Hemp paper, a real solution to a real problem

Everybody talks about the benefits of making paper from hemp. Here is a very brief summary: [1]
• From an hectare planted with hemp you can obtain 3 to 4 times more cellulose fiber per year than from a forest. Furthermore, you don’t require using pesticides or herbicides.
• Hemp can be harvested four months after planting instead of the 10 to 20 years it takes for a tree to mature, depending on its species. Additionally, the cellulose content is 70% vs. 30% and with much less lignin.
• Does not require using toxic bleachers such a chlorine, dioxins and sulphuric acid. Hydrogen peroxide is employed which doesn’t affect the environment. The wood pulp industry is one of the worst water polluters that exist.
• Hemp paper resists decomposition, it is stronger, does not yellow and can be recycled up to 8 times, compared to only 3 por paper made of wood pulp.

Then, why isn’t more paper made from hemp?
Today, hemp is only used to make paper for cigarettes, filters, sealing papers, security paper, for artists and other specialized purposes. It is made in small presses, practically a handcrafted product. There are only 23 paper mills in the world that use hemp or rags and the majority are in China and India. The total annual production is only 120,000 tons with an average output of 5,000 per factory. One regular paper mill produces at least 50 times that. [2]

The main reason is that the price of hemp pulp is currently almost four times the cost of pulp made from wood. Why is this? To begin with, in most of the world, with the exception of China and the countries that were behind the iron curtain, the prohibition to cultivate hemp did not allow the development of that industry, becoming obsolete with inefficient, lenghty and expensive retting processing that requires a lot of manual labor.

The traditional machinery that is used to make paper does not function with hemp, as the long fibers and their extraordinary resistance tend to jam and break the mechanisms. A complete redesign of the manufacturing process is imperative, requiring to reinvent and build from scratch more resistant and efficient machinery. That takes time and costs money. It is a high stakes gamble to develop technology for the harvesting combines, decorticators, pulp processors and the paper making machines. Additionally, there is a supply problem in order to guarantee there will be enough raw material to operate continually during the whole year. It is indispensable that the growers in the region commit to plant hemp in their fields in substitution to the traditional crops they already know. It is the classic example of: What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Offer or demand? As a general rule if a large paper mill demands large volumes of hemp fiber at a good price, offer will surely follow.

The ecological importance of large scale hemp paper production
Even though hemp has thousands of uses as a fiber for textiles, automotive panels, biofuel, food oil, nutritional supplements and medicines with CBD, the importance of paper in the context of ecological sustainability is precisely the enourmous volume of raw material that this industry demands. Lets not forget that in order to revert climate change deep draft projects are a must. In 2017 almost 420 million metric tons of paper and cardboard were produced. When hemp pulp is combined with previously used paper, its quality is improved and can be reused more times. [3]

Forests that are expressly cultivated to supply paper mills are important sources for capturing CO². However, the amount of carbon dioxide that hemp absorbs is four times greater, thanks to its fast and continuous growth. Additionally, as with all living organisms, when trees get older their metabolism slows down and absorb less than when they were younger.

According to a reports by Stanford C. Bernstein, Amazon sends per year an average of 608 million packages, that amount to 1,600,000 boxes per day. That is a lot of cardboard. In the United States only 35% of cardboard boxes are recycled. Upstreampolicy.org calculates that the paper that is thrown to the garbage in that country represents aproximately 640 million trees that would cover a forest area of 915,000 acres. [4] On the other hand, Jeff Bezos’ company has invested $ 2 billion dollars in the Climate Pledge Fund and expects that by the year 2025 they will reach the objective of using 100% renewable energy sources, five years ahead of the original plan. Among other changes, they are gradually substituting 100,000 electric vans for their deliveries. [5]

An ideal complement for this kind of sustainability projects would be to promote hemp cultivation in large areas and transform them into cardboard boxes that would then become carbon sinks. This would change the damaging practice of deforestation into highly beneficial CO² capture.

A visionary spirit
A few years ago the only electric vehicles were golf carts. Now they run faster than a Ferrari. What happened? A visionay entrepreneur analyzed the situation and detected that the technology used for electric vehicles hadn’t changed in almost one hundred years (almost the same as with paper) and decided to risk large sums of capital managing to modify existing paradigms. Today, all the automotive brands are designing in forced marches vehicles that until very recently they wouldn’t even consider as viable projects. The European Union just imposed the goal of 30 million zero emission cars for the year 2030 and China is going for even more. In November 2020 Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Biden administration is going to install 500,000 charging centers all over the country. All this made the auto industry react and are planning to invest 230 billion dollars in the next four years in order to introduce to the market dozens of new electric models, knowing full well that it is a risky bet as currently that segment of the market does not reach even 2% of the total. [6]
In oder for the hemp paper industry to lift off, the same disruptive and visionary spirit is required. What Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other successful business leaders have very clear in their minds is that it is necessary to develop new technologies to increase efficiency by several orders of magnitude in a process of virtuous feedback.

Key Takeaway: The ecological bet
What is abundantly clear is that we humans can no longer continue contaminating and cutting down trees. We don’t have time left to dawdle with indecision and voice excuses. It is evident that we are not going to be able to correct the course towards the precipice that climate change is taking us if governments and entrepreneurs just keep worrying myopically about the electoral / financial results of the next election / quarter and don’t adopt a long range vision where the status quo needs to be broken for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Changing the source of raw material from wood to hemp won’t be easy or instantaneous. However, despite the existing obstacles, this is perfectly feasible because to begin with, using industrial hemp is economically more productive and ecologically sound than using trees. Hemp grows faster, occupies less space and provides a product with better quality, versatility and durablity. It is certainly not a simple task and there are always risks, but for the sake of long-term sustainability, it is well worth it. Furthermore, great fortunes have always been made by pioneers and innovators and here is a great opportunity waiting for a visionary to seize it.

[1] https://420intel.com/articles/2020/09/11/pulp-fiction-hemp-paper-vs-wood-based-paper
[2] Van Roekel, G J, 1994. Hemp pulp and paper production. Journal of the International Hemp Association 1: 12-14.
[3] https://www.usrepresented.com/2015/11/23/hemp-is-the-future-of-paper/
[4] https://blog.mrboxonline.com/corrugated/how-many-cardboard-boxes-does-amazon-ship-each-day/
[5] https://www.energyglobal.com/special-reports/20042021/amazon-set-to-reach-100-renewable-energy-by-2025/
[6] Green Cars Won the Election, Too / Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov 16, 2020.