Civilisations have been using Hemp in paper production since at least 200-150 BC. The earliest example of Hemp paper was discovered in China, and dated from around this time. Surprisingly, the popularity of Hemp paper lasted until as late as the 1930s.
Despite being in used for thousands of applications for thousands of years, the global prohibition of Cannabis in the 1920s and 30s had a devastating effect on Hemp industries. The decline in Hemp paper producers saw the rise of the wood-derived paper we are familiar with today.
The Impact of the Paper Industry
The paper industry as we know it today is sustained largely through the use of pulp from trees. It is estimated that tree paper production has increased by 400% in the last 40 years, and at the same time, deforestation has continued to increase around the world.
According to the National Geographic, an area of forest the size of Panama is cut down every year. A 2015 study in the journal ‘Nature’ claimed that since humans began clearing forests, 46% of the world’s trees have been felled.
This scale of deforestation is by no means solely down to the paper industry. However, it is an important consideration when comparing the environmental impact of Hemp and wood paper.
It is thought that, over a 20-year cycle, one acre of Hemp can produce as much paper as 4-10 acres of trees. This significant maximisation of resources could significantly decrease the areas of deforestation necessary to maintain supply.
For the production of paper, the wood has to undergo a series of processes. These processes can produce large quantities of nitrogen and sulphur oxides and carbon dioxide. All of these gases are known to have devastating effects on the environment.
Add to this the CO2 that would otherwise be absorbed by trees being cut down…
Water pollution is also a side effect of the current paper production processes. As well as waste products – like lignin – chemicals are also released into water sources. Alcohol and chlorates are often used in production processes, such as paper bleaching, and can pollute water.
In comparison, Hemp has a much lower lignin content and a higher cellulose content. This means that Hemp has to go through fewer processes to make paper, which can decrease the effects on both air and water,
According to the World Atlas, 26% of the waste found in dumping sites and landfills is paper and cardboard.
Despite being the most currently recycled material in the world, the number of times paper from trees can be reused, is limited.
The maximum recycling capacity for wood pulp is three times. In comparison, materials from Hemp can be reused up to seven times, making more use of less plant material.
Other Benefits of Using Hemp for Paper
- Hemp’s high cellulose (the main ingredient in paper), means that less plant material is needed to produce the same quantity of paper.
- Trees can take 20-80 years to mature, whereas Hemp only takes four months.
- Hemp paper can be more durable than wood paper, with less yellowing and cracking with age.
- Hemp is easier to harvest than trees.
- The plant is thought to be more effective than any other commercial crop or forestry at converting CO2.
- The part of Hemp used to make paper is often a waste product of other uses (e.g. CBD and Hemp skincare).
The benefits of switching to Hemp paper production are evident. However, there are a number of obstacles currently preventing the switch. The continued prohibition of the plant throughout the world – many countries require farmers to have a special license, which comes with strict restrictions.
This being said, the USA recently passed the 2018 Farm Bill with the aim to legalise Hemp nation-wide. The production of the Cannabis plant is expected to rapidly increase, as more farmers choose to make a living in the industry. There has also been an increasing number of calls in the rest of the world to legalise Hemp to the masses.
Although Hemp paper is easier to produce than paper from wood, it requires different equipment. This would be a large outgoing cost to the industry. However, this cost would likely be offset by the cost savings that Hemp paper production would deliver.