The miracle crop
By Philip Chadwick Thursday, 05 June 2008
Think of Woody Harrelson and you will probably recall images from the controversial movie Natural Born Killers or his role as a naive bartender in the sitcom Cheers. However, away from the screen, Harrelson is a committed environmentalist and is attempting to make a mark in the paper world through the reintroduction of a crop that once accounted for the bulk of the world's paper.
Harrelson’s passion is hemp. Back in 2002, the actor promoted the many uses of the plant by touring the west coast of America in a bus powered by hemp-based bio-diesel. He also showcased hemp-based products including food, clothes and paper. His efforts to promote the numerous benefits of the plant even gave birth to a company that helps develop alternative eco-friendly technologies.
Harrelson’s interest in hemp is understandable. Dubbed the ‘miracle crop’, it can be used in the manufacture of car panels and incorporated into horse bedding. Its oil can also be used in the production of food, cosmetics and various industrial applications, as well as in paper manufacturing.
Hemp has a long and colourful history. Before the industrial revolution, the bulk of the world’s paper was made by recycling worn-out cloth such as clothes and rags, and these were mainly manufactured from hemp. As a result, hemp activist and author Jack Herer claims that between 75% and 90% of paper was made from the plant during that time. Hemp paper had numerous advantages over rival materials. “It has long fibres and even when cut up it is much stronger. Hemp also lasts longer; the US Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper,” explains Adam Eidinger, commercial director at US lobbyist Vote Hemp.
However, by the time of the industrial revolution a new process had been developed to make paper in the way we know today – through wood pulp. There was more money to be made by using the world’s abundant forests in paper production and hemp fell by the wayside.
Conspiracy theorists in the US claim that hemp’s demise was down to newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. By 1935, he had invested significantly in the timber industry, which manufactured his newsprint. Hemp producers were attempting to make a comeback, so Hearst started a campaign against the plant, publishing stories in his newspapers associating hemp with marijuana and, by 1937, the US Congress passed legislation that set in motion the criminalisation of cannabis.
The link with marijuana is the major stumbling block to the mass production of hemp paper. In the UK, the Home Office allows hemp to be grown, but only under licence “due to the potential narcotic aspects of the crop”. In the US, it is illegal to grow hemp but in recent times there has been some relaxation of the ban and in some states, including Kentucky and Vermont, farmers have been allowed to grow industrial hemp, which is different to marijuana.
Lack of equipment
Another barrier to the resurgence of hemp paper is the absence of mills capable of working with the plant. Vote Hemp’s Eidinger says that Green Field Paper, based in San Francisco, is the last US hemp paper manufacturer.
However, the widespread view is that if the US can make significant strides in hemp paper production it will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the world, and make the commercial production of hemp paper a more viable proposition.
While for the moment at least the signs don’t look too good, hemp advocates believe that the crop’s significant environmental benefits could help win over some doubters.
“Wood pulp requires a lot of chemicals in the production process,” claims Eidinger. “Hemp can be grown in a year, which makes it far superior to wood because of the time that it takes to grow. A single field of hemp can produce as much as a 10-year-old pine growth. Also, forests are being cut down to make paper.”
Perhaps due to these factors, the market for the ‘miracle crop’ has grown over the past year, according to the UK Home Office, with potential for continued expansion but only in certain industry sectors. In the UK, the principal uses of hemp fibre include composite and insulation materials, horse bedding and construction materials, including lime bricks.
But there are no signs hemp paper is an area that will take off any time soon, due in a large part to the prohibitive cost of hemp. Its pulp is approximately six times the price of wood pulp, and this isn’t helped by the outdated equipment used in the world’s few hemp processing plants. To make it more economically viable, huge investments will need to be made in technology to process the hemp, and manufacturers would also have to build new mills close to hemp growing areas.
As well as cost factors there is also that link with marijuana to consider, according to Lynn Hutton from the Exotic Paper Co. “At present, we do not feel that the vast majority of the general public feel comfortable about many things involved with hemp,” she says. “It is the view that hemp is a ‘druggie’ substance and therefore anything associated with it must be immoral or illegal.”
Out of the ordinary
The Exotic Paper Co, as its name suggests, doesn’t manufacture standard paper grades. One of its flagship products is paper made from elephant and rhino dung. If there is a market for paper made from animal excrement then surely hemp must stand a chance?
“Our Ellie Poo and Rhino Poo papers are attracting people who wish to source a greener paper,” says Hutton, “and they also attract people thanks to the novelty value. If there was a substance that could substitute wood pulp, I believe the general public would be happy to switch to it if the substance was of equal quality as wood paper.”
Vote Hemp’s Eidinger certainly hasn’t given up hope that a hemp revival may happen. “The consumer wants an alternative. It’s just a matter of time before someone is
entrepreneurial enough to make it work; you can make money on this.”
Could that entrepreneur be a certain Mr Harrelson? He’s certainly been busy pushing hemp and its benefits through his campaigns and his personal website, www.voiceyourself.com, and has even co-founded a company called Tierra Madre with Joe Hickey, which focuses on the various uses of hemp as well as on developing alternative, eco-friendly technologies.
Whether Harrelson, or anyone else, can give hemp a happy Hollywood ending remains to be seen. But unless there is a huge level of investment, hemp paper is unlikely to take on the giants of the wood pulp sector anytime soon.
HEMP: THE FACTS
• Currently, just 0.05% of the world’s paper is made from hemp. Prior to the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the figure is estimated to have been around 75-90%
• Hemp has been a popular fibre because it grows quickly. It produces 250% more fibre than cotton. The industry in the UK is currently based on short-fibre varieties
• The fibre is one of the most valuable parts of the hemp plant. It is commonly called the ‘bast’, referring to the fibres that grow on the outside of the woody interior of the plant’s stalk
• Jack Herer, author and hemp advocate, claims that in 1916 it was reported that one acre of “cannabis hemp” would produce as much pulp for paper as 4.1 acres of trees over a 20-year period. He adds that if the same process was applied today it would soon replace “about 70% of all wood pulp paper, including computer printout paper, corrugated boxes and paper bags”
• Throughout the 20th century speciality papers were made from hemp, including cigarette papers, scientific filter papers, tea bags and paper for coffee filters
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