World Environmental Day is a UN holiday, with the specific aim of raising awareness of environmental threats and encouraging action to protect our environment. Each year has a theme and this year’s theme is air pollution. Polluted air is one of the biggest environmental threats we face today, nine out of ten of us breathe in polluted air and it is responsible for an estimated seven million premature deaths worldwide. Air pollution is caused in all walks of life from industrial power plants to household waste.
There are many ways in which we can all do our bit to help the environment, from walking or using public transport to recycling or reusing as much as possible. There are also many ways in which large industries could make changes to help our planet. One of those ways is to embrace Hemp.
The Hemp strain of the Cannabis Sativa plant can be made into more than 25,000 different products. Every part of the plant is useful, from the seeds used in food and supplements, the storks for natural fibers, and the leaves and flowers can be made into cosmetic products.
Here’s nine ways Hemp could help save the world…
The CO₂ Sequesterer
Climate change and the effects it will have on our planet is one of the most hotly debated topics across the world at the moment. One of the major contributors to rising global temperatures are the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere every day. CO₂ released into the atmosphere comes from five main human sources: household, industry, transport, agriculture, and waste.
While trees absorb Carbon Dioxide and release Oxygen, they do not absorb enough to keep up with the sheer amount of CO₂ released into the air, and deforestation means there are less and less trees every day. Hemp, on the other hand, absorbs more CO₂ than any other plant, and can absorb four times more CO₂ than trees. For every tonne of Hemp that is grown, 1.63 tonnes of CO₂ is removed from the atmosphere. This process is called Carbon Sequestration, and once the CO₂ has been absorbed by the Hemp plant it remains trapped, unable to re-enter the atmosphere.
Scientists predict that there will be no rainforest in 100 years time, with the equivalent of 48 football fields is cut down every minute. No more rainforest means a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a lot less oxygen. Most of these trees end up as paper, and while many companies now have schemes in place to plant one new tree for every one cut down, they simply can’t keep up with demand as it can take a minimum of 20 years for trees to mature.
There is, however, a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way to produce paper.
Hemp was once the most popular plant used to make paper, the Declaration of Independence was written on Hemp paper and in 19th century Russia it was used for banknotes. It was so popular that the timber industry even lobbied for it to be banned at the beginning of the 20th century, such was the threat to the timber industry. While it takes years for trees to mature, Hemp cultivation only takes 12-16 weeks. Hemp is naturally able to thrive in most climates, meaning that it can be planted year round in most places, and that one acre of Hemp can produce four times more paper than one acre of trees. Hemp storks are 85% cellulose, compared to trees which are 30%, which means harsh chemicals are required to extract the rest of the pulp used in the papermaking process. Basically, the more cellulose, the less chemicals required. Hemp paper also doesn’t require bleaching with chlorine as timber paper does, and it is more durable and longer lasting than paper made from timber due to the lack of harsh chemicals used in the production process.
A New Age for Bioplastics
Over the last few years, single-use plastic has become public enemy #1. More than 45 billion plastic bottles are bought every year, along with billions of other single use products. More than eight million tonnes of plastic reach our oceans every year, killing wildlife, and contaminating our food chain.
Traditional plastics are produced from cellulose derived from highly toxic petroleum, but Hemp is the biggest producer of cellulose on the planet. Hemp is also non-toxic and biodegradable, making it a brilliant substitute for petroleum based plastics. Single use Hemp based plastics can biodegrade in as little as 58 days, compared to the 1000 years it takes a single plastic bottle to biodegrade.
While more and more companies are investing in developing Hemp and other plant-based plastics, the technology isn’t yet ready or affordable for everyday use. But as corporations such as Coca Cola invest more and more money in developing the technology for plant-based plastics to replace petroleum-based plastics, there is hope that soon there will be a viable replacement for single use plastics.
Homes Under the Hemp
Much like paper, Hemp is a brilliant wood substitute in the building industry too. Fiberboards made from Hemp-based composites are stronger and lighter than their timber-based counterparts. Hemp can also be mixed with lime to create hempcrete, which has insulation and soundproofing properties far superior to that of concrete, as well as absorbing CO₂ from the surrounding air.
Hemp is an incredibly hard wearing material, a Hemp-based house in Japan is more than 300 years old, making Hemp a sustainable alternative to traditional building materials.
While the final products make great homes for humans, fields of Hemp provides a home for a plethora of wildlife. Hemp flowers produce large quantities of pollen, making it ideal for bees and other insects, while the three-foot tall storks mean fields are great homes for all sorts of small birds and animals.
There have long been arguments about the use of pesticides in agriculture, some say we shouldn’t use them because they pollute the land and waterways, and then poison wildlife too. Pesticides have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and alzheimer’s disease, not only are they harmful to the natural world, they are dangerous to us as well.
Others say we need them or food shortages would become commonplace in the western world, as we’ve become so reliant on genetically modified farming to feed and clothe ourselves.
Unlike most agricultural produce, Hemp is naturally resistant to pests, therefore negating the need for the use of highly toxic pesticides and herbicides. Not only is this great news because Hemp is a nutritious food source, and being naturally pest resilient would mean less potential for pesticides to pollute our food, but Hemp can also be used in the textile industry. Popular natural textiles such as cotton and flax require large quantities of pesticides to help them grow, substituting these with Hemp would mean a huge reduction in the amount of pesticides used in industrial farming. This also means that Hemp, by its very nature, meets standards for organic farming.
Look Good in a Potato Sack
Hemp textile products have got a bit of a bad rep in the past, often likened to the rough, scratchy hessian fabric made for potato sacks and ‘bags for life’. But Hemp can be used to make a whole range of different products, including comfortable clothing, and unlike most other natural fibres, these durable Hemp fabrics get softer every time they are worn or washed.
Environmentalists are constantly warning us against wasting water, and as with pesticides, most natural textiles like cotton and flax require huge amounts of water to grow. Producing one kilo of cotton requires at least 5,000 litres of water, the same amount of Hemp can be produced with as little as 650 litres.
However, conserving water is not the only reason Hemp is a better textile option than cotton.
Most common fabrics that are used today go through some sort of highly toxic chemical process whether that is to extract the fibres from the plant, or to produce synthetic fibres. Hemp fibres, on the other hand, are easily extracted from the plant, negating the need for chemical processing. These fibres are also naturally fire resistant, meaning there is even fewer chemical processes for Hemp to go through compared to cotton or flax.
These chemical processes not only release pollutants into the air during the manufacturing process, they also leave a chemical residue in the fabrics which are also released back into the environment after clothes are disposed of and destroyed.
As well as being free from chemical residue, Hemp textiles filter out UV rays, helping to protect the skin from the dangers of sun exposure.
Nature’s Air Purifier
Hemp, along with a number of other plants, has been found to be useful in the Phytoremediation process.
Phytoremediation is the process of removing toxins from soil, air and water through the use of plants. This process has been used across the world to help clean up areas affected by high levels of pollution and following nuclear disasters.
In Ukraine in 1990, four years after the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever seen when explosions and fire ripped through Chernobyl’s reactor number four, scientists began introducing plants known for their phytoremediation properties to the exclusion zone surrounding the power plant and nearby town of Pripyat. At the beginning of the project field mustard and maize were planted throughout the 30km exclusion zone, already known for their ability to absorb nickel, lead and chromium. In 1996 sunflowers were planted, and then in 1998 Hemp was introduced to the area. Scientists working on the project described Hemp as one of the best phytoremediation plants they had been able to find. Hemp, along other suitable plants were later planted throughout affected areas in northern Ukraine, and in neighbouring Belarus, Hemp was planted in affected rural areas.
Phytoremediation was also implemented by local residents following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 who planted millions of field mustard and sunflower seeds. Hemp, however, was not used due to Japan’s restrictive Cannabis Control Law, signed into law during American occupation in 1948.
While Hemp used in phytoremediation cannot be harvested for food, medicine or textiles, it can be safely transformed into building materials for eco-friendly housing.
(Not so) Sour Diesel
Due to its ability to grow in most environments with very little water compared to other crops, Hemp is an ideal plant for biofuel. Per acre Hemp produces more biodiesel than any other agricultural fuelstocks. The most common crops used for biofuel are soybeans, palm oil, sugar cane, and rapeseed, all of which require very specific growing conditions. As well as needing fertile soil and large quantities of water, these common crops also require the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, none of which are needed in the cultivation of Hemp.
Along with the ease of growing Hemp compared to other crops for biofuel, biodiesel produced from Hemp is the only biofuel that can run a conventional unmodified diesel engine without affecting the performance of the car, making it more accessible than other crops which can require costly engine modifications.
When used in a traditional diesel engine, the engine fumes emitted replace the usual smell of exhaust fumes with the smell of popcorn or french fries. As well as producing less emissions and pollution that petroleum based diesel, Hemp biodiesel also has a flash point of 145°C compared to the 52°C flashpoint of its petroleum-based cousin, making it safer all around.
Feed the World
Hemp has been farmed and cultivated by humans for thousands of years, it is even thought to be the first domesticated plant, having been found in Neolithic sites over 12,000 years old.
While research is still ongoing to determine the health benefits of cannabis-based medications, one thing we do know is that it is one of the most nutritionally dense food sources out there, packed with protein, – twice as much as quinoa – vitamins and iron, and low in fatty acids. It is a relatively inexpensive crop, and as such a resilient plant Hemp can thrive in most climates and terrains, from lush farmland to rocky hillsides and barren mountains.
Not only are Hemp seeds a great food source as they are, this versatile plant can also be made into staples such as oil, flour and milk, suitable for not just human consumption but animal consumption too.
As Hemp also purifies the soil and air in which it is grown, and has a seed to harvest cycle of approximately four months, it also supports sustainable farming. Not only does Hemp offer a year round crop, when introduced to a crop cycle it also improves the soil quality for the other crops.
Switching to Hemp based products won’t solve all of the world’s problems, and probably won’t lead to world peace, but it’s a good starting point for a cleaner, healthier, and happier world.
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