Hemp Plastic Is Not Sturdy Enough nor Green Enough to Save Us From This Plastic Problem
We’re being told that hemp plastic will save us from inevitable burial in a plastic mountain, but after some hard research, we have learned that, sadly, it will not.
We hear it a lot these days: hemp plastic to replace everything that is synthetic plastic. And it may be an affordable, plausible solution for single-use plastics, but what about the items that need a longer shelf life? Things that come to mind include: cell phone covers, water bottles, car parts, binders, storage containers, glitter, etc. And then there is the problem of decomposition – not so easy nor automatic.
The average American sends around 185 pounds of plastic each and every year to the dump. And this is no light matter. Plastics are choking our oceans, killing marine life, polluting soil and the air, and winding up in the digestive systems of all animals. The consequences of the latter are still unknown. Last year, an investigation by National Geographic reported that 91% of plastics in the world are NOT recycled.
Why do We Ignore The Problem with Plastic?
If those figures are already upsetting you, you may want to sit down. We already know that plastic is far from environmentally friendly, but if we don’t figure out a solution, the world will soon be jam packed with it. Literally. The average plastic takes an excess of four centuries to break down. No wonder animals in the air, sea, and land are having a hard time avoiding it in their diets.
And the study cited in National Geographic, which “is the first global analysis of all plastics ever made”, offered some other terrifying statistics. According to the article, “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 perfect—is accumulating in landfills or […] as litter.” In fact, the researchers estimated that “by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills.”
The lead author of the study, Roland Geyer, explains that plastic has a short shelf life. Around 50% is tossed away to a landfill or becomes litter that inevitably contributes to the 8 million metric tons of non-fiber plastic that ends up in the ocean within a year of production.
And America is lagging sadly behind in doing anything about this problem. While Europe, as a continent, recycles around 30% of its plastics, and China 25%, America remains at a staunch 9% despite serious warnings by the world’s brightest scientists of the damage humans are doing to our planet.
Alternatives to Plastic: BioPlastics
Needless to say, the world needs a solution – desperately. At this rate, there will be a greater mass of plastic in our oceans than marine creatures within 3 decades.
The study found that roughly 40% of plastic is made into packaging or one-time use material, such as forks and spoons, which are thrown away shortly after purchase. The bright spot is that of the total “in-use” plastic, on the globe, around 1.1 million metric tons of it is bioplastic, mainly biodegradable products made from corn or soy.
The main issue bioplastics have in competing on the market is production cost. To viably compete with petroleum plastics, bioplastics need to be either on par, or more realistically, cheaper than traditional, non-decomposable plastics. Strange that humans would rather literally choke on plastic than pay extra for a responsible product.
Jim Happ of Labcon North America estimates that to really outdo petroleum plastic, hemp and other bioplastics would need to be priced at roughly US$1.27/lb. And that’s just not an achievable reality with current technologies.
What About Hemp Plastic?
Hemp is priced at around US$2.35/lb, according to Green Springs Technologies. The biggest issue for converting it into plastic is creating long fatty acid chains that can be molded. This is easier with fossil fuels, which naturally produce these chains. The fibres from hemp plants need to be manufactured and that gets pricey.
World governments need to invest in research to improve technologies around hemp. Although President Trump is a climate change denier, his government did have hand in legalizing hemp, so there is small hope.
A second sticking point for hemp plastic is that it won’t efficiently biodegrade in the dump; it needs special plastic compost centres. These centres would guarantee the plastics are fully degraded and composted within 6 months. This is just another added expense that, unfortunately, most countries haven’t yet opted for.
Is Hemp Plastic up For The Job?
Honestly, hemp may be a little too biodegradable for most of our needs. It will begin to degrade within its first year of production. This is a huge issue for items that require a longer life.
To solve this, industries have had to combine hemp plastic with additives like polymer to ensure the efficacy and necessary longevity of the plastic. So, there goes the biodegradable factor.
The Bad News For Us
Biodegradable plastics will only fully decompose in appropriate settings, with the appropriate amount of pressure. Unfortunately, the ocean isn’t one of those settings. Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the UN Environment Programme, explains, “It’s well-intentioned, but wrong. A lot of plastics labeled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down.”
While swallowing hemp plastics may be safer than swallowing petroleum plastics, marine animals still will be in danger when faced with these products. And McGlade added that there were other issues when biodegradable materials are added to plastic to attempt to make them more eco-friendly: “When you start adding all of that, when it becomes waste, they [the additives] become the enemy of the environment.”
McGlade, and other experts, have argued the material out of which plastic is made isn’t the largest issue – our use of plastics in general is.
The fact is that, unfortunately, people aren’t going to up and quit plastic right away. Some companies, like The Hemp Plastic Company, want to promote biodegradable plastics as the end-all solution, but we have to face the fact that these not not our salvation. Only a determined change in purchasing and storage habits will stop this rapid burial in plastic waste.
As we work on this massive cultural shift, more eco-friendly additives, like hemp, that won’t automatically end up in landfills, may be a positive way to reduce the extravagant fossil fuel emissions that accompany plastic production.
Companies like Lego and Ikea that produce more permanent products from plastic and Coca-Cola and the Body Shop with single use bio-plastics, are using their influence to force a change in the market. After all, some scientists are positive that this is a step in the right direction, even if we need other more effective solutions long-term.
The question we need to reconcile within ourselves is, why even make a new kind of plastic when we should choose more sustainable materials and lifestyle?