Hemp emerging as a bio-alternative to plastics

written by Brenton Harding and edited by Doug Firby

Olds – Industrial hemp products could help us solve our plastics problem.

Consumers and governments are pressuring companies to move away from single-use synthetic disposables, Jason Finnis, chief executive officer of Vancouver-based CRAiLAR Technologies, told attendees at a March conference hosted by the Alberta Council of Technologies and the Agriculture Food Council of Alberta.

Municipalities are pondering bans on the sale and use of one-use plastics, and Ontario is looking at outright ban. And plastics are appearing in mass in our oceans.

Biodegradable hemp could take its place, said Finnis. Displacing synthetic fibres in such products as disposable wipes with hemp fibres is within reach, said Finnis.

“Anything can be done to (hemp) fibre,” he said, noting that natural products cost no more than synthetics.

Although hemp is a coarse fibre, it can be used in textiles such as spun-lace, denim and needle-punched non-wovens.

CRAiLAR Technologies has been involved in the hemp fibre industry since the late 1990s in Europe, said Finnis, and demand is growing.

In 2017, global consumption of sustainable non-woven products reached $17 billion. It is expected to reach $20 billion by 2022.

Decortication – removal of the fibrous outer layer – is a challenge for hemp. CRAiLAR has been testing cotton cleaning equipment in search of the best cleaning equipment for hemp.

The plastics problem is causing international alarm. In 2018, workers in London’s sewers discovered what has been call a “fatberg.” The utility, Thames Water, told The New York Times the fatberg, about 280 metres long and about a metre deep, weighed as much as 11 of the city’s double-decker buses: more than 127,000 kilos.

Many common products use nonbiodegradables – disposable wipes, dust cloths, diapers, condoms and tampons. The synthetics capture other material, including congealed cooking fat and grease, and form nearly rock-solid masses. Thames Water sent an eight-member crew in to break up the fatberg using high-powered jet hoses.

“It’s a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove,” Matt Rimmer, Thames Water’s head of waste networks, told The Times. “It’s basically like trying to break up concrete.”

New York City and governments in Wisconsin, California, Alaska and Hawaii have experienced similar problems.

Industrial hemp is increasingly being used in a range of commercial products including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. Agrologist Jesse Hahn said hemp is capable of replacing fibre-based materials, such as fibreglass and many forest products.

Vote Hemp, a U.S. industry group, reports one of the fastest growing sectors using hemp is natural foods. Hemp contains omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, fiber protein, vitamin E, and iron.

Some 56,000 hectares of industrial hemp were under cultivation in Canada in 2017, Hahn said.

In the United States, hectares of industrial hemp grew from 10,406 hectares in 2017 to 31,637 in 2018.

Industrial hemp is from the same plant as cannabis. However, THC levels in industrial hemp are less than 0.3 per cent. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component of cannabis, can be as high 20 per cent in THC dominant strains, said Hahn.

The audience for the sold-out conference included investors and researchers, business representatives looking for opportunities, hemp growers, and governments.

It was co-hosted by the Agriculture Food Council of Alberta (AFC) and the Alberta Council of Technologies Society (ABCtech).  AFC assists Alberta farmers and food companies in moving to the next level. ABCtech brings companies and individuals together for advancing emerging technologies and diversifying Alberta’s economy. Olds College conducts applied research and integrated learning to agriculture, horticulture, land and stewardship.