What’s up with hemp?

Cannabis used for fiber is called hemp, referring to the immense Cannabis plants and the products that come from it. Hemp is turned into fuel, pulp, paper, resin, wax, rope, hemp seed foods, and hemp oil.

Hemp is rich in nutrients and minerals. It is commonly eaten raw, used in baking, sprouted, prepared as tea, ground into a meal, and made into hemp milk. Fresh hemp leaves can be eaten as a salad while hemp cereals, waffles, ice cream, and tofu can be found in stores. Hempseed contains essential fatty acids, omega-3s, omega-6s, and protein. It is comparable to other protein sources such as soy, milk, eggs, and meat.

Hemp has also been used for fiber extensively throughout history. Production of hemp reached its peak shortly after being introduced to the New World and was comparable to the likes of tobacco, corn, and wheat. Everything from fabrics, to industrial materials, to rope were made from hemp. The word “canvas” actually derives from “cannabis,” as sail canvases were made from cannabis hemp. The texture of pure hemp is similar to linen and is often used to make clothing.

As a building material, hemp and lime blocks make excellent insulation, but are not strong enough to be used for structural support; they are often reinforced with steel, wood, or brick. Hemp fibers however, are very durable and strong, often used as a replacement for wood in a variety of jobs. Hemp plaster, fiberboard, and blocks are all excellent insulators.

Since 2002, car makers such as Lotus, Honda, BMW, and Mercedes use a mixture of flax, hemp fiber, kenaf, and fiberglass to make composite panels for their vehicles. The Mercedes C-Class contains up to 45 pounds of hemp in each car! Composite and plastic materials made from hemp are known as “bioplastics,” meaning that they are made from renewable resources and are usually fully biodegradable. In the case of hemp, it is 100% renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable.

Hemp paper dates as far back as the Western Han Dynasty, approximately 2,200 years ago. The Chinese recycled fishing nets, rags, and clothing to use for making paper. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that the paper they made from hemp was “favorable in comparison with those used from wood pulp.” Lignin must be removed from hemp and wood to make paper, and since hemp contains one-third of the lignin that wood does, it requires less chemicals to remove it.

Whereas 100% of wood is used to make products, only 25% of the hemp stem can be used to make paper, which makes it expensive to process. Last decade, approximately 25,000-30,000 tons of hemp pulp were produced annually, 80% of which was used for specialty papers, mostly cigarette papers.

Hemp rope used on sailing ships was coated in tar to prevent rotting. Since the process was so difficult, hemp rope started to phase out when Manila became available. Although sometimes called Manila hemp, Manila is actually a species of banana.

Biodiesel made from hemp, sometimes called “hempoline,” can be made from hemp stalks and seeds.  Alcohol fuel is made from fermenting the cannabis plant as a whole. Only Diesel engines are able to use filtered hemp oil directly, with a majority of biodiesel being made from products like palm seeds, cereals, and coconuts.


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