The Future of Plastics – Hemp?

One of the most popular discussions within the media during the start of 2018 has been that of plastic. As the true horror unfolds of the huge extent as to how much the environment and the oceans are being affected by the throw away culture of petrochemical plastics, with thanks to the National media finally catch up, a movement has erupted, not only within environmental groups (this is not new news) but it is being discussed in our homes, village halls and coffee shops across the country.

Currently, an app is being released to direct you to your nearest free water point and Iceland have announced that they are going to replace plastic packaging with paper bags for their own products. Local village stores are being pressurised by their local communities to reduce plastic packaging.

The Issues:

It is common place to find plastic waste in our countryside, our shorelines and beaches. This pollution endangers our wildlife as they get caught up in it or ingest it. As it enters our waterways and the oceans, it breaks down into tiny sand like particles.

These micro plastic particles find their way into our food chain and a study carried out at Plymouth University found that plastic was evident in a third of fish and shellfish caught in UK waters. Another study carried out at Ghent University in Belgium estimated that people who regularly eat seafood ingest approx 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic each year.

In the UK 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day – only just over half make it to recycling, while more than 16m are put into landfill, burnt or leak into the environment and oceans each day.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what is happening on a global scale. According to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, between 5 and 30 million tonnes of plastic leaches into the world’s oceans each year and by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish.

Over 100 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year globally. This is expected to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.

The bottled water and soft drinks industry need to rethink their formulation for packaging as does entire packaging industry as these are the main culprits which have initiated the throw away culture. A great deal of the plastic packaging for food products is unnecessary alongside many other products; do magazines really need to be covered in a plastic film?

Currently around 1 million plastic bottles are sold throughout the world every minute and the majority of these are not recycled. Coca-cola produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year which equates to approx 3,400 a second. The top 6 drinks companies combined use only 6.6% of recycled plastic in their products. This is mainly due to cosmetic reasons as recycled plastic is not clear and shiny. What’s worse is that these plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Although PET is highly recyclable, there are concerns over public health as PET is known to leach the toxin DEHP into the drink product over time or when encountering minimal heat (left on a windowsill in the sunshine). DEHP has been linked to obesity, diabetes, learning disabilities such as ADD and ADHD, cognitive and brain development problems, sexual development problems, and even cancer.

Other conventional plastics contain BPA (Bisphenol A), which is suspected of causing neurological and behavioural problems in foetuses and young children and has also been linked to brain, breast, prostate, reproductive and immune system cancer. BPA has also been shown to advance puberty in teenagers, cause heart disease, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, and even recurrent miscarriages.

At the time of writing this, an announcement was made on BBC radio to warn parents that children’s toys containing certain plastics have been found to be toxic and hazardous to health. This included Lego bricks and specifically plastics which are coloured red, yellow or black. (BBC Radio News, 27/01/2018).

The Food Standards Agency in the UK are responsible for ensuring that food and drink products sold to consumers are safe and this of course includes the packaging. Perhaps it is time that both industry and Governments on a global scale need to assess the situation with plastic packaging so as to find appropriate solutions to these issues?


The most obvious, short term solutions are to bring this situation to a National debate. Education is the key to change and if the population is made aware of the problems and solutions, we can all make personal informed decisions and together push for policy development on these matters. Perhaps the UK could lead the way for other countries?

In evidence to a House of Commons committee, the British Plastics Federation (BPF), a plastics trade body, admitted that making bottles out of 100% recycled plastic used 75% less energy than creating virgin plastic bottles. But the BPF said that brands should not be forced to increase the recycled content of bottles. “The recycled content ... can be up to 100%, however this is a decision made by brands based on a variety of factors,” said Philip Law, director general of the BPF.

 The industry is also resisting any taxes or charges to reduce demand for single-use plastic bottles – like the 5p charge on plastic bags that is credited with reducing plastic bag use by 80%.

 The concept of recycle, reuse and refill for plastic bottles would greatly reduce the amount of plastic going into land fill or the environment however this does not address the toxic element of these plastics.

Re-usable plastic bottles made from non toxic plastic in every household could be filled with tap water. Perhaps even a resurgence of sales for soda stream would enable households to continue to enjoy carbonated soft drinks whilst being environmentally conscious and at the same time saving money.

Self service machines could be introduced in shops where reusable containers could be filled with soft drinks? It was not long ago that the milk man would deliver soft drinks in glass bottles and 10 pence was refunded upon return of the bottle. Solutions such as these would surely shock the drinks industry into a rethink.

Alternatives to Petrochemical Plastics:

Many petrochemical plastics are based on a finite resource which will not be available to future generations. They are toxic to the environment, to us and they are not biodegradable.

Bio plastics are sourced from plant materials, micro organisms and even an alternative to polystyrene cups has been developed, made from mycelium. These bio plastics and composites are not new and they are being implemented in a wide range of applications. Approximately 500,000 tonnes of bio plastics is produced each year.

Some of the earliest plastics were made from plant based cellulose fibres opposed to petroleum based sources. In fact virtually all oil based plastics could be replaced with bio plastics. Most bio plastics and composites are made from a mix of plant based sources and some plastics are developed using a mixture of plant fibre and petrochemical compounds. Although these use less oil in their production, petrochemicals can be entirely replaced with microbial grown polymers or those extracted from starch from plants.

Hemp Plastic:

Hemp has to be the best contender for a bio plastics future due to the hemp hurds containing up to 85% cellulose, an extremely fast grow rate (up to 15 feet in 3-4 months), a tap root which can grow up to 2 meters deep (this brings nutrients into the soil and breaks up the soil pan which helps to restore the soil), hemp can grown in most soils and most geographical areas, needs little water compared to most other crops and there are many other uses for the other parts of the plant and so virtually no waste.

Hemp plastic is carbon negative, is 100% safe and can be biodegradable and compostable. Up until the 1930’s, hemp hurds were processes into cellophane packing and Henry Ford used hemp and sisal plastic composite to build the car panelling and bumpers on the Model T Ford in 1941. This composite proved to be stronger and lighter in weight than the standard steel panelling.

A biodegradable/compostable plastic has been developed by Hemp Plastics in Australia. This plastic is made entirely from hemp cellulose and corn starch and has unique strength and technical qualities not see before. This material can be injection or blow moulded into virtually any shape without modification to existing moulds. Another Australian company, Zellform, have created a hemp plastic resin called hempstone. Hempstone can be carved into virtually any shape.

Currently, the most common uses for hemp plastics and composites, following on from Henry Fords work almost a century ago, is in the automotive industry. Most European car manufacturers are using hemp to build car panels, columns, seat backs, boot linings, floor consoles, instrument panels, and other external components. This is mainly due to the products being cheaper and less dangerous than fibreglass products; it is lighter, recyclable, more durable and safer in accidents.

Companies currently using hemp in their manufacturing include: BMW, Mercedes, Lotus, Honda, Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Saturn. This list is being added to on a yearly basis.

Issues with Hemp Plastic:

The main barrier to hemp plastic is the plant itself. The red tape and expenses involved in growing hemp deters many farmers from growing hemp. This is mainly due to hemp being part of the cannabis family, even though the strains grown contain only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound. It is virtually impossible to get a ‘high’ from hemp and considering the many positives of growing hemp, hemp should be treated much the same as any other agricultural crop.

Very few people have even heard of hemp plastic. Only once products made from hemp plastic come onto the market will demand increase. Again, education is the key. Finding the raw materials is difficult but once demand increases, production of hemp plastic materials within the UK, using locally grown crops should not pose too difficult.

Although certain hemp plastic products are biodegradable and compostable, care still needs to be taken during disposal. In order to compost, these products need oxygen, moisture and micro-organisms. These conditions are not available in landfill nor are they in the oceans.

Moving Forward:

A shift in consciousness is already occurring as to the pollution from petrochemical plastics becomes more evident. The elephant in the room can no longer be hidden; not when the oceanic problem is visible from satellites.

Public awareness leads to conscious choice. Conscious choice from the consumer guides the manufacturers to adapt their practices. If no-one cares about where the plastic goes or about the toxic chemicals which leak into our foods and drinks, they will carry on regardless.

Following the announcement that Lego blocks are toxic to our children, Lego, who have already been looking into bio-plastic alternatives by 2030 might need to reconsider their timescale. In February 2016, Emily Gray Brosious from Lego announced: “Hemp might just be the cost effective, environmentally sustainable alternative material that LEGO is looking for.”

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