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The Environmental Benefits of Hemp: Hemp Paper

By Emily Ledger

We could write a whole series of articles on the environmental benefits of Hemp – and that is exactly what we intend to do. We recently had a look at the potential of plastics made from Hemp; now, we are now turning our attention the Hemp paper.

History of Hemp Paper

The hemp plant has been used by humans for thousands of years for a multitude of purposes, from weapons and clothing to food and building. However, one of the most important uses for the hemp plant was paper.

The earliest example of Hemp paper was discovered in China, and dated from around 200-150 BC.The earliest surviving example of texts printed on hemp paper are Buddhist texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Surprisingly, the popularity of Hemp paper lasted until as late as the 1930’s.

Despite being in used for thousands of applications for thousands of years, the global prohibition of Cannabis in the 1920’s and 30’s 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.

Deforestation

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.

Pollution

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,

Paper Waste

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.

We could write a whole series of articles on the environmental benefits of Hemp – and that is exactly what we intend to do. Now we're looking at Hemp paper.

Hemp Foundation

Explained – How Hemp Paper is Produced

Paper produced entirely or mostly from the fibers of the hemp plant is known as hemp paper. Hemp or industrial hemp is the non-narcotic kin of drug cannabis or marijuana. Hemp belongs to the same plant species Cannabis Sativa L as marijuana.
It’s difficult to understand how hemp paper is produced unless you understand the history of it because the method has evolved over the decades.
This botanical relationship had led to hemp being outlawed in much of the world in the 20th century. Thankfully, many countries have now corrected this human blunder. Hemp has been decriminalized since it does not possess any psychoactive properties.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element is present in high concentration in drug cannabis: 7.5 to 10 percent or higher. This gives marijuana its capacity to cause the so-called high. THC presence is limited to 0.3 percent or less in hemp, which means this plant has no psychotropic effects.

Hemp Paper Antiquities

Historians inform us that the world’s earliest paper was made by the Chinese from hemp fibers nearly 2,200 years ago around 150 BCE. It spread from China to the Middle East and then to the rest of the world. All paper used in the world was hemp paper till 1883.
The first printed Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible or the 42-line Bible, used hemp paper. Mark Twain’s novels also got printed on hemp paper. It was hemp paper that Thomas Paine used to print the leaflets that spread the idea of American independence.
The first two drafts of the American Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. The first version of the US Constitution also got drafted on hemp paper. The current usage of hemp paper, however, is restricted mostly to specialty paper.

Ancient Chinese paper

How Hemp Paper Is Made Today?

Fibers sourced from hemp stalks are among the strongest plant fibers in tensile strength. Hemp stalks yield two types of fibers: long bast fibers and short hemp hurds or pulp fibers. Longer bast fibers come from the outer layer of the hemp stem while hemp hurds refers to the woody inner core.

It is possible to use both types of fibers for the production of hemp paper. Paper made from the long bast fibers is crumbly, thin, and coarse. Paper made from hemp hurds or pulp is thicker and softer. The production process of paper from hemp pulp is also easier.

Hemp paper like traditional paper needs the pulping of the fibers into a slurry. This is easier to do using hemp hurds. The first step is to separate the pulp from other plant matter. The next step is to soak the refined pulp in clean water and pound it to get a pulp slurry.

In industrial papermaking, some additives are used for the slurry. The next step is to remove the excess water from the slurry. The paper machine spreads the slurry on a mobile continuous screen for the water to be drained by gravity or vacuum.

Then the wet paper goes through pressing to be dried. The final outcome is a roll of paper. Cutting the rolls into different paper sizes using mechanized cutters is often a separate enterprise that paper mills do not undertake.

One of the major differences between handmade paper and industrialized paper constitutes in the edges. The machine-cut paper has smooth edges. Wooden frames called deckles are used to cut the paper into different sizes in handmade paper. That leaves the edges slightly uneven. Known as deckle-edges, they indicate that the paper is handmade.

Producing handmade hemp paper

Benefits of Hemp Paper

Knowing how hemp paper is made isn’t enough. You need to know the benefits.

Hemp remained the primary source of papermaking for 2000 years until wood pulp substituted it in the 20th century. The renewed interest in using hemp for papermaking is a result of a growing consciousness about several environmental hazards of using tree paper.

Hemp is nature’s solution to all the problems associated with the use of wood paper. Hemp has considerably higher renewability than trees as a source for paper. The quantity of paper generated from one acre of hemp is equal to what four to 10 acres of trees can produce over a period of 20 years.

The reason behind this productivity is the higher cellulose content in hemp stalks. Cellulose is the main ingredient of paper. Hemp stalks contain up to 85 percent cellulose in comparison to about 30 percent cellulose in wood.

The use of chemicals to remove the non-cellulose contents is significantly higher in the case of wood as nearly 70 percent of the wood is non-cellulose. Also, trees need 20 to 80 years to mature. Hemp, in contrast, is ready for use in four months.

Hemp paper is also significantly more durable than paper produced from wood pulp. It does not yellow and cracks as easily as wood paper. Ancient remnants of hemp paper testify to its durability. Hemp paper is a natural substitute for the special acid paper used for conserving important documents.

Hemp Paper and the Environment

If Mother Earth had a choice, she would choose hemp paper over wood paper. Hemp paper is far more environmentally-friendly than tree paper. Deforestation is a case in point. The world lost 502,000 square miles or 1.3 million square kilometers of forest cover between 1990 and 2016.

The National Geographic published this data quoting a World Bank report. The effects of deforestation are grim and far-reaching. It is one of the primary causes of global warming and climate change. To destroy a forest is also to release the carbon dioxide sequestered there into the atmosphere.

In addition, fewer trees imply a reduced capacity for carbon dioxide absorption. Forests are also critical for the natural water cycle to be maintained. Further, there is the loss of natural habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna. That endangers their existence and threatens the planet’s natural biodiversity.

Using hemp instead of trees for papermaking is one eco-friendly response to the problem of deforestation. In addition to reducing the need to fell trees, hemp also regenerates the soil.
Paper companies planting eucalyptus after felling all the trees in an area does not compare with hemp.

Another environment-friendly aspect of hemp paper is that it needs no bleaching. The production of hemp paper thus eliminates the chances of contaminating water with dioxin or chlorine, as paper mills do. The chemicals used in separating hemp fibers from the lignin are far less toxic.

The only plant better suited for papermaking than hemp is kenaf. However, kenaf does not grow as fast as hemp and does not produce as much fiber as hemp does. Hemp has the potential to meet all our paper needs, but kenaf does not.

How Hemp Paper is Made: Present and Future

Contemporary use of hemp paper is mostly limited to the production of specialty paper such as cigarette paper and cosmetic tissue paper. Only a few companies in Europe and North America have experimented with producing writing paper from hemp.

One of the reasons behind the resistance to using hemp as a source for writing paper could be the costs involved in changing the machinery. About 40 to 60 percent of retooling is necessary to switch from tree paper to hemp paper.

Gmund, a large papermill in Germany is increasingly producing large batches of hemp paper varieties, including writing paper. Other paper mills around the world need to undertake the equipment change to produce more hemp paper unless we want to be left with no more trees to fell.

Jaspreet Singh is the Co-Founder and COO of Hemp Foundation. He is passionate about adventures tours, trekking, and long bike rides.

There was a time when hemp paper was used instead of tree based paper. Read about the production of hemp paper and why it is considered need of the hour.