Can hemp save the packaging industry?

What do plastic alternatives and cannabis have in common? Well, hemp, a plant that is related to cannabis but has much less of the psychoactive chemical [2], has been proposed as a solution to our plastic problem [1]. Hemp is often used as string and rope, and coarse fabrics like sacking and canvas [2]. But how good is it as packaging?

Processing hemp for other uses produces a lot of waste, which can be used to make so-called “bioplastics” [9] (plastic made from biological materials [10]). Bioplastics made purely from hemp are weak and fragile [20]. But when combined with bioplastics like polylactic acid [11,18] or wheat gluten [7], it is much stronger. Bioplastics should in theory be biodegradable, but they take a long time to degrade if they end up in the ocean [13]. In addition to that, farmland that could be used for food is needed to grow the raw materials [15], whilst greenhouse gas emissions are similar to those from conventional plastic [14].

So whilst hemp might be useful for some use cases, it is not a fix-all solution. Hemp is practical in some forms, where it can be 6x stronger than cotton [3]. It is an environmentally friendly crop to grow [4,5] as it doesn’t need much fertiliser or pesticides [3], uses 3x less water than cotton [16], and can grow in a range of climates – from the UK [17] to the tropics [4].

This makes it a great fabric for clothes and bags [2,5]. It is also now being used to make a strong and light material similar to fiberglass, that has been used in the door trims of electric cars [19]! But remember, the key to having a low carbon footprint is buying less in total and choosing a career that helps tackle climate change!


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