Hemp Paper

Paper has been an important commodity for over 2000 years and has aided society in the ability to pass on knowledge. Of course these days many people prefer to read and write using a computer, a phone or a kindle. Information technology and especially the internet have given us the ability to communicate across the globe in an instant and we can research virtually any topic from almost anywhere.

Of course there are still some of us who prefer to put pen to paper, read a book or news paper, draw a landscape or send a card to a loved one. Paper and card also have uses that cannot be replaced by the internet such as packaging materials and toilet paper.

Relying completely on technology can of course have its risks. Computers and phones can break down and the internet can be hacked. We have all experienced losing a word document with which we have spent hours working on or lost our phone filled with our friends and colleagues contact information.

Today 99.95% of paper and card comes from trees but this was not always the case. Up until 1883, 75-90% of all paper in the world was made with hemp fibre. When wood replaced hemp, trees were considered a virtually free resource but as with many industries from this period, the future consequences were not foreseen. Today, the paper, textiles, building and plastics industries can all be replaced with hemp as they once were. The hemp industry promises to become the green industrial revolution which can solve many of today’s problems.


Environmental Impacts of the Timber Industry

Deforestation is a global problem, occurring 24 hours a day at astronomical rates. Today, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. Approximately 80% of the world’s forests are already destroyed and 70% of the world’s plants and animals live in forests. 40% of the trees cut down are used for paper and card making. Even with the introduction of new technologies and the internet, there has been a 40% increase in demand for paper pulp since 1998.

The pulp and paper industry is the 3rd largest industrial polluter. This is due to many factors including transport, energy use (5th largest consumer of energy in Europe) and chlorine based bleaches (3 million tonnes) which enter the water supply. Paper production uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry and it produces almost 32 million tonnes of CO2 in Europe and 120 billion tonnes worldwide every year.

During the late 1800’s, the population was a fraction of the size it is today. We cannot afford to continue destroying our ecosystem. We need to learn from the past and find sustainable alternatives. We only need to look at Easter Island to see what happens when all of the forests are cut down. Easter Island was once covered in forest and with it, there would have been a diverse range of wildlife. As the inhabitants of the island grew in population, they cut down virtually all of the trees and the wildlife with it. Erosion depleted the soils and made farming impossible. Today Easter Island is barren and virtually unpopulated.


The History of Hemp Paper

140 BC: The oldest surviving paper, discovered by archaeologists in 1957 in a tomb near Sian, Shensi, China, was made of hemp.

100 AD:  Shyu-Shen edited the first Chinese dictionary ‘Shuo Wen Jie Tzi’, written on hemp and explained its uses.

650: Buddhist scrolls written in Sanskrit unearthed in a tomb in Xi'an, called ‘The Great Spell of Unsullied Pure Light’, were written on hemp paper.

1156: The first European printing on hemp paper, Xativa, Spain.

1455: The Gutenburg Bible was printed on hemp paper.

1611: King James Bible was printed on hemp paper.

1830: Hemp became the most traded commodity in the world.

1850: Hemp was the third largest agricultural crop in the USA.

1883: 75-90% of all paper in the world was made with hemp fibre.

1916: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bulletin 404 demonstrated hemp produces four times more paper per acre than trees and predicted that by the 1940s all paper would come from hemp and wood pulp production would end.

1937: Hemp paper making technology was effectively ended by the U.S.A.’s Marijuana Tax Act 1937, which compared hemp with narcotics.

1991: 0.05% of the world's total pulp production volume; only 120,000 tons of hemp paper produced each year from 23 hemp pulp mills worldwide.

Today: Most mills are located in China and India, producing moderate quality printing and writing paper. Typically these mills do not have a fixed source of fibre but use whatever supply can be found in the region. Only a handful of mills are located in the Western world, producing so-called specialty papers including: cigarette papers, filter papers ,coffee filters, tea bags, insulating papers (for electrical condensators) greaseproof papers, security papers, bank notes and various specialty art papers.


The Benefits of Hemp Paper

The main advantage of hemp is its growth cycle. Hemp can grow up to 15 foot in height within 3 to 4 months whereas trees take at least 10 years to produce a comparative amount of pulp. One acre of hemp can produce as much paper as 4-10 acres of trees.

Hemp is a resilient crop, growing fast enough to out compete weeds, tough enough to fight off pests and so is ideal for growing organically. It can grow in most soil conditions and needs little irrigation. Beyond this, hemp is a great rotation crop, because it leaves the land free of weeds and in good condition. Hemp is good for the soil, improving aeration and building topsoil, especially when the leaves are left to rot back. Hemp’s long taproot descends up to 2 meters in depth; these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff and provide the soil with nutrients from the sub soil. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil, so hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively.

Hemp is suitable for growing in industrially polluted regions as it removes considerable amounts of heavy metals from the soil with its root system, helping to clean the soil.  For this reason hemp was extensively planted around Chernobyl to aid bio remediation

Cellulose is the principal ingredient in paper. Trees are only 30% cellulose, requiring the use of toxic chemicals to remove the other 70% of plant matter. Hemp contains up to 85% cellulose. Hemp also has a lower lignin content than wood. Hemp contains 5-24% lignin whereas wood has 20-35%. This is advantageous as lignin must be removed from the pulp before it can be processed as paper which means less power consumption and use of chemicals. Chlorine bleaches can be replaced with non toxic hydrogen peroxide when dealing with hemp.

Hemp has roughly 70% higher yielding capacity of pulp from hemp fibre compared to that of wood. Hemp paper is four times stronger than tree paper, hence can be thinner, saving material, energy, shipping & storage costs. Using a Hollander Beater, hemp paper can be made that is stronger than wood paper, with similar mass, absorbency, and thickness. Hemp paper does not yellow, crack, or deteriorate like tree paper.



Hemp is currently not grown enough here in the UK to be able to source enough material for a hemp paper industry. This is mainly due to licensing costs and ‘red tape’ due to its genetic relation to the ‘drug’ type cannabis plant even though it is completely non psychoactive.

Alterations would need to be made to existing paper mills due to the length of the fibres (10-20mm compared to 2mm lengths from wood). Although the fibres can be cut smaller, this would produce an extra processing stage and it would reduce the strength of the paper.


Moving Forward

The times, they are a changing! Currently trying to source hemp paper is extremely difficult and it is currently much more expensive than wood sourced paper. However, as hemp production grows and society becomes more aware of the green credentials of using hemp paper, paper mills could be modified and as demand grows so will the supply. The costs will reduce and paper will once again return to its original high quality.

For now, please don’t print this out and think next time you’re sending out your Christmas cards.

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