by Troy Thompson
Want to know how to achieve a carbon negative (that’s no error-I mean negative, not neutral) society in a manner which will strengthen the economy without forcing any great change to your way of life? The answer is simple: use industrial hemp to the maximum of its utility.
During its 12-14 week life, a single cannabis plant consumes somewhere around four times the amount of carbon dioxide a tree consumes in 20 years. So, growing a large amount of cannabis would provide us with an extremely effective carbon dioxide scrubber.
Other than the effect of scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere, hemp can also provide a means by which we no longer need to introduce more carbon into our environment. The burning of fossil fuels has, effectively, reintroduced carbon atoms into our environment that had been locked beneath the surface of our planet for millions of years; so the idea here is to stop using fossil fuels. The problem with ending the use of fossil fuels is that every element of our society is constructed around them. This is old news, yes, but it is important to note.
Hemp for Fuel
We have no way around the fact that we need to find a new way to generate electrical power; even hemp will not save us from this reality. But it’s much easier to replace the electric generation infrastructure than it is to replace other uses of fossil fuels, especially in transportation. Electric and hybrid automobiles are excellent technologies, but they are worthless as a means of environmental protection if everyone cannot afford them — and trust me, lower-class workers cannot afford new automobiles. Our solution to this problem must be compatible with old automotive tech.
Enter hemp. Cannabis has a high concentration of cellulose, which means methanol can easily be distilled from hemp. Now, the funny thing about methanol is that ExxonMobil has a patented way to produce gasoline from methanol. Of course, gasoline produced from methanol still expels as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as gasoline produced from petroleum, but such a comparison ignores an important difference: If we produce methanol from cannabis, carbon is already in our environment. The cycle from cannabis to methanol to gasoline to atmospheric carbon dioxide and back to cannabis would be entirely carbon neutral. Hemp gasoline would burn just like petroleum gasoline, but it would not introduce into our environment a single atom of carbon not already present. We need only to find a way to get ExxonMobil to let go of the patent on the MTG process.
Another use for cannabis as a fuel would come in the form of biodiesel and ethanol additives. Hemp oil makes a wonderful biodiesel; and, unlike the sources of many other biodiesels, hemp can be grown on marginal lands. No interruption of the food supply is necessary to produce hemp oil for fuel. It’s also worth noting that more ethanol can be distilled from hemp than from both corn and sugar cane. Given the high quantities of hemp oil that can be extracted and methanol and ethanol that can be distilled from hemp, Jack Herer asserted (and a study conducted by Lund University later confirmed) that the United States could entirely meet its needs for transportation fuels by applying just 6 percent of its land to the practice of growing hemp. Since hemp can grow on marginal lands, none of the 6 percent of land used for growing hemp for fuel needs to be agricultural land; there is no need to compete with food production for land use.
Hemp for Paper
Using hemp for paper is at best carbon neutral examples. We have more potential uses for hemp, and in each case these potential uses are much better for the environment than what we are doing in the present. Not only are these uses of hemp better for the environment, but they also render better materials.
Currently, paper is produced from either wood fiber or cotton fiber. The process of producing both wood pulp and cotton has some seriously destructive effects on the environment. Production of paper from wood fiber requires the harvesting of a large number of trees; replacement trees planted by loggers take 20 years to reach full maturity. Growing cotton, on the other hand, robs the soil, in which the cotton is grown, of its nutrients. Moreover, producing paper from wood pulp requires the use of hazardous chemicals; growing cotton uses up prime agricultural land that could otherwise be used to grow food crops.
Paper can also be produced from hemp. In fact, a 1916 USDA study found that hemp fiber was superior to wood fiber in the production of paper. Since hemp contains about a quarter to a third as much lignin as wood, hemp fiber does not need the intensive chemical treatment that wood fiber needs. Moreover, paper produced from hemp tends to be stronger, more durable and more resistant to rot than both wood and cotton paper. Hence, besides being a much “greener” product, hemp paper is also a much better product.
Hemp for Construction
Another reason why we harvest to many trees is to produce building materials. It is expected that the lumber industry in the United States will produce 55.5 billion board feet of lumber in 2013 — a 7 percent increase since 2012 and a 68 percent increase since 1960, according to USFS records. The problem with this is that, as lumber production increases, more timber must be harvested. Wood can be argued to be sustainable, but it takes 20 years for a tree to reach full maturity. If we continue to harvest greater quantities of timber every year, we will inevitably reach a point where it will cease to be sustainable by any rationale.
Here, too, hemp can be an effective replacement for lumber. A single acre of hemp can produce the same amount of cellulose fiber as 4.1 acres of trees. Add to that the fact that cannabis reaches full maturity in 12-14 weeks (versus 20 years for trees), and it’s pretty apparent that hemp can produce hundreds of times more cellulose fiber for building materials than the same acreage of wood can in the same amount of time.
Hemp can also provide better building materials than wood. Medium density fiber boards produced with hemp fiber are 2.5 times stronger and 3 times more flexible than wood composite boards. Hemp MDF is also flame-resistant and pest-resistant.
Hemp for Manufacturing
Environmentally conscious people have had a problem with plastics for quite some time. Most plastics are derived from petroleum, which has become a catalyst for the mining of petroleum. Moreover, if these plastics are burned (as they might be, for example, in a garbage incinerator), carbon atoms that were trapped below the surface for millions of years get released into the atmosphere, just like what happens when we burn fossil fuels. Moreover, the vast majority of plastics do not, under any circumstances, for as long as they sit in a landfill, ever biodegrade; which was, prior to wide-scale recycling, a major waste management problem. Some plastics can also be toxic although the vast majority of plastic consumer products are supposed to be made from nontoxic plastics (some companies don’t follow the rules).
But plastics are so important to our way of life that they’ve become ubiquitous. Regardless of where you are right now, you are almost certainly surrounded by multiple types of plastic. The vast majority of consumer products today contain plastic, and some entire industries would not function without plastic. Does our need for plastic mean we need plastics produced from fossilized hydrocarbons? Absolutely not.
Hemp plastic can serve in almost any capacity other plastics can, from soda bottles to cell phones. Indeed, you can even make a kitchen sink out of hemp plastic! Hemp plastic’s Herculean strength makes it wonderful even for applications in which most wouldn’t want normal plastics to be used. In 1941, Ford built a concept car using a composite plastic consisting of cellulose from a mix of pine, straw, hemp and ramie to construct the body. Ford’s plastic was found to be 10 times as strong as steel. Hemp plastic has seen a recent revival in the auto industry: Since 2002, many automakers (including, but not limited to BMW, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Volkswagen, Volvo, etc.) have begun using small quantities of hemp plastic in the fabrication of body panels in an effort to reduce weight while maintaining strength.
However, the complex legal status of industrial hemp limits the supply of hemp plastic, which, in turn, limits its affordability and hence use. Hemp plastic is not being used anywhere near the full potential of its utility.
Hemp for Textiles
We use more cotton than any other fiber, but the production of cotton taxes our environment in ways we often overlook. Cotton depletes the soil in which it is grown, which necessitates crop rotation in order to keep the soil arable. Even with crop rotation, cotton occupies valuable farm land that could be used for the production of food. Arable land is among the least renewable resources. Moreover, the cotton industry holds a well-earned reputation for being the dirtiest industry in the agricultural sector, owing to its particularly heavy use of insecticides; cotton is one of the crops most frequently treated with neonicotinoid insecticides. We do not need to entirely rid ourselves of cotton, but anything that can reduce demand for it would be positive.
Here we have another use for hemp. Hemp fiber has been used in textiles, sails, ropes, etc. for millennia. In fact, the word canvas is derived from Greek κάνναβις (“cannabis”). Fabric made from hemp fiber looks and feels like linen, but has properties all its own. Hemp fabric is mildew-resistant, elastic, provides UV protection up to UPF 50+, is known to be extremely strong and durable, and has antimicrobial properties.
Moreover, hemp does not suffer from any of the drawbacks of cotton. Rather than degrading the soil, hemp actually regenerates it. Rather than using up prime agricultural land, hemp can be grown on marginal land where no other agricultural crops will grow (they call marijuana “weed” because cannabis can grow almost anywhere between the Arctic and Antarctic circles). Most importantly, rather than require the use of insecticides, hemp in its natural state is resistant to insectoid pests.
Hemp for Nutrition
Hemp also has extremely useful nutritional byproducts: Hemp seeds are an extremely nutritious food. Hulled hemp seed is 30.6 percent protein, and hemp protein contains 21 known amino acids, including all of the 9 essential ones that the adult human body cannot produce itself. Hemp seed is 47.2 percent fat, the vast majority of which is polyunsaturated fat, with trace levels of saturated and monounsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fat is noted to have important health benefits: Consumption of polyunsaturated fats appears to reduce the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease (although it should be noted that polyunsaturated fat can also increase the likelihood of metastasis in people who already have cancer), and consumption of polyunsaturated fats by pregnant women encourages fetal development and reduces the likelihood of complications and defects. Hemp seed also contains healthy levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Calcium, and Iron. Hemp seed does not contain any cholesterol, and a serving of 100g of hemp seed will provide around one quarter of the daily calorie requirements of the average adult. It’s also worth noting that hemp seed, even from pharmaceutical grade marijuana, does not contain any THC.
Of course, this isn’t really germane to ecology, but the nutritional value of hemp seed exemplifies yet another practical use for this very environmentally friendly plant. Moreover, hemp oil is also a healthy cooking oil, containing high amounts of beneficial unsaturated fat and low amounts of harmful saturated fat. In addition to its utility as cooking oil and as a biodiesel, hemp oil can also serve as a nontoxic wood finish, and is known to relieve symptoms of eczema.
If we can move away from our petroleum- and lumber-centric world toward a world centered more heavily on hemp, we will leave to our progeny a world better than the one we inherited. By using fuels derived from hemp to replace fuels derived from petroleum, we can ensure carbon neutrality in those applications, guaranteeing that we will never again release into our environment carbon that is not already present. Imagine the implications of sustainable, carbon neutral gasoline! The economic side effects can also be wonderful. Imagine how cheap gasoline can become if produced from a plant that grows almost anywhere.
By eliminating the need for wood, lumber and paper and the need for space to grow sugar cane for ethanol, we can stop the destruction of the world’s forests. By eliminating the need to use corn and sugar cane in producing ethanol and cotton for textiles, we can use more of our richest agricultural land for its best possible use: producing food for a hungry world. With our trees safe and large quantities of hemp growing on our marginal land, we can begin to eliminate the dangerous levels of carbon we’ve emitted into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Where fuels derived from hemp will be carbon neutral, the rest of our uses for hemp will push that carbon neutrality over to carbon negativity. For the first time, we will take more carbon out of our atmosphere than we will emit into it.
Of course, the changes that would take place with a hemp-based society would also change our economy. Many old jobs would become obsolete; but there ought not to be any reason to fret about that; entire new industries will be born in their stead. This new economy will require farmers to grow hemp, distillers to distill methanol and ethanol from the plant and hemp oil from the seeds, chemical engineers to convert the methanol into gasoline, manufacturers to produce useable MDF boards, textile manufacturers to transform hemp into clothing, and so on. We would have with this new society a new economy as well. By using this one plant to the maximum of its utility, we can simultaneously protect our environment and build a stronger economy.