By: Neda Shamsdiba
When you think of all the daily uses of paper, it’s hard to imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. But with the majority of the world’s paper currently being made from trees with unsustainable practices and chemically intensive processes, shifting to tree-free paper might be just what the world needs. The verdicts already out on how hemp is one of the most sustainable fabrics, but how can hemp paper pave a path for a more sustainable future?
WHAT IS HEMP PAPER?
Most conventional paper is made out of trees, but hemp paper is made from the long bast fibers or short bast fibers (hurd) of the hemp plant.
Are you wondering how to make paper from plants? Well, for hemp paper, the process is pretty simple. It involves breaking down hemp fibers into a pulp that can then be laid out and molded into a screen paper-making frame and dried.
Other than a couple of pretty major exceptions, the basics of how to make paper from plants aren’t that different for hemp and trees. These major exceptions are that hemp paper needs far less chemical processing than tree paper products, and tree paper has a huge negative environmental impact, while hemp paper is eco-friendly.
So why isn’t hemp paper used more? Well, it used to be.
The first hemp paper was made over 2,000 years ago, and before the end of the twentieth century, 75% to 90% of worldwide paper production came from hemp! But things went downhill for hemp products with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and by 1970, marijuana and hemp were heavily restricted.
But today, because of the passing of the 2018 farm bill, there’s hope for a future where less sustainable practices and products are replaced with hemp products. This is good news considering there are so many benefits and uses of hemp products like hemp paper.
The Benefits and Uses Of Hemp Paper
(table of contents)
1. HEMP PRODUCES MORE YIELD AND GROWS FASTER THAN TREES
Not only does the time-saving characteristic of hemp mean that more paper can be produced at a faster rate to meet increasing global paper demands, but the higher yield production is amazing news for our forests.
With hemp requiring significantly less land to produce high yields, fewer forests and natural lands need to be cleared for paper production.
With the pulp and paper industry accounting for 40% of global industrial wood trade, it’s essential for the health of our forests and the planet, for paper production to turn over a more sustainable leaf.
2. HEMP PAPER CAN BE RECYCLED MORE THAN TREE PAPER
When it comes to the recyclability of hemp paper vs tree paper, hemp paper takes a huge lead and can be recycled more than twice as much as tree paper. That’s a huge difference!
Hemp paper can be recycled seven times, while tree paper can only be recycled three times. Considering non-recycled tree paper comes from virgin trees and is a culprit of deforestation, this is a pretty big deal.
Plus, there are loads of other benefits of recycled paper, like less water waste, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and lower energy usage.
But that’s not all.
A lot of awesome hemp products, like hemp underwear, rely on the use of hemp’s long bast fibers, and as a result, the lesser-used hemp short fibers or hemp hurd are often left as an easily reusable waste product. While hemp paper can also be made out of long bast fibers, hemp hurd fibers can also be turned into paper products, creating a closed-loop system that saves natural resources and reduces landfill waste.
3. HEMP PAPER REQUIRES MINIMAL TO NO CHEMICAL PROCESSING
Hemp paper can be processed and bleached with environmentally friendly and non-toxic methods like oxygen delignification and autohydrolysis. These methods use more natural compounds like sodium carbonate, and non-chemical processes like the use of high pressure, temperatures, and steam.
A large part of why chemical processing is needed in paper production is to keep the cellulose (provides structure) and remove the lignin (creates unwanted brown color) found in the plant fibers.
When you compare hemp paper vs tree paper, hemp contains 55% to 77% or more cellulose while trees contain 40% to 45% cellulose. Hemp contains from 5% to 24% lignin, while trees contain 18% to 35 % lignin.
Since trees have less cellulose and more lignin, removing the lignin requires more hazardous chemical processes that can harm the environment, workers, and people who live near paper mills.
4. HEMP PAPER LASTS LONGER THAN TREE PAPER
Because of its pure, long, and strong cellulose fibers, hemp paper is known to be chemically and mechanically stable, so it’s long-lasting.
On the other hand, tree paper ends up in poor shape more quickly because of its short fibers and acidic characteristics. Tree paper is also more susceptible to environmental factors like sunlight, heat, and dampness, which can turn the paper yellow and brittle.
But rag paper (papers made of materials like hemp, cotton, and flax fibers) from the 1500s are still strong, stable in color, and flexible.
5. HEMP PAPER HELPS STOP DEFORESTATION AND SAVE THE PLANET
When comparing hemp paper vs tree paper, hemp can significantly reduce forest clear-cutting. This is in large part because one acre of hemp produces as much paper as 4.1 acres of trees, and because unlike trees, hemp can be harvested two or three times a year.
Plus, hemp has been scientifically proven to absorb more CO2 than any forest or industrial crop. So not only does growing hemp for paper fight deforestation by minimizing the clear-cutting of forests, but it helps reduce the impact of climate change by acting as the ideal carbon sink.
Forest clear-cutting damages the soil too, and even if new seeds are planted right away, the soil disturbance will lead to slower growth rates. But, after hemp is cultivated, the soil is left in optimal growing conditions.
And while clear-cutting forests lead to the destruction of animal and indigenous habitats and is a major factor in biodiversity loss, hemp has been proven to be a biodiversity-friendly crop.
6. HEMP PAPER MAKES GREAT SUSTAINABLE HYGIENE PRODUCTS
Hemp can be used to make hemp toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, tampons, diapers, and more.
Since hemp hygiene products are made with soft bast fibers, even though they are strong and durable, they’re still soft on your skin, just like hemp underwear.
7. HEMP PAPER IS AN EXCELLENT SUBSTITUTE FOR TREE PAPER FILTERS
With its composition, porosity, and resistance to water, hemp has a high filter efficiency compared to other filter materials. These properties make it an effective, sustainable alternative for all types of filters, like oil and air filters, and coffee filters.
This is great news if you’re a big coffee drinker. While most people think of the environmental impact of constantly throwing out single-use to-go coffee cups, a lot less focus is put on coffee filters you use at home or work.
But the preparation method of coffee is accountable for 30% of overall coffee emissions. Single-use tree paper coffee filters are thrown out after every use and contribute to deforestation, and the release of toxic chemicals in landfills.
Luckily, because of hemp’s natural antibacterial properties and strength, it makes a great reusable coffee filter option, putting it even further ahead of the game when you compare hemp paper vs tree paper for filters.
8. HEMP PAPER IS A BETTER OPTION FOR TEA BAGS
Similar to #7, because of its high filtration efficiency, porous fibers, and ability to maintain its structure while wet, hemp paper is a far better option for tea bags than tree paper.
Tree paper is so ineffective as a tea bag on its own that most tea bags contain some plastic to keep them together. At high temperatures, during a typical steeping process, microplastics from tea bags can be released into your cup of tea.
That’s why it’s always important to opt for tea brands that mention they are completely plastic-free, choose loose-leaf products, or opt for a more sustainable, reusable hemp tea bag instead.
9. HEMP PAPER MAKES THE PERFECT ART CANVASES
The natural characteristics of hemp fiber, including its strength, durability, and softness, make for an ideal art canvas.
Today, most canvases are made out of a combination of cotton and PVC (a synthetic non-biodegradable plastic polymer). Since you and I know that when it comes to hemp vs cotton, hemp beats cotton in sustainability and strength, and there’s no arguing the damage from depending on non-biodegradable plastic, it’s an easy win for hemp canvasses.
10. HEMP PAPER MAKES FOR RESILIENT BANK NOTES
Banknotes (or as you and I call it, cash or money) need to be stronger and more durable than other types of paper, which is why hemp’s strong fibers make it suitable for banknotes and other security papers.
Cash is often folded, crumbled, and used over and over again, which is why long lasting, strong, and durable hemp paper is a great option. Since today’s American currency consists of 75% cotton, it makes sense to switch over to the more sustainable and stronger hemp fiber.
11. HEMP PAPER MAKES FOR HIGH-QUALITY BOOKS, ARCHIVAL PAPERS, AND RELIGIOUS/SACRED TEXTS
The chemical and mechanical stability of hemp paper I mentioned in #4 makes it a great option for print items that are meant to last a while, like books, archival papers, and religious or sacred texts.
Many old tree paper books need to be handled very gently to last decades, but since hemp contains a high cellulose content and has strong and long fibers, it produces an extremely durable paper that lasts.
Archival paper is often used for publications that have significant legal or historical value, and that will be applicable for many, many years to come. Similarly, religious and sacred texts are intended to last hundreds of years, which is why it’s beneficial to print these texts on durable paper, like hemp paper.
From buying sustainable hemp underwear to ditching single-use plastic, living sustainably involves making a lot of changes, especially when it comes to products that are so widely used, like paper.
As far as hemp paper vs tree paper goes, it’s hemp paper all the way. Switching to hemp paper means producing paper that’s more durable and longer-lasting, in less time and on less land, with far more sustainable and non-toxic practices.
What paper products do you wish were made out of hemp? Share in the comments!