Somewhere down the line, sometime in the ‘90s, Hemp became synonymous with the hacky sack players in the parking lot at any high school in America. You can see them now: Baggy pants, loose-fitting beanie, Stone Temple Pilots playing faintly in the background and that ever-present hemp choker. Well, I want to issue an official apology to the unfairly stereotyped hacky sack players and to the hemp plant as a whole. Because I know now, hemp is amazing — and its uses span far beyond your former high school parking lot.
But why is hemp as a textile such an exciting prospect? It comes down to sustainability. Hemp grows quickly, going from seed to harvest in four months. Its roots repair and enrich dead soil, combatting dust bowl-like conditions and fighting off soil erosion in our country’s heartland. (Take that, soy!) Hemp uses 50 percent less water than cotton and is naturally resistant to pests, meaning it doesn’t require harmful chemical sprays. Hemp also grows like a *ahem* weed, so unlike other industrial crops, it doesn’t require chemical fertilizers to flourish. Yep, we’re all in for hemp. So what does a future made of hemp look like? Read on for ways hemp is already being used in our daily lives.
HEMP SWEET HOME
Hemp is quickly picking up steam as a green alternative to conventional construction materials. Called "hempcrete," this mix of hemp and lime (or other mineral-based binders) acts more like insulation than concrete — but packs a punch when it comes to lessening a building’s carbon footprint. Left Hand Hemp, a hempcrete educational and construction group from Boulder, Colorado, puts it like this: “Hemp takes in more CO2 in their lifecycle of four months than trees do. About 200,000 new homes are built in Canada (at an average of 2,000 sq. ft.) every year. If the homes were built with hempcrete, 990,000 tons of carbon could be sequestered as opposed to the 207,000 tons of carbon emitted by using standard fiberglass insulation.” That’s right, hemp takes harmful CO2 out of our atmosphere — where normal construction materials substantially add to it.
Hempcrete also uses three times less heat (aka energy) to create than its limestone concrete counterpart. It’s resistant to mold, rot and pests, and it’s three times stronger than concrete and thus, three times more likely to withstand earthquakes. Lightweight and breathable, hemp-based building materials also boast great thermal qualities, eliminating the need for AC and heaters — saving money and energy through passive cooling and heating.
I should mention that the end result is gorgeous. Israel’s first hemp-based home will have you wondering when you can move in. And thanks to hemp hurds (the fibrous inner core of the hemp plant), this seriously beautiful house boasts a seriously small ecological footprint. Homes like this one in North Carolina are popping up in other places like Hawaii, Taxes and Idaho, but until legislation catches up to hemp’s building potential, it will be a while until we’re all living in hemp sweet homes.
THANKS, IT’S HEMP!
Cotton might be the fabric of our lives, but only if you want to live swathed in chemicals. Conventional cotton production results in soil and water pollution, and is harmful (potentially even cancerous) for the farmers who cultivate it. Not a good look, especially since cotton is used in almost half of the clothes made today. Its water footprint sucks too: the cotton it takes to make a single t-shirt and pair of jeans can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to grow. Gulp. What’s more? Eighteen percent of worldwide pesticide use can be attributed to cotton.
And if your skin crawls at the thought of polyester, rayon and acrylic fabrics, too — it’s because there’s a good reason. In order to survive regular washing and wearing, rayon is made from wood pulp that is treated with caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid. Nylon is made from petroleum and oftentimes is finished with a chemical finish. Polyester is regarded as the worst of the bunch, made from synthetic polymers derived from esters of dihydric alcohol and terephthalic acid. Even fabrics made from natural fibers, like cotton, go through processes that include stuff like petrochemical dyes, dioxin-producing bleach, chemical softeners and even formaldehyde, which prevents shrinkage. Yeah, that’s gonna be a no from me, dog.
So no matter how you look at it, the clothing industry isn’t doing the planet any favors. Or as environmentally conscious designer Eileen Fisher noted, “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world... second only to oil.” Let that sink in. Luckily, slow fashion and clothes made of organic fibers (hi, hemp!) are picking up steam. And while the ‘90s did hemp clothing approximately zero favors, more recently hemp has gotten into the hands of some of our new favorite designers. The result? Seriously chic. Brands like Hemp Temple and Lilla by Fia are making it easier than ever to break up with fast fashion — and to wear hemp without, you know, looking like a ‘90s cliché.
COLD, SHINY, HARD… HEMP
There’s no doubt that single-use plastics play to our damned near-obsession with convenience. But you know what’s not convenient? The fact that marine biologists are finding plastics in the fish and seafood that we eat with alarming frequency. Or that according to National Geographic, 93 percent of Americans age six or older test positive for BPA (a plastic chemical). And here’s the kicker: Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists. Can hemp pave the way to a better form of plastic? Yes. And although my personal stance will be to always prioritize reusable over disposable, the emerging hemp-based plastic alternatives give me hope for a happier, healthier, less plastic-y future.
Where traditional plastics are made from petroleum, hemp plastics — although there are variations — come from the hemp plant. Hemp hurds, which are 85 percent cellulose, can be processed into cellophane packing material, which means we could move on from the sheer environmental terror that is Styrofoam. According to Canopy Growth Corporation, an industrial-scale hemp production company, exciting discoveries are coming to light about what happens when you mix cornstarch and hemp: “This new material has unique strength and technical qualities which have yet to be seen before, and this new material can be injection or blow-molded into virtually any shape using existing moulds, including cosmetic containers, Frisbee golf discs, etc.”
It might surprise you that “the automotive industry is currently the biggest consumer of hemp plastic. Most of the plastic panels in foreign cars are made from hemp plastic due to its extreme strength and durability” — think interior door panels and dashboards. Strong, durable and highly heat resistant, hemp plastics — if allowed — will change the game, its use spanning from everyday essentials like blenders, lamps, phone chargers, toys and laptops to big-ticket items like industrial construction parts and railways.
Articles written as recently as 2013 bemoaned the fact that sustainable alternatives to environmental stressors were right under our noses, but laws around growing hemp kept it from being harvested — and effectively saving the world. Which makes 2018 a really exciting time for the hemp industry and all of those who stand to gain from its cultivation, namely Mother Earth. Before the U.S. essentially banned growing hemp in 1937, it enjoyed a pretty solid run as a textile (to say the least), being used as early as 8000 B.C. all the way to the 1700s when it was used to make the first American flag. And here we are now, with the stigma lessening, hemp is poised to finally go mainstream again. Proving that what’s old can truly be new again. Maybe we skip the hemp chokers this time, though?