How Is Hemp Plastic Manufactured?

Published March 20, 2023
How Is Hemp Plastic Manufactured? - Secret Nature

There are an incredible number of things you can do with hemp. Used for centuries as the preferred material for sailcloth the world over, hemp recently ran afoul of racist, exploitative laws that nearly obscured its incredible potential for good.

Thankfully, hemp has recently re-entered the mainstream alongside cannabis in a more general sense. People are starting to view hemp as something other than an object of fear for the first time in decades, making it an ideal juncture to explore the benefits of hemp plastic and the manufacturing process that goes into producing this remarkably eco-friendly polymer.

What is hemp plastic?

Hemp plastic is a flexible polymer made using substances naturally found in the hemp plant. Compared to other types of plant-based plastics, hemp plastic is more durable, more versatile, and comes from a more renewable resource.

Due to a lack of awareness of the benefits of hemp plastic and a variety of other extenuating factors, though, this unique plant-based polymer has not yet reached its full potential on the world stage. The impediments standing between hemp plastic and success are now more political than they are practical, however, ensuring eventual victory.

Can you make plastic with hemp?

Yes, it is perfectly possible to make plastic using hemp. This plant contains the same cellulose present in other plants that is used to make bioplastics. The only difference between hemp and other sources of bioplastics raw materials is that hemp is more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Is hemp plastic real?

Yes hemp plastic is undeniably real and not the product of some sensationalist fake news website. While it is still relatively rare to find hemp plastic out in the world, manufacturers are starting to take note of this versatile and renewable raw source of bioplastics cellulose. If you’re still curious, contact a local plastics manufacturer, and tell them you were interested in learning more about hemp plastic.

How is hemp plastic made? Step by step

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the steps involved in the hemp plastic production process:

Step 1: Acquire raw material

First, the manufacturer must find a suitable source of raw hemp material for use in hemp plastic production. Generally, even the lowest-grade hemp biomass is still suitable since no cannabinoid content is desired. Plastics manufacturers may even use hemp biomass that others would consider waste-grade.

Step 2: Extract cellulose

Cellulose can be extracted from hemp biomass using a variety of different machines and methods. Generally, use of chemicals at this stage is very minimal if it is involved at all. The idea is to remove as much cellulose as possible without damaging it or including any other substances.

Step 3: Chemical baths

Once extracted, the hemp cellulose goes through a variety of soaking processes that purify it and prevent crystallization. Now that is is purified, the cellulose is generally ready to be made into plastics.

Step 4: Extrusion & finishing

The finished hemp cellulose plastic is heated and either extruded through small holes to make strings or kept in bricks/sheets. At this point, a variety of heating and pressure methods may be used to create hemp plastic with the desired properties.

Step 5: Mold & cool

Once it is finished, the hemp plastic is placed in molds if desired and allowed to cool after taking on its final form. From this point onward, the finished hemp plastic can be packaged and shipped to its final location at the manufacturer’s discretion.

What is hemp plastic used for?

At present, hemp plastic is not used in very many applications. As is the case with other plant-based plastics, however, hemp plastic is gradually becoming more common as a material for disposable dishware and utensils as well as other forms of packaging. Since it is renewable and biodegradable, hemp plastic will certainly become highly prized over the coming years.

Benefits of hemp plastic

  • Like other bioplastics, hemp has the benefit of being biodegradable
  • It doesn’t contribute to the microplastics pandemic
  • Hemp plastic is cheap and easy to use
  • Making it doesn’t involve toxic chemicals
  • Hemp grows faster and more efficiently than other bioplastics crops
  • Bioplastics made with hemp are stronger and last longer

Hemp plastic FAQ

Now you know the basics of what hemp plastic is and how it’s made, but there’s still so much more to learn. Check the FAQs below to deepen your knowledge:

1. What part of the hemp plant is used to make plastic?

Hemp plastic can be made with any part of the hemp plant. Some parts of the plant may be richer in cellulose than others, but the labor involved in separating constituent parts of hemp biomass prior to production does not justify the slight increase in efficiency. As a result, most hemp bioplastic is made using undifferentiated, broken-down portions of entire hemp plants.

2. What is hemp bioplastic made of?

Hemp bioplastic is made using various parts of the whole hemp plant. Naturally, hemp is not very high in cannabinoids, making it reasonable to use low-grade hemp as a source of cellulose suitable for plastics. Like all bioplastics, hemp bioplastic consists of purified cellulose that has been subjected to various heating and pressurization techniques.

3. Why isn’t hemp plastic used more?

The main reason that hemp bioplastic is not used more frequently is that hemp has been essentially a banned substance for nearly a century. It’s only in the last decade or so that the contemporary world’s approach toward hemp has returned to anything resembling sanity.

When lumber became a massive source of income for entrepreneurs in the early American West, hemp farming activities on the East Coast suddenly stood in the way. Combined with a fear campaign centered around African American hemp farmers, corporate interests were successful in swaying public opinion against hemp — much to the detriment of both people who would have used hemp otherwise and those who could have continued doing business with the crop.

4. Why doesn’t the US use hemp for paper?

Using hemp for paper in the United States went out of vogue due to the fear campaign mounted against marijuana. Hemp is an excellent paper material — compared to wood pulp,  it is much stronger and more water-resistant. It is also very cheap to manufacture — the only issue being that hardly anyone remembers how to make paper out of hemp anymore.

5. Why aren’t cars made out of hemp?

Over the years, various eccentric automotive engineers have floated the idea of making entire cars out of hemp. In the mid-1900s, in fact, Henry Ford made this dream a reality by designing and manufacturing an entire line of vehicles made using, in large, part hemp.

Though Ford was widely lampooned for doing so, making cars with hemp plastics on a mass scale is no longer such a far-fetched idea. With an increasing amount of agricultural acreage in the US being taken up by hemp, all it would take is a corresponding surge in hemp bioplastics production to supply the evolving automotive industry with yet another opportunity to appear sustainable.

6. Is hemp plastic hard to make?

No, hemp bioplastic is not particularly hard to make. Compared to other types of bioplastics, in fact, hemp bioplastic, can sometimes be easier to manufacture due to the abundance of the raw material and its high cellulose content. The reason that hemp bioplastic is not made more it’s not that it is difficult to make but rather that political conditions have artificially prevented the popularity of hemp from increasing.

7. Is hemp plastic better for the environment?

Yes, hemp plastic is much better for the environment than traditional synthetic plastics, and it may even be more environmentally friendly than other types of plant-based bioplastics. Hemp grows quickly in practically any conditions and has very high fiber content while also remediating soil and providing various other ecological benefits.

8. How long does it take for hemp plastic to decompose?

When exposed to normal environmental conditions, hemp bioplastic will begin to decompose within around six months. Compare that with the estimated 450 years it takes conventional synthetic plastics to decompose fully in the environment. Hemp plastic does not degrade much faster than other forms of bioplastic, though.

9. What is the shelf life of hemp plastic?

As long as it is kept indoors, frozen, or refrigerated in reasonable conditions, average-grade hemp bioplastic should last at least 5 to 10 years before it begins to degrade. High grade forms of hemp bioplastic, though, may be much more durable.

Hemp plastic: Renewable, biodegradable, and underutilized

The story of hemp over the last century is massively unfair. Lumped in with an intoxicating compound that was wrongly identified as a source of social and racial stressors and tensions, hemp was outright illegalized for nearly seven decades before US lawmakers finally realized they made a massive mistake.

Now, it may be years before the damage heals completely. Do your part to make hemp whole again by preferring hemp bioplastics whenever possible and encouraging plastics manufacturers to adopt hemp.

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