for thousands of years. Those same qualities are now being exploited to create a fully biodegradable alternative to plastic.

Bioplastics have been around for a few years now, with technology progressing to the point where large-scale production is looking increasingly feasible, though we’re not quite there yet.

Hemp is a particularly good option since it contains a high concentration of cellulose, the tough, cable-like compound that line the cell walls of plants to give them their strength and structure.

Unlike traditional plastics, which are created via the heavy chemical processing of crude oil, hemp and other bioplastics require virtually no chemicals to create. The basic process is so simple in fact that, if you’re feeling brave, you can actually make it in your kitchen (just don’t be expecting to be making your own Lego bricks anytime soon).

Of course, bioplastics won’t solve all our problems, as even biodegradable materials struggle to break down in landfill. If we really want to solve the world’s plastic crisis, then it’s ultimately a question of mindset more than materials.

2. Paper

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For centuries, hemp was the material of choice for most papermakers; it wasn’t until the 19th century that the process of using wood pulp was invented. Before this point most paper pulp was made from recycled rags, ropes and sails, with the durability of hemp fibres making it the most appealing option.

By the mid-19th century though, the demand for paper had outstripped the availability of the materials required to make it. When the option for using wood arose, therefore, we naturally started happily hacking down trees to serve the demand.

The tragic irony of course is that we’re now faced with a global crisis of deforestation, while hemp is readily available in abundance. Or at least it would be, if it weren’t so heavily regulated. Hindsight, eh?

As I said before, the cellulose content of hemp is unusually high (65-70%), higher in fact than wood (40-50%), meaning it’s naturally stronger and more durable. What’s more, hemp suitable to be used as paper can be grown pretty much anywhere in only a few months, compared with many years for trees, and ultimately makes a better overall product.

3. Hemp Seeds

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Paper isn’t the only way that hemp could help stem the tide of global deforestation. Though some of the other examples of this list have a decent amount of awareness, the versatility and nutritional value of hemp seeds is sometimes overlooked.

You’ve probably heard a lot about so-called ‘superfoods’, but hemp seeds pretty much trump all of them. They’re one of the few plant-based sources of ‘complete’ protein, meaning they provide all of the essential amino acids needed for healthy muscle growth. They’re also low-carb, high in fibre and vitamins, and are an excellent source of omega 3 & 6 (particularly when turned into hemp seed oil).

What’s more, the nutritional ratio of all these elements are almost perfectly balanced, meaning you’ll never be getting too much or too little of any essential nutrient, something that can’t always be said for other ‘superfoods’.

Many vegetarians and vegans turn to (heavily processed) soy-based products as an alternative to meat. But for most vegans I know (myself included), this is an ethical contradiction. That’s because soybean farming, along with palm oil, beef, and wood-based products, is one of the world’s key drivers of deforestation.

What’s more, soybeans can only be grown in hot climates, meaning that even if the products you buy are sustainably sourced and non-GMO, they still carry the added issue of the thousands of air miles it takes to get them onto supermarket shelves. Hemp has none of these issues, and the beauty is that just about everything soy can do, hemp can do too.

4. Hempcrete

 

Hemp’s incredible durability makes it an ideal material for construction. When combined with lime and water, hemp can be moulded into a block that lasts longer and is actually less brittle than conventional concrete. The result, the delightfully-named Hempcrete, is championed as an excellent insulator and for its resistance to fire, mould and rot.

Unlike other materials used in construction, hempcrete requires no fossil fuels to produce, and is carbon negative, meaning it takes in more CO2 than it releases. Its insulating properties, meanwhile, means homes built from hemp require less energy to heat, and can hold that heat in for longer.

Buildings are one of the prime contributors to global GHG emissions, and are responsible for around a third of total global energy usage. Utilising hemp could go a long way in helping make them more efficient.

Most of the hemp grown commercially in the UK is used in the construction industry, and while building a skyscraper out of hemp may right now fall on the wrong side of wishful thinking, the market for hemp homes has been continually growing for a number of years, with companies like UK Hempcrete having success both as a supplier and by providing the specialist skills needed for hemp construction.

5. Medicine

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Ok, so this point isn’t strictly to do with sustainability, but I couldn’t write two whole blog posts without saying a little about the medicinal qualities of hemp, and the cannabis plant in general.

The health benefits of cannabis have long been the main argument used by those who want to see it decriminalised, and it seems the UK government is finally taking note; in July it was announced that medical cannabis will be available on prescription ‘within months’.

The cannabis plant contains over 60 unique chemicals, known as cannabinols. The two that receive the most attention are tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound that produces the distinctive high, and cannabidiol, or CBD, which is non-psychoactive.

It’s the prominence of these two chemicals which actually determines whether the plant is referred to as hemp or cannabis, with hemp containing higher levels of CBD than THC, and vice versa.

While the two compounds share a number of medicinal qualities, most notably pain relief, CBD has no serious adverse effects on health, and can actually temper the potential negative effects of it’s psychoactive cousin – anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

In addition to the mental health benefits, CBD has in recent years been garnering further attention for its potential to relieve chronic conditions like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and diabetes, among others. There’s even cases in which it has been suggested that both compounds may reduce the size of cancerous tumours.

For years the legal status of cannabis meant that there were limits to the amount of hard scientific data that could be acquired, particularly in terms of clinical trials. But with attitudes to cannabis generally relaxing, this could now be set to change, meaning that we may soon have the definitive evidence needed for cannabis/hemp to be taken seriously across the medical and pharmaceutical professions, and not just confined to the realm of ‘alternative medicine’.

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